‘If you don’t leave, we’ll kill you’: Hundreds flee Israeli settler violence in Hebron area

Seeing the Gaza war as a golden hour to fulfill their West Bank ambitions, Israeli settlers have chased out entire Palestinian communities in Area C. By ​Imad Abu Hawash

 

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At 10 p.m. on Oct. 13, I received a phone call from Amer Abu Awad, a Palestinian resident of Khirbet Al-Radeem, a small rural community south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. “The settlers attacked me,” he told me in a frightened voice. “Some of them were wearing army uniforms.” The assailants had come from the Israeli settler outpost of Havat Meitarim, led by Yinon Levy, who is known to the Palestinians of Al-Radeem; two months earlier, Levy had threatened another resident, forcing him and his family to leave his home.

“They assaulted me, beat my elderly father, pushed him to the ground, dragged him through the puddles, and pointed weapons at us,” Abu Awad continued, pausing to catch his breath. “They said I had to leave by morning, or my family and I will be finished.”

Early the next day, Abu Awad called me again. “I want to leave, but the roads are closed.” After hours of interventions, he managed to escape with his family of five along with his flock of sheep to the town of As-Samu, leaving behind his house, furniture, livestock barracks, and grain for the sheep. Abu Awad and his family had to carry all their belongings by foot; the Israeli army would not allow any vehicles to enter the area.

Later that night, settlers arrived in Al-Radeem with a bulldozer and demolished Abu Awad’s house and livestock barracks, destroyed his grain, and damaged his solar panels. Nothing remained except ruins.

For over a month, media attention has largely been drawn to Gaza after Israel declared war on the Strip in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 assault. But many are forgetting that this declaration of war includes the West Bank, too. Since that day, Israeli settlers have teamed up with soldiers to attack Palestinian communities throughout the occupied territory; some settlers, as happened in Al-Radeem, even wore army uniforms during their assaults.

This violent campaign is unfolding with full force in rural areas around Hebron in the southern West Bank. In multiple places, Palestinians were forced to leave their residences under the weight of settler attacks launched day and night. The settlers have burned homes, stolen sheep, blocked roads, and vandalized property. They have shot, beaten, threatened, and body searched Palestinian residents. Even the city of Hebron has not been spared from this campaign, with the Israeli army and settlers imposing a lockdown in the area known as H2, and emergency laws further extricating perpetrators from accountability.

As a result, several communities around Hebron in Area C — the two-thirds of the West Bank completely controlled by Israel, and where all Israeli settlements are located — have been completely evacuated and their lands seized by settlers. These include Al-Radeem, Khirbet Zanuta, ‘Atiriyah, Khirbet A’nizan, Maqtal Msalam, and Al-Qanoub. Since October 7, an estimated 400 Palestinians in the Hebron region — including more than 150 children and 100 women — have fled to escape the horrors.

Taken altogether, it appears that Israeli settlers are seeing this moment as the golden hour to eliminate Palestinians’ existence in Area C. “The war may end, but will the residents return?” Abu Awad asked repeatedly. There is no answer to his question. Right now, Palestinian life in Al-Radeem has ended. And the future does not bode well for its people.

Legalised outposts

Not far from the Abu Awad family’s home in Al-Radeem, settlers attacked the family of Issa Abu al-Kabash. These settlers came from Asa’el, an outpost that was formally legalized under Israeli law by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government two months ago, one of 10 outposts legalized in the West Bank this year (all settlements in the occupied territory remain illegal under international law).

Asa’el’s newly acquired status appears to have emboldened its residents to intensify their assaults on Palestinians. For months, the settlers have been establishing vineyards in the area in their effort to control the land. Palestinian complaints to the Israeli authorities did not help.

On Oct. 19, settlers assaulted Abu al-Kabash and threatened to kill him if he did not leave his home; soon after, he fled with his family of 12, including six children. Since then, no Palestinian has been willing to return to the area.

The three-tiered classifications of the occupied territories, drawn up by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, divided Palestinian land and population centres into different units, and allocated to the Palestinians in each unit a different package of rights — all of which remain vastly inferior compared to those granted to Israeli settlers living in the same areas. In Area C, the Israeli occupation regime is actively working to ensure the domination of settlers.

Despite this framework stripping Palestinians of almost all their rights and land, the settlers remained unsatisfied, and their patience wore thin. Then came October 7, and with Israel’s declaration of war, the settler movement and their extreme-right supporters seized the opportunity to pursue their wildest ambitions, leading an aggressive surge against thousands of unarmed Palestinians. The impunity granted not just by the Israeli state, but by international actors, has only galvanized the settlers in their own war.

