Palestinians in the West Bank have long been under intense pressure from Israeli settlers to abandon their homes and lands. With over 120 killed in October alone, Marwan Darweish, Andrew Rigby and Mahmoud Soliman say there is an urgent need to deploy a multinational presence to protect Palestinians from armed and empowered settlers.

Whilst the attention of the world has been focused on the slaughter of civilians in Gaza, at least 122 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, over 2,000 injured, and nearly 1,000 forcibly displaced according to the UN.

Since the outbreak of the Gaza War on 7 October, anything resembling normal life for Palestinians in the West Bank has become impossible. This is particularly the case in Area C, the 60 percent of the occupied Palestinian territory under full Israeli control.

Unarmed civilian protection

For the last 18 months a research team from Coventry University has been engaged in a study of the significance of unarmed civilian protection as a mode of enhancing the security of Palestinians living in the South Hebron Hills, in an area known as Masafer Yatta.

The Palestinians living in the small communities scattered over this barren, semi-arid land pursue livelihoods based largely around the grazing of sheep and goats. Over the years they have become accustomed to their water cisterns, solar panels, roads and buildings being demolished by the Israeli military, because they had failed to obtain the necessary planning permission from the occupation administration.

Map of Area C in the West Bank, from B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 2013. Population of both Palestinians and settlers has increased significantly since then. Masafer Yatta is close to the green line, southeast of Hebron.

However, we learned from our interviewees on our first fieldwork visit, during October 2022, how the presence of Palestinian and Israeli solidarity activists, alongside international volunteers from networks such as the International Solidarity Movement, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, Operation Dove from Italy and the US-based Centre for Jewish Nonviolence, played a significant role in enabling locals to continue to graze their sheep and goats and withstand the threats posed by Israeli settlers.

The accompaniers acted as a kind of protective presence, deterring Israeli settlers from attacking the villagers through their monitoring and documentation of human rights abuses. More significantly, their presence had a profound impact on the morale and hence the resilience of the locals, who saw the accompaniers as substantive evidence that they were not alone in their struggle to resist the colonialist expropriation of their land.

Masafer Yatta under siege

On 1 November 2022, just days after the completion of our first phase of fieldwork, Israel went to the polls yet again. The result was a victory for a far-right coalition whose major partners were led by settlers who were openly Jewish ethno-nationalist, anti-Arab, and determined advocates of the formal annexation of the West Bank.

The impact of this political change at state-level was immediately apparent to us on our second fieldwork visit in June 2023. Local villagers reported a dramatic escalation of settler-state violence. We recorded numerous cases of small communities being targeted by armed settlers, shepherds being denied access to their water wells, crops damaged. What was also noticeable was that the settlers had started targeting international volunteers/accompaniers. There was also evidence that the Israeli military were sharing information about the identities of international accompaniers with settlers. All this added to the general level of tension and insecurity felt by the locals and the accompaniers.

Our informants tell us that now they think back to that time as one of comparative security. Under the shadow of the Gaza War the Israeli state and settlers have launched what has been described as the most successful land-grab strategy since 1967.

The levels of violence have skyrocketed. The settler at the head of the National Security Ministry authorised the distribution of rifles to settler militias and ‘civilian security teams’. Soldiers usually stationed in the West Bank have been sent to the Gaza border, and have been replaced by reservists, most of whom are settlers themselves. The reality on the ground now is that settlers and soldiers have become indistinguishable.

In the village of At-Tuwani, which has been one of our bases of research activities, an Israeli from a neighbouring settlement, armed with an assault rifle, shot a villager at point-blank range on 13 October.

On October 25 Israeli settlers and soldiers invaded the land belonging to a Palestinian family in Tuwani and used a bulldozer to uproot trees and destroy the family’s garden.

On October 26 there were reports of a drone flying over villages broadcasting in Arabic ‘We can see you everywhere. Wherever you are, we are coming for you’.

On October 28, a few miles from Tuwani, at the hamlet of Susiya, settlers threatened the residents, if they did not abandon their homes within 24 hours they would return and shoot them.

In other locations soldier-settlers have planted Israeli flags on Palestinian land and property and have forced the local men to sing Israeli patriotic songs whilst videoing them.

Most of the local Palestinians are gathered together within their homes praying. Movement outside the home risks encounters with soldier-settler violence.

Recommendation: A new international presence

As a research team our current conclusion is that in such desperate and completely lawless circumstances the space for any kind of volunteer unarmed protective presence by ‘outsiders’ is minimal, and far too dangerous to contemplate.

Accordingly we would propose serious consideration be given to the establishment of some kind of multi-national presence with the express function of protecting the Palestinian civilians within Area C. There is a precedent from which lessons might be learned – the Norway-coordinated Temporary International Presence in Hebron1, which was established as part of the 1990s Oslo Peace Accords, and whose mandate was terminated by Israel in 2019.

  1. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was a civilian observer mission established with the joint agreement of the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority called for its creation. Its mission was to monitor and document breaches of international humanitarian law within Hebron, It was staffed by personnel from Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. ↩︎

Dr Marwan Darweish is Associate Professor in Peace Studies at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, UK. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and in Palestine and Israel more specifically. His research is multi-disciplinary and focuses on nonviolent resistance, conflict transformation, peacebuilding, cultural heritage and gun crime violence.

Dr Mahmoud Soliman is a Palestinian nonviolent activist and academic. He is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, where he completed his PhD in Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies in 2019.

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: The Excellence Center in Palestine. TIPH Observers in Hebron, c. 2018.