Settlers take advantage of Gaza war to launch West Bank pogroms

Israeli settlers and soldiers have killed 51 Palestinians in the West Bank this past week, with two villages entirely depopulated after attacks.

Israeli soldiers with Jewish settlers at the entrance to the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, June 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers with Jewish settlers at the entrance to the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, June 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This article was produced in partnership with Local Call and The Intercept.

While the world focuses on the Hamas massacre in southern Israel and Israel’s massive bombing of the Gaza Strip, settlers in the occupied West Bank are taking advantage of the chaos to attack and expel Palestinians from a number of small villages.

Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 51 Palestinians in the West Bank since Saturday, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah. At least two villages, Al-Qanub and Wadi Al-Sik, have been entirely depopulated as a result of the violence by Israeli settlers.

A Palestinian in At-Tuwani, a village in the Masafer Yatta region of the South Hebron Hills, is in critical condition after a settler, accompanied by an Israeli soldier, invaded the community on Friday and shot him at point blank range. The attack was documented by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Israeli soldiers are establishing new checkpoints to block the movement of Palestinian villagers. On Thursday evening, near Yabrud, northeast of Ramallah, solders shot at a vehicle carrying a Palestinian family, according to members of the family. Randa Abdullah Abdul Aziz Ajaj, 37, was killed, and her son, Ismail Ajaj, was hit in the foot and shoulder. Her husband and another child were also in the vehicle but were not injured. An IDF spokesperson claimed soldiers opened fire because the car was “driving wildly” and the soldiers felt threatened.

Throughout the West Bank, Palestinian residents are witnessing an increased presence of armed settlers around their villages, more military roadblocks, and tightened movement restrictions. “At this time we are actually living under siege. Most of the villages in the West Bank are closed in mounds of dirt and it is impossible to get out,” said a resident of the village of Qaryut. “There are settlers everywhere. Every time we approach houses near a settlement, they shoot at us. They are taking advantage of the security situation in Gaza, to take revenge on the West Bank. Because no one is looking at the West Bank now.”

On Wednesday, in the village of Qusra near Nablus, three Palestinians — Moa’th Odeh, Musab Abu Rida, and Obida Abu Sarur — were shot dead, while a 6-year-old girl was wounded in the upper body. It is unclear who opened fire on them. The attack began with masked settlers shooting at houses in the village, according to three eyewitnesses and medical personnel who treated the wounded at the scene. Video footage shows six masked men, armed with pistols and M-16 rifles, opening fire inside the village. Later that day, according to eyewitnesses, another resident, 13-year-old Hassan Abu Sarur, was also shot dead when soldiers entered after the settlers withdrew from the village.

Palestinian media reported on Thursday that settlers attacked the funerals of the four Qusra residents who had been killed the day before. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the settlers shot dead a father and son, Ibrahim and Ahmed Wadi.

Settlers in Esh Kodesh and the surrounding area had sent warning messages to Qusra’s residents in the previous two days, in which they threatened to take revenge in response to Hamas’ assault in southern Israel. In one photo, which was sent to the residents few days ago, a group of masked men can be seen holding fuel tanks, an electric saw, and axes, with a caption in Hebrew and Arabic: “To all the rats in the sewers of Qusra village, we are waiting for you and we will not feel sorry for you. The day of revenge is coming.”

The message sent by Israeli settlers to the Palestinian residents of Qusra.
The message sent by Israeli settlers to the Palestinian residents of Qusra.

According to a Qusra resident who asked to be identified by just his first name, Abed, “It started at noon, when 20 masked men invaded the village and stoned the houses of families living on the edge of the village. They came from the direction of the Esh Kodesh outpost. We ran there to get the families out of their homes, because settlers tried to set fire to one of the houses. A mother, father, and a girl were inside. While we were trying to get the little girl out of the house, they started shooting at us, hitting the girl. They killed three people.”