In the region of Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills, the Israeli army has effectively besieged 12 Palestinian communities under the pretext that much of the area has been classified as a “firing zone.” In early 2022, Israel’s Supreme Court approved the army’s plans to expel over 1,200 Palestinian residents out of the designated zone. Since then, both military and settler violence have escalated against the villages, with the Palestinian families’ conditions becoming increasingly difficult to bear.

In the nearby village of Tuba, the night of Oct. 19 was not easy for Huda Zain Awad, 60, her daughter Dalal, and her teenage son Issa. Masked and armed Israeli settlers — hilltop youth from the Ma’on outpost — attacked their home, broke and scattered their belongings, and stole their sheep; even kitchen utensils were stolen.

The next morning, the family faced a similar attack when another group of settlers invaded their home; this time, two of the settlers were wearing army uniforms. They took Huda and her family at gunpoint, forcing them to sit in the hot sun for hours. As the settlers left, they chanted, “Next time, we will kill you.”

‘Our life in Al-Qanoub ended’

Palestinian residents have been powerless to confront or stave off the settler militias. On Oct. 9, more than 40 Israeli settlers attacked the community of Al-Qanoub, east of As-Sa’ir and north of Hebron. Some of the attackers were wearing masks and carried guns, while others carried batons. 

Mohammed Shalaldeh, 76, and his family of 10, including five children, lived in the village for years. I have known the Shalaldeh family for a long time. They always spoke about their love of their land and their commitment to sumud, or steadfastness, in Al-Qanoub, so that settlers would not get their hands on it. But now, the family’s entire livelihood has been robbed.

“At 4 p.m., settlers circled my family and began their attack by smashing the solar panels,” Shalaldeh recounted. “The settlers’ shouting as they broke into our living rooms was terrifying and caused the children to cry. We were scared, panicked, unable to move. We tried to stay away from them so that they would not harm us, so I gathered my family in a small room. It was an opportunity for the settlers. They smashed everything and left nothing untampered.

When the settlers finally left, they stole Shalaldeh’s flock of 150 sheep, leading them toward the settlement of Metzad. Shalaldeh tried to follow them, but the settlers “pointed their weapons at me and threatened to kill me. I was in shock. The sheep were all we owned. Now they will never be returned to me. I’ve lost everything.” 

Six hours later, at 10 p.m., like a Hollywood movie, the settlers launched the final stage of their attack. “It was dark everywhere,” recounted Shalaldeh. “There were no lights as the solar panels that supply electricity to our house were smashed. We lit a fire, and everything was quiet.

“Suddenly, masked settlers surrounded our house, making terrifying sounds from the trees as they approached,” he continued. “They broke into the house, shouting at us. Others went to the nearby cave [which the family uses] and started smashing all the furniture and contents. My family and I were in utter fear for an hour and a half. They stole our money, 10,000 Jordanian dinar (approx. USD $15,000) I had saved from selling sheep and hoped to use to buy grain for my flock.”

Moments later, Shalaldeh said, “the settlers shouted and ordered us to leave the room. They chased us toward an area nearby and told us to stay away. I tried to talk to them, to no avail. I asked them, ‘Where do we go? This is my land, this is my house.’ They did not answer. But their screams in Hebrew did not bode well.

After walking a long distance in the darkness, Shalaldeh said, “we noticed a light from where we had lived. The settlers burned my house. Our life in Al-Qanoub ended.”

‘It was impossible to convince parents to stay’

In the ensuing days, fear quickly spread across small Palestinian communities in Hebron’s southern region. In Umm A-Tiran, A’nizan, Maqtal Msalam, and ‘Atiriyah, a total of nine families making up more than 70 people, half of them children, began dismantling their own homes and moving their livestock to distant areas. Settlers have snuck into several homes under the cover of night, stealing sheep and assaulting residents while they slept.

Living in this violent nightmare, many more Palestinians are being forced to consider leaving their land for safety. One of them is Imad Abu Awad, from Maqtal Msalam. Although settlers from outposts like Asa’el and Havat Yehuda had violently attacked his village before, these assaults never included guns. But that has all changed since October 7. 

“They threw me on the stones and forced me to take off my shoes and coat,” said Abu Awad, describing his most recent encounter during an armed settler attack. “They told me, ‘If you don’t leave the area, we will kill you.’ The settlers left the place laughing and saying that soon they will take over all of this land.”

Similarly, more than 25 Palestinian families, making up about 250 people, have been displaced from Khirbet Zanuta, southwest of A-Dhahiriya. The village has been effectively besieged by settlers for years, who block residents from accessing their pastures. The residents have grown accustomed to sleeping in tents with watchful eyes, fearing that settlers may attack at any time. A 2012 Israeli High Court decision was not enough to protect the village, as settlers do not abide by any law. 

