Last month, on Dec. 21, Israeli police led a high-speed chase near the settlement of Kochav Hashachar in the occupied West Bank. The car being pursued was carrying several young, radical Israeli settlers who were suspected of throwing rocks at oncoming Palestinian vehicles just moments before. During the chase, the police car reportedly slammed into the settlers’ car, flipping it over, and killing 16-year-old Ahuvia Sandak.
Israel’s highest-ranking officials were quick to express their solidarity with the Sandak family. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Sandak’s parents to his office to express his condolences; Justice Minister Amir Ohana visited the family and vowed to “find out what really happened;” Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau sent a heartfelt letter to the parents.
Sandak’s death sparked a series of protests in the West Bank and Israel, followed by an outburst of violence against Palestinians — who had nothing to do with Sandak’s death — in the occupied territories.
According to Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that documents human rights violations in the West Bank, Israeli settlers have committed 52 violent acts against Palestinians since Sandak’s death. In 37 of those cases, the settlers blocked central junctions along Route 60 — one of the West Bank’s central highways — and threw rocks at Palestinian cars. Yesh Din reported that 14 Palestinians, including two children, have been wounded in the rock-throwing attacks. In 11 cases, settlers have invaded Palestinian towns and thrown rocks at civilians and homes. In three incidents, groups of settlers attacked Palestinian farmers who were working their land.
‘Settlers threw a stone at her face’
One of the Palestinian children wounded over the past month was an 11-year-old girl named Hala Alqut from the village of Madmeh, just south of Nablus. On Jan. 17, dozens of settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar, known for its fundamentalist violence, raided the village and threw stones at the homes of the village. Hala’s father, Mashour, said that his daughter had left to go to her aunt’s house just a moment before the attack. “They caught her outside, and when my wife went to save her from their grasp, they attacked her too.”
Hala was wounded in her face and was taken to Rafidia Hospital in Nablus for treatment.
Mashour, who works in Israel, received news of the attack while at work. “My wife phoned me crying and yelling, ‘Come see what happened to the girl — settlers threw a stone at her face.’ I went crazy with worry. When I arrived, I saw the broken glass and the stones in the house.”
Mashour’s wife, along with Hala and their three other children — including a newborn baby — were present when the attack took place. “They threw a stone and broke the window that was above the baby’s head. It could have ended in a much bigger tragedy,” Mashour says. The trauma, he adds, has caused Hala to stop speaking entirely.
The second child wounded this past month, a five-year-old boy, was wounded just days later from a rock thrown at his family’s car as they drove past the Assaf Junction, just east of Ramallah.
When I asked the Israeli police spokesperson whether the police had planned to make any arrests following the assaults, I received the following response: “Israel Police, along with the other security forces, are deployed in the various axes and points of friction in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to prevent incidents of violence, enforce the law, and maintain public order and security.”
The spokesperson continued: “As for the incident in which the boy was wounded, the police have launched an investigation in which investigatory actions were taken and evidence collected, the investigation is ongoing.”
‘They are sitting in my home instead of me’
Despite the fact that the Israeli army is the sovereign in the occupied territories, the responsibility to investigate criminal acts by Jewish Israelis — even when they are committed in the West Bank — falls on the police. This, too, is part of Israel’s apartheid regime, which maintains two separate legal systems for two populations based on their nationality.
In practice, however, neither the army nor the police do much to prevent the violent pogroms carried out by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. Sometimes, in fact, they even collaborate.
I witnessed such cooperation between Israel’s armed forces and settlers on Saturday, Jan. 23, when I joined a group of activists for a solidarity protest in the South Hebron Hills. The activists had driven down to the area to show solidarity with a Palestinian family from the community of Khirbet Tawamin, after settlers invaded the area last Thursday and forcibly evicted them from the cave in which they live. The settlers took over their home for hours while singing around a bonfire they had lit just outside the cave.