According to eyewitnesses, at least 15 Palestinians were wounded by gunfire. Medical personnel who treated the wounded said that the condition of some of them was critical.

“I evacuated a girl who was shot; she was injured inside her house and was bleeding,” said Bashar al-Kariyuti, a Palestinian ambulance driver who arrived at the scene during the attack. “The girl’s father was also shot in the face. It was impossible to recognize him.”

Ahmed, a third eyewitness to the incident who requested that his last name be withheld for safety reasons, recounted that the military stayed inside their observation post while settlers opened fire at Qusra’s residents. “My cousin was hit in the head, my brother was shot right at the entrance to his house,” he said. “Then soldiers took the [digital video recorder] that recorded everything; an hour after the event they came in and confiscated cameras. I’m sure they did it to erase the evidence.”

Residents of Qusra said that a small number of soldiers accompanied the settlers throughout the attack. When the villagers threw stones at the settlers, to force them back, soldiers backed up the settlers with live fire, according to the residents.

Screenshot of video of Israeli settlers attacking village of Qusra.
Screenshot of video of Israeli settlers attacking village of Qusra.

Commenting on the attack, an Israeli military spokesperson said, “An IDF force operating on the outskirts of Qusra reported hearing gunfire. The claim about Palestinians being hit by gunfire is being investigated.”

Along with the incident in Qusra, settlers have attacked at least 18 Palestinian villages throughout the West Bank since Hamas’ assault on Saturday, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group. The army announced that, due to the security situation, the police will distribute M-16 rifles to settlers in the West Bank. Media organizations affiliated with extremist settler groups in the area called on settlers to prepare to “conquer the villages near you” and to “destroy anyone who joins the enemy.”

On Monday, settler violence led to the expulsion of every resident of Al-Qanub, a small village north of Hebron comprising eight families, and which is located near the settlements of Ma’ale Amos and Asfar. The village residents said that settlers burned three houses — made of iron rods covered with thick cloth — with all their belongings inside.

“[The settlers] came down to us, grabbed me, and said we had an hour to leave the village,” said Abu Jamal, a resident of Al-Qanub. “Then, about 10 settlers came, poured gasoline, and set fire to my house. Seven people lived there. The cupboards, the food, everything caught fire. They also burned my son’s house and stole all my sheep and my livelihood. We will not go back there. I am 67 years old, and my children are psychologically damaged.”

Wa’ed, a resident of the village, took her children and hid in a nearby valley. “I have children, a 6-month-old baby, a 2-year-old, and a 5-year-old,” she said, “I ran to hide with them in the valley when the settlers entered. I heard the sounds of explosions and thought they had killed my husband. When they left, I saw that they had burned everything of ours.”

Families living on the outskirts of Turmus Ayya, near the Shiloh settlement, said that eight armed settlers, partially dressed in military uniforms, ordered them to leave their homes; they also set up a sort of checkpoint, which they have been operating ever since. “On the first day of the war, a group of settlers built a room a few meters from our houses, closed our access road to the houses, and since then have been there all the time,” said Abdullah, a local resident. “We are 25 people, many children and women, who cannot leave or enter the village. We reach our homes through the olive groves. Anyone who leaves their house, including women, is stopped and searched.”

In a mountainous area in southern Hebron, settlers on Tuesday violently attacked residents of two tiny villages, and settlers bulldozed two houses in the village of Simri, whose residents had previously left due to settler violence.

“Three settlers came for my children. One with an army weapon, the second with a gun, the third with a knife,” said an elderly resident hospitalized with back and leg injuries, who asked to remain anonymous for fear the settlers would take revenge on him. “They told me to shut up and started beating me with the butt of a rifle. They knocked me to the floor, closed the door of the house on the children, and beat my wife in the chest as well. They said that it’s now a war, and that if I say anything to the media, they’ll come back at night and burn my family. I shouted to them that I am a shepherd, that I am not connected to the war in Gaza.”