On the morning of Hamas’ October 7 assault, Israeli settlers attacked the residents of Zanuta, threw stones at their tents, and prevented them from leaving. While Israeli soldiers blocked the road leading to the village, the settlers smashed the families’ solar panels. In the days afterward, the families began their exodus.

“There was total confusion; no one in the village could think straight,” said Adel a-Tal, a farmer from Zanuta. “Everyone was thinking about how to protect their children. It was impossible to convince the parents to stay in the village. There were no arguments that could be refuted. Now, the village is completely abandoned. The residents left in the hope of returning after the war ended — that is, if the settlers don’t take over the village and reside there.”

‘The evenings are nightmarish’

It is not just the rural villages that have been consumed by fear. In the city of Hebron, many Palestinian neighbourhoods have also been targeted by the Israeli army and settlers. These include the Tel Rumeida neighborhood — located within H2, which is controlled by the Israeli military — which has long suffered from continuous settler attacks but has seen an uptick in recent weeks.

“With the declaration of war on October 7, there was a large deployment of Israeli forces in the neighborhood and in the nearby Shuhada Street,” said Imad Abu Shamsiyya, a resident of Tel Rumeida. “They closed the area and set up checkpoints, preventing all residents from entering or exiting the neighborhood, and imposed a curfew. The first week of the war was a nightmare. Life is not safe in the neighborhood.

“The army set up a post on my roof, and another one next to my house,” he continued. “Afterward, they informed us that we were allowed to leave the neighborhood between 7 to 8 a.m., and come back only between 6 to 7 p.m.. Ten families from my neighborhood decided to leave permanently; some of their family members have cancer or kidney failure, and some have children. I do not blame them.

“Our suffering is not over,” Abu Shamsiyya went on, his face pale. “On the contrary, it begins when we reach the Itamar checkpoint, which is 70 meters from my house. They search and check our items, and we wait for a long time until we are allowed to enter. The children of the neighborhood have not gone to school since Oct. 7.”

Abu Shamsiyya added: “The evenings are nightmarish. No one can sleep because the settlers may attack us at any moment. The settlers even walk around in military uniform. About 120 families in the neighborhood are completely cut off from the outside world. It can take long hours to be allowed to take a person to the hospital or to get an ambulance. We can’t even bring a gas pipe through the checkpoint. We haven’t been able to get a permit from the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Office to enter our own house for more than 20 days.”

Many other Hebron neighborhoods are being subjected to the same curfew: Wadi al-Hussein, Jabira, Al-Ras, Ghaith, and Al-Salamiya. And as has always been the case in the city, whatever is forbidden to Palestinians is allowed for Israeli settlers.

Areej al-Jabari, a mother of five children, lives in Al-Ras neighbourhood, which is also classified as H2. To the east of the house, not more than 100 meters, is a building seized by settlers. In front of the house is a road that she is now prevented from entering. When soldiers or settlers see her there, they run toward her and she runs away before they can assault her. “If the situation continues like this, what do we do?” she asked in a fearful tone.

Like all Palestinian children in the area, al-Jabari’s children are not going to school. A state of fear has taken over her mind and her heart since October 7, a day she remembers vividly.

“We woke up to the sound of loudspeakers — a curfew was announced,” she recounted. “We wondered what was going on. Soldiers were deployed everywhere, screaming, carrying their rifles. They assaulted anyone they found in the neighborhood. They were aggressive and hostile, cursing women standing at their windows and closing the doors of shops. We were shocked. I didn’t know what was going on.

“We turned on our TV and telephones and realized what had happened,” al-Jabari continued. “At that moment, I wondered whether the settlers would take revenge on us. Everything seemed different and scary. No one was on the streets. When night fell that day, I went to the window to see what was happening outside. I was surprised to find a soldier there screaming and pointing his rifle at me, ordering me to go back inside and close the window.

“As time passes, the situation is getting worse,” al-Jabari went on. “We ran out of water on the third day of the war. I sent my young sons to fill plastic bottles from the mosque near the house. Suddenly, I heard soldiers yelling. I ran to the door and found the soldiers pointing their weapons at my children. My kids ran toward me, and we entered the house and closed the door while the soldiers continued to curse us and shout at us.

“We have been at home ever since. The schools are closed, and everything is paralyzed. We live in an open prison! Food may run out soon. There is no way out. If you leave your house, you may get arrested or killed.”

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Photos by Oren Ziv


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​Imad Abu Hawash is a Palestinian activist and researcher from Al-Tabaqa near Dura, southwest of Hebron.

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