In the West Bank, Guns and a Locked Gate Signal a Town’s New Residents

Monday 3 June, 2024
5 mins read

 

From the outskirts of his town in the West Bank, the mayor surveyed the rocky hills stretching toward the Dead Sea where Palestinians had long farmed and herded, and pointed out the new features of the landscape.

New guard posts manned by Israeli soldiers. New roads patrolled by Israeli settlers. And, most tellingly, a new metal gate blocking the town’s sole road to those areas, installed and locked by the Israeli army to keep Palestinians out.

“Anyone who goes to the gate, they either arrest him or kill him,” said the mayor, Moussa al-Shaer, of the town of Tuqu.

On the other side of the gate, atop a bald hill in the distance, stood one of the area’s new residents, Abeer Izraeli, a Jewish settler.

“With God’s help, we will stay here a long time,” Mr. Izraeli said.

The case of the two people on either side of the gate is a particularly clear example of a dynamic playing out across the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As much of the world has focused on the war in Gaza, Jewish settlers miles away in the West Bank have hastened the rate at which they are seizing land previously used by Palestinians, rights groups say.

Dror Etkes, a field researcher with Kerem Navot, an Israeli monitoring group, estimated that since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that started the war in Gaza, settlers have taken more than 37,000 acres of land from Palestinians across the West Bank. More than 550 of those acres are near Tuqu, making it the largest such expansion by a single Israeli settlement.

The gate is not much to look at — made of orange bars and similar to what one might find on a farm. But Hebrew graffiti on the concrete blocks that hold it up refer to Genesis 21:10, a verse about driving people away.

Since the gate’s installation in October, it has served as a firm divider between the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of Tuqu and the Israeli Jews in the newly expanded settlement of Tekoa.

Both communities draw their names from where, tradition holds, the biblical prophet Amos was born. In some places, homes in one community sit 500 yards from homes in the other. When the Muslim call to prayer sounds in Tuqu, the Jews in Tekoa hear it, too.

The catalyst for the recent seizures, said Mr. Etkes, was the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which led to increased Israeli security measures in the West Bank that made it easier for settlers to take control of territory.

“There is a linkage between violence and settler expansion,” he said. “They are taking revenge on the Palestinians by taking more and more land.”

Israel increased its military presence in the West Bank out of concern that it could face widespread unrest or increased attacks on its forces and settlers there during the war in Gaza. Those concerns were amplified by the rise of new militant groups, an influx of weapons smuggled in by Iran and polling that suggests an increase in support for Hamas at the expense of the more moderate Palestinian Authority.

On Jan. 29, a Palestinian from Tuqu, Rani al-Shaer, 19, tried to stab an Israeli soldier and was shot dead by soldiers, the army said in a statement. The army took Mr. al-Shaer’s body and has not returned it to the family, said his brother, Nizar.

The Israeli military and the branch of the Defense Ministry that handles civilian affairs in the West Bank did not respond to requests for comment on the changes near Tuqu.

The United Nations said that 2023 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since it began keeping track in 2005. That violence rose significantly after the war in Gaza began and has continued into this year, with 489 Palestinians killed since Oct. 7 as of May 22. Ten Israelis, including four civilians, have been killed during the same period.

Since Israel occupied the West Bank, previously controlled by Jordan, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the government has encouraged Jews to settle there, providing land, military protection, electricity, water and roads. More than 500,000 settlers now live among 2.7 million Palestinians in the territory, which is larger than Delaware but smaller than Puerto Rico.

Some Israeli Jews justify settlement on religious grounds, others on the basis of history — both ancient and modern. Many Israelis consider control of the territory necessary to prevent Palestinians from attacking Israel.

Nevertheless, most countries consider the settlements illegal. The Biden administration has criticized the settlements for undermining the United States’ goal of a two-state solution to the conflict, which would include the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Among Israelis, Tekoa is known for a hippy vibe, with a mixed community of secular and religious Jews that includes artists and activists. Few, if any, of the town’s residents consider their presence an impediment to peace.

“We were given this land by God,” said Shira Chernoble, 75, who moved from New México to the West Bank nearly four decades ago and works in Tekoa as a massage therapist and spiritual counselor. “I believe in the Torah. It is not just a book of then. It is a book of now.”

Before the war in Gaza, the two populations had limited interactions, mostly through the Palestinian laborers who worked construction in the Jewish town. Settlers have seized land to expand their community over the decades — a process that took another leap forward after the Oct. 7 attack.

The Israeli military mobilized thousands of reservist settlers to protect the settlements and imposed wide-ranging restrictions on Palestinians, blocking the exits from their communities and barring Palestinian workers from entering Israel or the settlements.

That cut off residents of Tuqu from a major source of employment, said Mr. al-Shaer, the mayor. In addition, the gate has prevented Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olives and herders from grazing their livestock.

“They closed everything and took everything,” said Hassan al-Shaer, 24, an electrician who is not closely related to the mayor and who used to work in Tekoa. “There is no work and no money.”

In October, after the gate was erected, residents gathered to breach the barrier and the army shot at them, killing a 26-year-old car mechanic, Eissa Jibril, said his brother, Murad.

He said the Israeli police had questioned him about what happened, but nothing had come of it.

“Who can I complain to?” he said. “The settler who killed him, are they going to arrest him?”

In a statement, the Israeli military described the gathering as “a violent riot” during which “terrorists burned tires, threw stones and shot fireworks” at soldiers, threatening their lives. The soldiers fired back, the army said, adding that it was aware of the “claim” that a Palestinian had been killed.

Since then, the Palestinians have avoided the gate for fear of being shot.

During a recent drive through the area, New York Times reporters saw new roads carved into the hillsides, four new security posts and three plots where settlers had plowed or planted grapes. What had been a settler tent camp now had 10 prefab houses, with electricity, paved roads and streetlights.

Atop a tall hill, Mr. Izraeli and his friends slept in a tent next to a makeshift house inhabited by a couple with two young children. The group raised ducks and chickens and pastured their 150 sheep on the same hills the Palestinian shepherds had roamed before the war.

Mr. Izraeli, 16, had come to the West Bank after dropping out of a religious school in central Israel, he said. He and his friends had lived in a tent camp nearby before moving to the hilltop a few months ago, after the army had barred Palestinians from the area.

He hoped the army would not let them return.

“With God’s help, they will do the right thing and keep them out,” he said.

In response to written questions, Mayor Yaron Rosenthal of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, which includes Tekoa, said the Arabs from Tuqu never had a legal claim to the land. The settlers, he said, had rectified that situation.

“These aren’t their lands,” he added.

The Palestinians had few options, said Mr. al-Shaer, the mayor. Most complaints to the Israeli authorities went nowhere. He and other residents planned to file a court case in Israel, a long process that might not restore their access to the land or stop the settlers from building there.

“The settlers are working on the ground to make a new reality,” he said.

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Tuqu, West Bank, and Gabby Sobelman from Tekoa, West Bank.

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Source: Ben Hubbard and Sergey Ponomarev from NYT > World News on 2024-06-01 02:02:17

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