Intensifying settler attacks lead to forced displacement

The Lechatchila Farm outpost (foreground) sits adjacent to the Palestinian community of Wadi Qelt. Israeli settlers from the outpost repeatedly attacked Wadi Qelt residents in the months after 7 October. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC
One night in late November 2023, at around 1 am, a group of men dressed in Israeli military uniform stormed Osama Kaabneh’s home in the West Bank community of Wadi Qelt, east of Jerusalem.
Published 13. Jun 2024

Kaabneh, 33, was terrified. He recalls how the men ransacked his home and assaulted residents, hurling curses at them. "They aimed their guns at my head and demanded that I demolish my house," he says. Fearing the settlers would escalate their attacks, Kaabneh was left with no choice but to begin dismantling the following morning.

Kaabneh, 33, was terrified. He recalls how the men ransacked his home and assaulted residents, hurling curses at them. "They aimed their guns at my head and demanded that I demolish my house," he says. Fearing the settlers would escalate their attacks, Kaabneh was left with no choice but to begin dismantling the following morning.

Israeli settlers dressed in military uniform threatened Osama Kaabneh and ordered him to demolish his home during an attack in November 2023. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

The residents of the community dismantled eight structures, including homes and animal shelters, in the following days.

“They were reservist soldiers,” adds Kaabneh. “Settlers, we think. We couldn’t see their faces since they were masked.” He notes that no official Israeli-issued demolition order was delivered to the residents.

Kaabneh’s case represents a growing phenomenon. Settler violence is escalating throughout the occupied West Bank. When Israeli settlers attack Palestinian communities, they are often wearing Israeli military uniform or are accompanied by the Israeli military, blurring the lines between settlers and the military. This pattern has notably intensified following the escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip on 7 October, with UN OCHA reporting that Israeli military was present during or participating in nearly half of settler attacks since then.

Like many Palestinian communities in Area C, Wadi Qelt is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements and outposts, from where many violent attacks are coordinated and staged. Nearby settlements include the Mitzpe Yeriho settlement to the east, the Kfar Adumim settlement to the north-west, and the Meshor Adumim Industrial Area to the south-west. In addition, there are smaller outposts that settlers have established adjacent to the community.

An Israeli settler from the Lechatchila Farm outpost herds his sheep though the Wadi Qelt community. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

In the days surrounding the attack, settlers and Israeli forces blocked the entrance to the community with mounds of earth, preventing residents' cars from reaching it. Israeli forces also attempted to disconnect the community’s main water network. Settlers conducted relentless raids on the community, threatening to burn the residents’ tents if they didn’t leave.

Mohammad Kaabneh, 51, is the community representative of Wadi Qelt. “Settlers are now the government,” he says, explaining that these attacks are part of Israeli government policy.

Resisting the forces of displacement

Attacks like these put additional pressure on Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank. Communities were already suffering due to the coercive environment brought on by Israeli policies, such as the demolition of Palestinian property, and denial of necessities, including water and grazing lands. This, in turn, has compromised the effectiveness of years-long humanitarian interventions by local and international organisations that aim to prevent the forced displacement of Palestinian communities.

This includes the work of the West Bank Protection Consortium (WBPC), a partnership of five international NGOs led by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) that supports Palestinian communities with material and legal assistance. The consortium is supported by 11 EU donors, together with the United Kingdom, Canada and EU Humanitarian Aid.

An EU-funded housing unit in Wadi Qelt community. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

The WBPC and its partners have supported Wadi Qelt since 2015 with housing units and through the construction and rehabilitation of the community’s water network, among other activities. NRC has also provided legal aid to the community, through the WBPC, aimed at challenging Israeli demolition orders for homes and livestock facilities. Interventions like these have helped the community remain on their land, despite the coercive environment.

After the settler attacks in November, and with EU support, NRC petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to demand protection for the community and the prevention of forcible transfer due to settler violence. Although the authorities did not comment on the attacks, the Israeli Civil Administration removed several movement obstacles installed by the settlers. Additionally, they informed residents that the settlers’ orders to leave the community had no legal basis or weight.

"An officer told me that the ‘reservists’ acted as individuals and asked us not to listen to their orders," says Mohammad Kaabneh.

Mohammad Kaabneh, the Wadi Qelt community representative, anticipates that things will only get worse if Israeli settlers continue to attack his community. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

"Organisations are doing their work, but it is challenging for them to confront the reality,” says Mohammad Kaabneh. “Sometimes, it's just about mitigating the harm." Mohammad anticipates the "worst is yet to come" if settlers continue to attack his community.

Settlers in uniform uproot communities

Wadi Qelt is just one of many Palestinian communities that have faced intensifying settler violence in the months following 7 October. The West Bank community of Khirbet Zanuta, near Hebron, also saw an escalation in Israeli settler attacks, leading to the forced displacement of the entire community.

Hana Abu al-Kibash sits with her children in Ad-Dhaririya. Her entire community was displaced after repeated settler attacks. Photo: Farah Bayadsi/NRC

Hana Abu al-Kibash, 44, recounts that one week after 7 October, Israeli settlers began intensifying their raids on her community. "During the day, they might come in civilian clothes. At night, they appear in army uniform," says Abu al-Kibash. She adds that they often threw stun grenades and stones at residents, and her house was frequently raided.

