Amid intensifying settler attacks and in danger of being forcibly displaced from their land, the residents of Ein al-Rashash, a village in the Ramallah area of the occupied West Bank, have turned to human rights activists for round-the-clock protective presence.
The village is home to 18 Palestinian Bedouin families, who were expelled from Arad in the Naqab/Negev desert during the Nakba and settled in their current location in the 1990s. Now, with several neighboring Palestinian communities having been forced to flee in recent months, the families fear that they could be expelled once again.
Comprised of scattered tents, a couple of pens for livestock, and a small improvised soccer pitch where boys can be found kicking a ball around most mornings, Ein al-Rashash sits atop a hill facing dramatic views of the Jordan Valley on one side and the land the villagers once used for grazing livestock on the other. Just out of view over the hill to the south sits the settler outpost of Malachei HaShalom, whose residents are stepping up their attacks on the community in an attempt to force them out.
The outpost, which the Israeli government voted to legalize last February, was established in 2015. In the years that followed, the settlers have taken over several water cisterns, huge swathes of grazing land, and, since last May, the freshwater pool that has sustained Ein al-Rashash and neighboring villages for generations.
“It’s incredibly hard here. They closed all paths to Palestinians, we have no access [to land],” said Muhammad Zawara, a resident of Ein al-Rashash. “If they could prevent us getting air, they would.”
In recent months, the settlers’ assaults have become particularly violent. On June 24, following a shooting attack by Palestinian gunmen near the settlement of Eli that killed four Israelis, around 20 settlers from Malachei HaShalom invaded the village, smashing windows, destroying solar panels, burning tents, and beating 86-year-old Haj Salama with clubs, leaving him hospitalized with a head injury.
Salama told +972 that the Israeli army was present during the attack, but did nothing to stop the settlers; in fact, soldiers used tear gas to push back the young Palestinians, then arrested three villagers. “The settlers tell [the army] lies and they arrest us,” he said. Salama’s grandson, Muhammad, described the settlers’ actions as “violent terror.”
Feeling totally exposed to the intensifying attacks, the community reached out to veteran activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman in early August to coordinate protective presence in the village, in the hope that the settlers would be deterred by the sight of Israeli and international supporters. Since then, a coalition of activists has been maintaining a presence in the area day and night. Settlers have still entered the village on horseback or with flocks of sheep to intimidate residents, but physical attacks on residents and their property have decreased for the time being.
One morning last week, the residents and activists awoke at sunrise to about 30 figures on the hill opposite Ein al-Rashash, near the outpost from which settlers descend to attack the village. Fearing a large-scale attack, the community called the police, who did nothing to assuage their fears.
The figures turned out to be soldiers conducting training exercises in “Firing Zone 906” across from the village, where settlers often graze their flocks now that Palestinian shepherds have been effectively barred from the area. That morning, the sounds of live fire could be heard throughout the valley.
Ein al-Rashash is located in a corridor of the West Bank between Ramallah and Jericho that has seen a sharp uptick in settler violence in recent years, according to data collected by human rights groups. The intensification of attacks on the Palestinian communities correlates with the establishment of several new settler outposts like Malachei HaShalom, whose residents are working hard — with the backing of the state — to ethnically cleanse the area.
Settler harassment and army restrictions have already forced several other Palestinian communities to flee the area in recent months, including the villages of Ein Samia, Ras a-Tin, and al-Qabun which now stand totally empty. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 478 Palestinians from shepherding communities across Area C of the West Bank have been displaced in the last year.
Agricultural outposts like Malachei HaShalom enable settlers to take over large areas of land without requiring many residents; through grazing and planting, settlers encroach on Palestinian land and harass neighboring shepherding communities until the area becomes inaccessible to the local Palestinian population.
A report published last year by the settlement watchdog Kerem Navot estimates that the land expropriated by these outposts through grazing amounts to nearly 7 percent of Area C — the rural parts of the West Bank constituting 61 percent of the total territory, and which are under full Israeli civil and military control. The report goes on to detail the vast networks of support required for such a takeover, including established settler organizations, local settler councils, Israeli security forces, the Civil Administration (the military body that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank), and other public bodies.
Recently, settlers have taken to driving through Ein al-Rashash at night in an all-terrain vehicle, honking the horn in an attempt to intimidate the Palestinian residents into packing up and leaving. They have also started bringing their flocks right up to the village, despite the good grazing land being lower down the hill.
“In the valley, where we don’t go anymore, [the settlers] have endless feeding ground for their sheep,” explained Eid Salama Zawara, a shepherd from the village. “Up here, there is barely anything for the sheep to eat. They don’t need land for their flocks, they just want land for themselves.”
In May, settlers built a structure around Ein al-Rashash’s spring. The Civil Administration arrived the following day and began demolishing the structure, saying it was an environmental and safety hazard, but stopped after the head of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council lobbied on the settlers’ behalf.
According to Haaretz, it was the intervention of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — whose position in the Defense Ministry simultaneously puts him in control of the Civil Administration — that enabled the settler takeover of the spring. This is just one example reflecting a much wider decrease in the Civil Administration’s action against illegal settlement construction, after Smotrich assumed broad powers within the organization at the end of last year.
Shepherding communities in the area face other such incursions onto their land: recently, a road connecting another outpost to Malachei HaShalom was extended, and now stretches to the settlement of Tomer in the Jordan Valley.
For local residents, the drive to displace them is all too apparent. “From here all the way toward the Taybeh area, there are hardly any Palestinians because they’ve been pushed out of their homes,” said Zawara. “It’s especially hard for the kids. They grow up hearing the word ‘settler’ and hearing warnings about settlers all the time. They are scared constantly because even if nothing happens now, something might happen later.”
”I don’t like to think about the future because it’s too hard,” Zawara added. “I think about today. Is it quiet? Did the sheep graze? It’s hard to live here, but we’re here. This is our land. It’s Palestinian land.”