Peter Oborne reports from Hebron in the southern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where illegal settlers, backed by Israel’s military, are forcing Palestinians off their land with impunity.
It is the same story in every village in the South Hebron Hills.
Israeli settlers are seizing livestock, wrecking water tanks, smashing solar panels, bulldozing outbuildings and destroying the olive groves upon which Palestinian farmers depend for their livelihood.
They arrive unannounced armed with M16 machine guns which they are more than happy to use. They beat up villagers with iron bars, with sticks, with fists, with the butts of their guns.
They assault women and the elderly.
They enter Palestinian houses ripping out fixtures and fittings, stealing money, destroying papers, overturning furniture.
They shoot to kill. Many wear a military uniform.
They have imposed a reign of terror. They are supported by Israel’s army.
Their message to Palestinians is always the same: get out or be killed.
While the armed settlers act with impunity, Palestinians are defenseless.
Accompanied by a guide I arrived early in the afternoon at the 300-strong farming community of She’b Al-Butom. Nearby we could see the adjacent Israeli settlement of Avigay.
Two “outposts” of Avigay also overlook the village, as well as another settlement, Mitzbeh. She’b Al-Butom is surrounded.
The besieged village was situated at the end of a long stony track which nearly defeated our four-wheel drive.
I was met by a traumatised child who grimaced. He was terrified of a stranger after what he has witnessed over the last few weeks.
“They pointed a gun at my wife, beat me, stole my phone and pointed their guns at children”
A group of farmers served tea. They told us that shortly after Oct. 7 four armed settlers entered the village, inflicting minor damage and left.
For a few days the settlers concentrated on outlying properties, bulldozing houses and destroying farm buildings, forcing inhabitants to flee.
Three days later the settlers, all wearing military uniforms, returned. This time they beat several villagers and ransacked their ancient mud built houses.
Last Friday night [Nov. 3] they came again. They attacked villagers, including a 72-year-old man.
Every time the settlers come, they tell the villagers to leave.
Local farmer Khalid Jibril told me: “They pointed a gun at my wife, beat me, stole my phone and pointed their guns at children.” Keffiyeh-wearing Jibril added: “Just mention the soldiers to children. They stand there shaking.”
Repeat of the Nakba
For Palestinians this feels like a repeat of the 1948 Nakba when 750,000 people were driven from their homes, never to return. Like today, they were forced out then amidst massive violence.
As we left the South Hebron hills the settlers were imposing deadlines.
In Um Al-Khair, a tiny village flanked on all sides by Israeli settlers, settlers told them to run up an Israeli flag by 7pm the previous evening or face destruction.
We were told that the previous day settlers burnt down a farmer’s house. When the victims called the police they were told: “You are liars and we are coming to arrest you.”
In nearby Tuwani the villagers have been told to leave. “Go to the city,” say the settlers. Local patriarch Hafez Hureini was defiant: “No, never. Nothing will make me leave my home.”
Some villages have already bowed to pressure. The 250-strong community of Khirbet Zanufah in the South Hebron Hills has fled. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 13 herding communities have been displaced in the last month.
The settlers are working to a plan, and there’s nothing secret about it.
Extreme Right-Wing Parties
Late last year Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saved his skin by forming a coalition with two extreme right-wing political parties.
The first was Otzma Yehudit (translation: “Jewish Power”), led by Itamar Ben Gvir, an out-and-out racist who hung a portrait of Baruch Goldstein — the mass murderer who carried out the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron — in his office until he embarked on a political career in 2020.
Ben Gvir is now in charge of policing the West Bank as Netanyahu’s minister for national security, in which capacity he has arranged for assault rifles to be issued to “civilian security teams.” When he can, he personally oversees the distribution.
Netanyahu also brought in the Religious Zionist Party, led by the far right firebrand Bezalel Smotrich. He gave Smotrich the coveted post of finance minister — but Smotrich held out for a more significant prize.