Al-Kibash was home alone with her children during one of these attacks, when Yinon Levi, an Israeli settler who has since been sanctioned by the United States, forced his way into her home. Levi pushed al-Kibash onto a balcony and grabbed her by the neck while cursing and shouting.

“My children were there witnessing all of this,” al-Kibash explains. “I kept on shouting at him to take his hands off me. Then, he pulled out his gun and screamed at my children to go inside the house. He looked at my older daughter and threatened her saying, ‘you will leave or else’, gesturing at his neck indicating that he will slaughter her.”

After a couple of weeks of increased settler attacks, the community decided to leave the village temporarily out of fear for their lives. "I never imagined we would leave like this," says Abu al-Kibash. “Imagine leaving your lifelong home without really having the chance of taking everything with you or saying a proper goodbye. I really miss my house. I feel sometimes that my soul will explode because of this feeling.”

Khirbet Zanuta residents point to their depopulated village from an area south of Ad-Dhahiriya, Hebron, where many families were displaced. The Israeli outpost of Havat Metarim, next to Khirbet Zanuta, is seen in the background. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

Similar to Wadi Qelt, Khirbet Zanuta has long been at risk of forcible transfer, due to both Israeli policies and repeated attacks from neighbouring settlers. For years, the WBPC has worked to support the residents' resilience and enable them to remain on their land.

In the last few years, the WBPC built a school and a health clinic for the Khirbet Zanuta community, and rehabilitated residential units, the community council premises, and the main road leading to the village. Israeli settlers destroyed many of these structures following the complete displacement of the residents last October, to prevent them from having anything to return to.

Following their displacement, Fayez al-Tell, head of the Zanuta village council, returned to find some of their empty houses destroyed and burned, including the EU-funded school. "The settlers were celebrating their success, I’m sure," he says.

The EU-funded school built by the West Bank Protection Consortium was vandalised by Israeli settlers after the community had been forced to flee. Photo: Pieter Stockmans

A crack in the dam

After the ordeal, al-Tell reached out to lawyers and humanitarian organisations seeking legal assistance. In November 2023, lawyers from local legal aid NGO Haqel petitioned the Israeli courts. They sought the protection of communities subjected to settler violence and the investigation of the settler violence incidents. The case was joined with another case brought by NRC on behalf of WBPC communities in Hebron who were also facing relentless settler violence and were at risk of forced displacement. 

NRC and Haqel argued that Israeli authorities had failed to implement protective and preventive measures to safeguard the security, dignity and property of Palestinians in displaced communities, violating international and local laws. They urged the court to issue an order instructing the state to take necessary measures to protect Palestinian communities from systemic settler violence, intimidation and harassment. Additionally, they called for the state to explain the policies and operative measures  in place aimed at safeguarding Palestinian communities. 

An Israeli flag erected by settlers in Zanuta. Residents were forcibly displaced following repeated settler attacks. Photo: Pieter Stockmans

During the most recent court hearing in May 2024, the Israeli Supreme Court mandated that Israeli authorities outline planned measures to facilitate the safe return of Khirbet Zanuta residents who had been forcibly transferred due to settler violence. The court demanded justification for the absence of a dedicated emergency contact centre for affected communities and clarification regarding the lack of police response to incidents of settler violence.

“These cases already have the Israeli government recognising that it has a responsibility to protect Palestinians,” says Allegra Pacheco, the WBPC’s chief of party. “The Court is the first official forum since 7 October where the government is being required to detail and commit to ‘how’ it will protect.”

“Persistence in defending Palestinian rights is critical and sometimes, like in the Khirbet Zanuta and Wadi Qelt cases, there is a crack in the dam,” she adds.

A need for enforcement

Forcible displacement of Palestinian communities extends beyond Wadi Qelt and Khirbet Zanuta. Since 7 October, 14 Palestinian communities in the West Bank have been completely displaced due to Israeli settler violence, while 16 others have been partially displaced, according to the UN. Even prior to October, increased settler violence had led to the displacement of 1,105 people from 28 communities between January 2022 and September 2023.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling on the Khirbet Zanuta case could set a precedent for the return of other displaced communities to their homes. With a hearing scheduled for Khirbet Zanuta in July, lawyers are hopeful that a favourable decision could pave the way for the return of all displaced communities.

Even if the Court’s ruling is more widely applied, however, enforcement of the decision is another matter.

“The challenge lies in the willingness of the Israeli state to adhere to court decisions and provide protection to the community, as well as their ability to prevent settler attacks,” explains Mohammad Abu Remaileh, who manages NRC’s Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) programme in the West Bank. “Therefore, it is crucial to closely monitor the implementation of these decisions to ensure they safeguard communities effectively.”

The Lechatchila Farm outpost sits adjacent to Wadi Qelt. According to international and Israeli law, it is illegal and must be dismantled. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/NRC

“What needs to be done is for all the outposts that caused the displacement, to be shut down and for their residents to be prohibited from living there,” says Pacheco. "The outposts are already illegal, and many have demolition orders. The Israeli military commander can issue quite quickly a military order declaring these outposts closed military zones and bar all Israeli settlers. They have already done this in one outpost.”

Despite sanctions imposed on several settlers by the United States and other countries, attacks on Palestinian communities continue. More pressure on Israel is needed from the international community to address the violence at its roots.

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