Ethnic Cleansing in the West Bank

Neve Gordon

As 46-year-old Abu Hassan and 27-year-old Mohammed Khaled were driving out of the Palestinian village of Wadi a-Siq, two pickup trucks full of masked Jewish settlers in military fatigues blocked the road. The men were instructed at gunpoint to step out of their car. Hagar Sheizaf described in Ha’aretz how the settlers beat Hassan and Khaled, pinning their heads to the ground before tying their hands with wire, blindfolding them and dragging them to a deserted sheep pen. One of the settlers tore off the men’s clothes with a knife, leaving them in their underpants.

‘The violence was relentless,’ Hassan told Sheizaf. ‘They poured water on us, urinated on us, and then someone holding a stick tried to shove it up my rear. I fought with all my strength until he simply gave up. He then beat me all over my body, stomped on my head with both feet and jumped on my back.’ The abuse lasted from late morning until Israeli Civil Administration officials arrived in the evening, releasing both men as well as a third Palestinian who had been tortured not far from the sheep pen. By the time an ambulance reached the village, the settlers had disappeared, taking the victims’ car and money.

Located to the east of Ramallah, Wadi a-Siq is surrounded by three relatively new settler outposts whose residents have been terrorising the villagers for months. David Shulman, an Israeli Sanskrit scholar, is part of a group of activists trying to protect the Palestinian residents from settler violence. During one of their ‘sleep-ins’ at Wadi a-Siq last month, a Palestinian called Ali, who has lived in the village for fifty years, told Shulman: ‘Our children are terrified; they cry a lot. But we are here to stay.’

Three weeks later, Ali was one of 180 people, including forty children, who left Wadi a-Siq. Settler cruelty had become so intolerable that the community, who had moved to the West Bank as refugees after the 1948 Nakba, felt they had no option but to abandon their village. They are now refugees twice over.

The settlers’ assault on Hassan and Khaled took place two days after the entire community had already fled. The men had returned to the village with a few other Palestinians and some Israeli activists to dismantle parts of their houses, load them on trucks and take them west, where the villagers are now squatting on land owned by Palestinians from the village of Rammun. Hassan and Khaled were tortured not to drive the Palestinian villagers out of Wadi a-Siq – they had already left – but to terrorise other Palestinian communities that have remained on their land, still unwilling to leave their homes.

Although underreported, the expulsion of Palestinians from the hills east of Ramallah, the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills has been in the making for many years. As the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem explains, attacking Palestinians is

part of Israel’s well-known, longstanding policy to make life so miserable for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank that the residents eventually leave, seemingly of their own accord. Israel then proceeds to take over the land and use it for its own purposes – mainly building and expanding settlements.

Often escorted by soldiers and backed by police, settler groups have for several years been deploying systematic violence against Palestinian communities, destroying buildings and olive trees, stealing livestock and agricultural equipment, and vandalising water tanks, pipes and solar panels. Though frequently described as vigilantes by the media, these settlers receive weapons, money, operational support and even legal assistance from the state: the objective is to dispossess Palestinians in order to ‘Judaise’ the West Bank.

Based on a map of the West Bank created by Peace Now

Since Hamas carried out its massacre of more than 1300 Israelis on the Gaza border on 7 October, the violent dynamics in the West Bank have acquired an ominous messianic overtone. On 28 October, the community of Khirbet Zanuta in the South Hebron Hills, which was home to 250 Palestinians, joined eight other communities that have been forced to abandon their villages in the past three weeks, while six others have been partially evacuated. Settlers have told these Palestinian communities that if they refuse to leave their villages they will be killed.

Since 7 October, Israelis have killed 125 Palestinians in the West Bank, eleven of whom died at the hands of settlers. Flyers have been placed on the windscreens of cars in Palestinian villages that say in Arabic:

You asked for a Nakba similar to 1948, so by God we will descend on you … soon. You have one last chance to flee to Jordan in an orderly manner because afterwards we will destroy every enemy and forcibly expel you from our holy land that God has dedicated to us and commanded us not to retreat from.

These messages come in the wake of soldiers disseminating clips on TikTok that depict scores of men in fatigues, some armed, dancing to a live band: ‘We are not ashamed, we want revenge! We want revenge!’ The soldiers are echoing various Knesset members who have also called for revenge. Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has a plan to annex the West Bank and offer Palestinians two options: to live in the West Bank without citizenship or to realise their national aspirations ‘in one of the many surrounding Arab countries’. Thousands of guns, including assault rifles, have been distributed to settlers, many of whom are already organised in local militias.

While all eyes are on Gaza – where the death toll, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, has passed eight thousand – the ethnic cleansing in the West Bank could intensify further, with Israeli forces pushing Palestinians out of their homes and possibly across international borders. Dror Etkes, who has been monitoring Israel’s land grab for more than two decades, says:

There is no force within Israel that can [stop] or is interested in stopping the ethnic cleansing being carried out before our eyes. Therefore, the responsible and right thing for all Israeli human rights organisations to do is to issue a statement calling upon the international community to station a multinational force in the West Bank … A multinational force of this kind was deployed in Bosnia only after years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now is the time to bring a multinational force into the West Bank, before the massive ethnic cleansing takes place, before even more extensive lethal violence is unleashed.

I got an email yesterday from a friend in the Palestinian village of Susya in the South Hebron Hills. The settlers, he writes, ‘have issued a menacing ultimatum: if the villagers do not vacate within 24 hours, they vow to return and perpetrate murder.’