Crucially, Article 21 of last December’s coalition agreement awarded Smotrich “full responsibility” over Area C of the West Bank.
Area C is under full Israeli military and civilian control according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. It accounts for some 60 percent of the land area of the West Bank, including the isolated villages in the South Hebron hills.
Approximately 350,000 Palestinians live in Area C, along with 500,000 Israeli settlers, all illegal under international law.
The coalition agreement specifically placed Smotrich, who describes himself as a “fascist homophobe,” in charge of the so-called civil administration of the West Bank.
“Civil administration” is, however, an Orwellian term. While the settlers have full rights as Israeli citizens, Palestinians are governed under Israeli military law.
At best they are subject to arbitrary bureaucratic judgments made by the Israeli military authorities, but with Smotrich in charge they have no rights at all.
The civil administration which Smotrich runs gives him total control of almost every aspect of Palestinian lives. Smotrich and Ben Gvir between them have the West Bank as their playground.
Their plans have never been secret. They are set out quite explicitly in the founding principles of the coalition agreement, which states that “the Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the land of Israel.”
In other words, annexation of the occupied West Bank in defiance of British and American claims to support a “two state solution.”
Well before Oct. 7, Ben Gvir and Smotrich, who called for the Palestinian town of Howara, site of a settler pogrom, to be “wiped out,” were hard at work putting their ideas into practice.
Now their vision gives permission for full-scale settler assault. The settler message to Palestinians is: leave or be killed.
‘Wait for the Great Nakba’
Residents of the West Bank village of Deir Istiya have received warning letters stating “You wanted war, wait for the great Nakba” – and ordering them to flee to Jordan.
I traveled by bus to this village, in the hills above the ancient Palestinian city of Nablus, to meet Faraz Diab, head of the municipality.
He told me that a Telegram group called the “Nazi hunters” are menacingly circulating his details, including a photograph. “They should be locked up”, he says, but there’s little chance of that.
The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA stated on Nov. 6 that since Oct. 7, 147 Palestinians, including 44 children, have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, with an additional eight, including one child, killed by settlers.
It adds: “Since 7 October, at least 111 Palestinian households comprising 905 people, including 356 children, have been displaced amid settler violence and access restrictions.”
‘You Must Leave’
Besides the human tragedy, this is a global disaster. Farmers, herders and nomadic Bedouin tribes have lived in the rugged hills and valleys of the West Bank since time immemorial.
They long predate the Israeli settlers, an import of the last 50 years. If they are forced out of an ancient way of life with its own songs, history and literature will depart with them.
Their livelihoods are based on the land and the seasons as herders move from summer pastures in the hills to winter grazing in the now closed off Jordan Valley.
Many will not go. Last Friday, says Khalid Jibril, the settlers issued an ultimatum. “You must leave, Or we will kill you. And kill your children as well. Like what we did to the Gaza children.”
Khalid has already been beaten up by the settlers. He told them: “Our children are not better than the Gazan children. If you must then come and do that. We are not going to leave.”
For Israel’s settler movement, with the Israeli Defence Force on their side, this is their moment. Forcible transfer of an occupied people is a war crime, but I cannot discover more than the usual “call” on Israel by the U.K. government to “hold those responsible to account.”
This silence is interesting. In normal times Diane Corner, the British consul general in Jerusalem, issues strongly worded though impotent condemnations of settler violence.
As the attacks have escalated into a reign of terror across the West Bank she’s had nothing to say.
I contacted Corner over Twitter, explaining that I was preparing a report on settler atrocities, including forcible transfer, across the West Bank. I noted that in normal times the British Consul has been quick to condemn such atrocities. I asked her why she had fallen silent.
As Declassified UK prepared this article for publication there was no reply.
In the absence of an explanation, I’d guess that Diana Corner, a decent and knowledgeable woman, has been ordered to keep her mouth shut by a British government which has pledged its “unequivocal” support to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.