In a gut-wrenching Facebook post, journalist and activist Yuval Abraham, who spends much of his time with the Palestinian communities in the South Hebron Hills, wrote about his phone call with Abu Mahmoud, one of Tawamin’s residents, who described in real time how the settlers had taken over his home:
[…] Abu Mahmoud says, ‘Why didn’t you answer? I have been trying to reach the army and the police, they are not arriving.’ His voice sounds suffocated, and the line goes dead. Both of us stay silent, Nasser and I. A silence of fear. Nasser says maybe we should go, but it is clear he is terrified. I am also terrified. We try to call Abu Mahmoud again. There is no reception.
A minute later, Abu Mahmoud calls [again]. ‘They kicked me out of the home. They all went in, the settlers, and they are sitting there instead of me.’ He sends us a video. The entire family is outside. The settlers are in his home. He says, ‘Why aren’t the police here? Why is the [Civil] Administration not here? Come quick.’ And we don’t know what to do. We get closer. Nasser says, ‘Let’s enter through the path that leads to his home.’ I say maybe not. Then I say no. ‘Just a little,’ Nasser says, and we go in, my foot shaking on the gas pedal. We see 15 cars with Israeli license plates parked, and a bonfire. ‘Let’s go back, let’s go back. It’s dangerous,” says Nasser.
The settlers left after a few hours and the family was able to return to their home.
Abraham returned to the cave in Tawamin the following day. While sitting with the family, he witnessed a call between a representative of the Civil Administration — the arm of Israel’s military government that governs the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank — and one of the family members. In the call, which was captured in full and published on Local Call, the representative warns the family in Arabic to make sure that neither journalists nor activists come to the cave.
“Don’t give us problems today. Understood?” said the official. “Make sure not to bring journalists or people who will come express solidarity to your home today.”
When the Palestinian family member tells the representative that he does not want any problems, but that the army never showed up after being called repeatedly, the representative yelled back: “They eventually left, right? So khalas [“enough” in Arabic]. Settlers won’t be coming there anymore. That’s your land, and the cave belongs to you, right? So stay in the cave. Don’t bring journalists and a lot of people, and don’t make problems, or I’ll expel you and them, understood?”
A neverending battle
Khirbet Tawamin is located a short walk away from the village of al-Rakiz, where Israeli soldiers arrived earlier this month to confiscate an old generator that served the residents, after the Civil Administration carried out demolitions there. As soldiers tried to take the generator, Haroun Abu Aram, one of Al-Rakiz’s residents, tried to take it back. A soldier shot him in the neck, leaving him paralyzed.
Activists who drove down to Tawamin for Saturday’s solidarity protest were stopped by a makeshift police checkpoint 10 kilometers from the village. We were shown an IDF order declaring the area a “closed military zone” — a well-known trick that the army uses to keep Palestinians and left-wing activists away from parts of the West Bank. The police demanded we turn around and leave.
We found our way to Khirbet Tawamin through the gorgeous dusty hills, only to encounter — within 10 minutes of arriving — a group of armed soldiers who produced an additional closed military zone order. After that, the soldiers dispersed us with stun grenades until we reached the base of the hills, where the Israeli settlement of Susya is located (adjacent to the Palestinian hamlet of the same name).
As we were trapped between a closed military zone behind us and the radical Israeli settlement before us, a group of settlers with large dogs approached us. The soldiers, who avoid confrontation with the settlers at all costs, once again declared the area closed and removed us.
We climbed back to Tawamin. The soldiers who followed us waved the order yet again, and one of them, who spoke fluent Arabic, went over to speak to the family members who had temporarily lost their home and were fearful of what was yet to come. One can only assume that the soldier repeated what the Civil Administration representative told them over the phone just days prior: kick out the activists, or else.
Minutes later, the family came over to us, thanked us for our presence, and asked us to leave “so as to avoid problems.” We left, of course. We know this experience well: whether it’s the settlers who are angry with the army, or the army that’s angry with the left-wing activists, the Palestinians are always the ones to pay the price.
Palestinians and Israeli activists know only too well that the battle against settler violence is an ongoing and endless one. Today on Jan. 24, and despite the Civil Administration’s promises, approximately 30 Israeli settlers invaded the exact same spot that activists had tried to protest at just a day earlier. The army arrived and dispersed the settlers.