Water-Deprived Palestinians Endure Settler Rampage, while Army Punishes NGO Protesters

4 October, 2021
Com­bat­ants for Peace and oth­er NGOs bring water truck to water-deprived Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents in the South Hebron Hills.

Brett Kline

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.

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.”

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. 

Combatants for PeaceIDFNaftali BennettOccupied TerritoriesPalestinian activistswater rights

Brett Kline is a long-time journalist who has worked in print, online, radio and television media. Originally a New Yorker, he has lived in Paris for the past three decades, and visited Israel/Palestine dozens of times, closely involved with people on both sides of the Green Line. While a full-time bilingual reporter at France Télévisions, he has published articles in Haaretz, The Times of Israel, Globes and the Jerusalem Post. His passion for his friends in Israel/Palestine has been intensely personal, full of hope and disappointment, silence and a whirlwind of words.