In the last days of September, violent incidents in the South Hebron Hills area of the Occupied West Bank attracted media attention across the political spectrum in Israel, but scant mention in mainstream Western press. The incidents involved a small army of radical settlers who attacked a tiny but strategically placed Palestinian village, where several days earlier IDF soldiers had beat up middle-aged peace activists with Combatants for Peace and two other NGOs who had been bringing water to the village.
Some 60 masked settlers rampaged through the tiny village of Khirbet al-Mafaqarah, destroying cars and water carriers and smashing windows in homes. A dozen Palestinian residents were injured by the attackers, including a three-year-old boy, who was taken to hospital in nearby Be’er Sheva. Palestinian residents said such a highly organized level of settler violence is rare, though incidents involving throwing stones and cutting down olive trees take place regularly.
Yesterday, on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, a pogrom took place in the South Hebron Hills.
Dozens of masked settlers set out from the settlements of Havat Ma’on and Avigail and attacked the residents of nearby Khirbet al-Mufaqarah. Escorted by Israeli security forces, pic.twitter.com/evPIMGQw0w
— B’Tselem בצלם بتسيلم (@btselem) September 29, 2021
Washington expressed strong criticism of the settler rampage, as quoted in a number of Israeli dailies, though as of Friday, the comments had not been picked up by the New York Times or other mainstream US media outlets. “The US government strongly condemns the acts of settler violence that took place against Palestinians in villages near Hebron in the West Bank,” a US Embassy spokesperson said on Friday.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid remarked, “This violent incident is horrific and it is terror. This is a violent and dangerous fringe and we have a responsibility to bring them to justice.” The quote ran in the center-right Jerusalem Post, the centrist Times of Israel and the left of center Haaretz, which has an important international audience for the English language internet edition, as well as in other Israeli media in Hebrew and English.
The leftist Israeli activist group Peace Now called the attack a “pogrom.”
The Israeli government arrested at least six settlers, including a minor, and a Palestinian who was almost immediately released. At least four of the settlers are still being held, according to the JPost. The government rarely arrests any Jewish settlers involved in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Even more rare are convictions of settlers for frequent violent incidents.
Extremely disturbing videos taken by Palestinians were published by the well-known and internationally respected B’Tselem, the human rights organization, in 972 Magazine, JPost, The Times of Israel and other media outlets. They show masked settlers in their late teens and perhaps early 20s smashing windows of cars and homes, many with residents still inside.
Heavily armed IDF soldiers can be seen standing idly alongside the settlers. The soldiers then throw tear gas canisters at the Palestinians and call them “sharmouta,” or whores, in Arabic.
In one home, three-year-old Mohammed was hit by stones. He was taken by soldiers in a military jeep with his uncle to a nearby ambulance. After reportedly being attacked by settlers, the emergency vehicle managed to leave and take them to an Israeli hospital in Be’ersheva. Though suffering from a fractured skull and internal bleeding, the little boy is reportedly in stable condition.
Khirbet al-Mafaqarah sits between two settler outposts, Avigayil and Havat Ma’on, both illegal under Israeli and international law. The previous Israeli government under Benyamin Netanyahu had sought to force residents there and in other nearby villages to leave, by seizing their lands and demolishing buildings and structures.
For resident Mahmoud Hamamdah, quoted in 972 Magazine, the assault serves a clear purpose. “The settlers want to create territorial contiguity between Avigayil and Havat Ma’on, but we are in the middle,” he said. “That is their goal now: to use violence to force us to leave. They are always taking over more land and attacking us. It’s like the army, which destroys our homes. [They do] everything so that we leave.”
סליחה, מחקתי את השרשור הקודם. כי בני משפחתו של המפגין הפצוע חוששים ששמו יפורסם. נקרא לו א’ הוא בן 66 והוא הושלך על הקרקע בעוצמה על ידי קצין בדרגת רב סרן. הוא נפצע וסובל משברים בפניו ומחר יעבור ניתוח. pic.twitter.com/OIbQz2GWGu
— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) September 18, 2021
Several days earlier, Israeli Jewish and Palestinian activists from Combatants for Peace and two other leftist NGOs had brought a water carrier to village residents, who are not connected to the Israeli West Bank water grid. Captured on video, IDF soldiers led by their battalion commander attacked several middle-aged Jewish activists, knocking them to the rocky ground. Two Palestinian activists also reported minor injuries.
In one incident, Tuly Flint, a former commander in the IDF Reserves and currently the Israeli coordinator for Combatants for Peace, said he was standing with a sign in one hand and a megaphone in the other when a soldier came at him from behind and pinned him to the ground in a chokehold. The soldier then placed his knee on Flint’s head, a scene often repeated in other West Bank videos shot by B’tselem volunteers in which Israeli forces hold down Palestinians. To anyone who has seen the photo, it is immediately reminiscent of the Minneapolis police officer holding his knee on George Floyd’s neck in the summer of 2020.
Soldiers accused the NGO activists of blocking the entrance to one of the settler outposts and of attacking them. Calling the soldiers liars, the activists said their sole interest is the fundamental issue of water rights for Palestinians.
IDF officials reprimanded the battalion commander and his unit for their violent response to the protest, but none of them were taken out of active service during the subsequent so-called investigation. There has reportedly been no follow-up by the IDF concerning the unit.
Israeli right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennet heads a government made up of an unusual coalition of right- and left-wing political parties, including for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party. And of all things, it is an Islamic party. Bennet has adopted a strategy reportedly called “shrinking the conflict.” While refusing to even talk about a future Palestinian state, he seeks to offer Palestinians more job opportunities in Israel but also in the West Bank, and to increase their quality of life.
Leftist critics say it is a scam to cover up increased settlement building, land seizures and demolitions, and arrests or killings of radicals. At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Bennet focused on the need to contain or destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, talk that Arab Gulf countries like to hear. He also praised the opening of diplomatic and business relations with Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco. Except for a moment of criticism of Hamas and Jihad radicals, he did not mention Palestinians even once.
Combatants For Peace (CFP), along with other activist NGOs including Breaking the Silence, All That’s Left, and Peace Now, held a demonstration on Saturday near Khirbet al-Mafaqarah, the village attacked by settlers in the South Hebron Hills. According to Beth Schuman, director of the American Friends of CFP, the fundraising arm of the NGO, some 600 people attended, about 400 Israelis and 200 Palestinians.
“The focus of the protest was fundamental water rights for Palestinians,” Schuman remarked. “We are a human rights group. We don’t take a position on the one-state or two-state solutions, for example. Members have different opinions on a number of issues.”
Schuman said that IDF soldiers watched the protest from a distance, but did not intervene. One might assume that after the bad press and criticism by army higher-ups that they got in Israel for their recent over-the-top pummelling of Israeli Jewish activists bringing water to Palestinians, the soldiers were given orders to stand back.
And there might be good news. Following the violent incidents, the IDF general in charge of the area went to the village and during a very short visit, spoke with residents. He reportedly promised them the same access to water as the nearby illegal settler outposts. What follows his words, of course, remains to be seen. It would certainly be about time. Depriving off-the-grid Palestinian villages of running water, forcing them to buy tankers from private sources at high prices, and kicking residents off their land are part of an Israeli strategy of ethnic cleansing. They are examples of why so many people view this conflict as a zero-sum, good guy-bad guy situation. But the sight of Israelis and Palestinians in Combatants for Peace and other NGOs working together may be proof to the contrary.