While media attention has focused on devastating Israeli military raids on Jenin and Nablus and land expropriations in East Jerusalem, a slower burning form of violence is being perpetrated by settlers against Palestinian herders in the West Bank, seeking to gain control of their land and livelihoods. Andrew Rigby reports from the South Hebron Hills.
Context: Occupation, settlement and division
The Oslo II Accords of September 1995 divided the West Bank between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel for a five-year interim period. About 39% of the total area was transferred to the limited responsibility of the PA (Areas A and B), and the remaining 61% remained under full Israeli control (Area C).
The interim nature of the 1995 agreement made grabbing lands in Area C an urgent matter for all those who sought to derail the process, of whom there were quite a number – including Benjamin Netanyahu, who first became Israel’s prime minister in June 1996.
All 125 settlements authorised by the Israeli state are located in Area C, as well as the large tracts of land Israel defined as being under the jurisdiction of the local and regional councils of the settlements. These areas cover some 210,000 hectares – approximately 63% of Area C – and include the majority of state land.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, a burgeoning number of illegal settlement outposts began to be established within Area C, without formal permission from state authorities, but with their encouragement and assistance.
Spring in Masafa Yatta
In June I returned from a field research visit to the South Hebron Hills (SHH) in the Occupied West Bank. I was part of a small research team exploring how forms of unarmed civilian protection (such as accompaniment) might enhance the security of Palestinians in the arid area south of Hebron, also known as Masafa Yatta. The majority of Palestinian residents live in constant fear of forcible eviction, since a large area of Masafa Yatta has been designated as a closed ‘firing zone’ to be used for military training purposes.
In addition to the threat of their homes being demolished, the residents of Masafa Yatta face an ongoing regime of violence from settlers, often assisted by the Israeli occupation forces, ‘undermining their physical security, negatively affecting mental and psycho-social health, lowering their standard of living, and increasing the dependence on humanitarian aid.’ (UN Report, June 2022)
In this semi-desert region the family economy of most of the Palestinians is based around small-scale cultivation of crops and herding sheep and goats. In Spring-time the vegetation on the hills is growing, and the shepherds are out grazing their flocks. Sometimes they will go out as a group for self-protection from attacks by settlers. Occasionally they will be accompanied by international volunteers acting as a protective presence. Such measures have proven necessary due to the increase in clashes with Israeli settlers using shepherding as a tool for seizing the most land, with the least effort.
The settler-shepherds are based in the agricultural outposts that have mushroomed in number over recent years According to a report by the Israeli NGO Kerem Navot‘Israeli sheep and cattle grazing in the West Bank has gradually become Israel’s most significant mechanism for dispossessing Palestinian communities.’
B’s son had gone out with the sheep. Some settlers harassed him and prevented him from gaining access to the well, which is on family-owned land. The clash escalated and one of the settlers killed one of B’s sheep. Neighbours responded to the shouts and the settlers withdrew.
Later, the son went to the police (Israeli, as this is Area C) to report the incident, and managed to identify the settler who had killed the sheep. The police took no action.
On subsequent days, B, with international and Israeli accompaniers, tried to gain access to his well. Each time they were prevented from watering their flock by the settlers, who were masked and supported by the Israeli soldiers in attendance. On one occasion the confrontation escalated, tear-gas was used, and one of B’s sons was arrested.
B repeatedly tried to show the soldiers documentary evidence that the well was on family-owned land: ‘Why does this keep happening? We have the legal right to use the well and proof of land-ownership – but they keep preventing us from accessing it.’
The day after one of the confrontations with the settlers, at 3.00 am, a squad of soldiers raided the family home and arrested B’s 19-year-old son, accusing him of injuring one of the settlers.
Since then, the settlers have been using his land for grazing their sheep, whilst the stress of gathering documentation, lodging complaints with the police, coping with the ongoing threats of violence from the settler-shepherds and dealing with the court case against his son has taken a significant toll on the mental health and physical well-being of the family.
Youth ‘at risk’
The outposts themselves would appear to be staffed primarily by young Israelis, including a significant number of those deemed by the Israeli authorities as ‘at risk’. To quote the Kerem Navotreport ‘Wild West’,
Employment in these farms is seen by the regional authorities as having “rehabilitative” potential, recruiting youth who are considered to have strayed off the straight and narrow to serve the collective cause. However, behind this “rehabilitation” rationale also hides a very simple and prosaic concern: the need for an available, cheap, and violent work force able and willing to take part in the daily “action” that life on the frontier entails.
Future – further dispossession
A local journalist painted a pessimistic scenario for the future in this region. He referred to a small hamlet of just a few families that had been targeted by settler-shepherds:
“One small community a few miles away has had their lives deeply affected. What can they do? The settlers have dogs and guns. They claim they are grazing on state land, but their flocks enter private land. … Lots of other small communities have been and will be affected in a similar manner. The settler-shepherds trespass, locals throw stones, the army comes and arrests the locals.
“People will leave. The communities will be dissolved. … How can Palestinians protect themselves? This is part of the state policy, part of the whole state system – creating new farms, new outposts, new facts on the ground. The situation is changing very fast on the ground. The new ministers in power in the new coalition government are the drivers of this expansionist policy…”
The prime objective of the agricultural outposts, and the flocks of sheep they possess, is the uprooting of local Palestinian farming and grazing communities, so the land is left free for Israeli settlers. The means of achieving this is ongoing harassment and a level of violence that destroys any sense of security the local Palestinians might once have possessed. Within these communities, once you lose access to your land you are lost. As one local leader explained:
“Our first priority is protection of the land. We are a peasant community, we depend on the land. So this is our priority. … In our community, if you do not have land, you do not have a source of income and security. In every way the land is at the centre of our existence and being. If you have no land you go and live somewhere else.“
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: Andrew Rigby, 2023. Palestinian shepherd and his flock, Masafa Yatta, June 2023.