The war in Gaza has provided Israeli settlers fresh opportunity and impunity. I see entire villages fleeing in panic.
As war rages in Gaza and the Middle East as a whole is skittering on the brink of a wider conflagration, the fate of thousands of Palestinian shepherds and farmers on the West Bank looks grim. Neither the government nor the army has done anything to stop rampaging Israeli settlers who are hell-bent on driving these people—some of whom are my friends—off their lands. By now the situation has been reported widely in at least some of the Israeli media as well as in the international press.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both warned that this settler violence has to be curbed. On November 8 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an empty public gesture: “There is a tiny handful of people,” he said, “who take the law into their own hands…. We are not prepared to tolerate this.” So far he seems able to tolerate it quite easily. The same day he reassured his supporters, including the hundreds of thousands of settlers in the territories: “I told President Biden that the accusations against the settlement movement are baseless.”
If you happen to be a Palestinian shepherd in the South Hebron Hills or the Jordan Valley, that “tiny handful” are terrifying thugs who can invade villages and hamlets at any moment (with a certain preference for late at night). They are heavily armed with M16 rifles, pistols, butcher knives, and often all three, and they take obvious pleasure in causing pain: beating people; breaking anything breakable; stealing; torching cars and homes; destroying food, water tanks, and solar panels; and shooting in the air—and sometimes not in the air. They have a standard formula that has been repeated in village after village: “You have twenty-four hours to leave. If you don’t, we’ll be back to kill all of you.”
On November 13 the shepherds of Wadi Tiran, in the far south of the West Bank, were subjected to this threat. The Palestinians of Umm al-Khair heard it on October 29; the people of Susya and its outlying hamlets a few days earlier; Mu‘arrajat in the Jordan Valley for several consecutive days in mid-October; Wadi a-Siq on October 12. In At-Tuwani on October 13, an innocent Palestinian was shot in cold blood by a settler while an Israeli soldier simply looked on.
Bilal Muhammad Saleh, from the village of As-Sawiya, was harvesting olives from his trees when a settler-soldier on leave shot and killed him on October 28. The complete list is much longer. According to UN figures, there were 591 settler attacks on West Bank Palestinian villages in the first half of 2023 alone, averaging 95 per month, the highest monthly average on record; the number has undoubtedly skyrocketed and the attacks have become even more vicious over the last few weeks.
Who are these violent settlers? Many of them are young men, even adolescents, who shouldn’t be carrying guns in the first place; they have had no military training, though they often wear uniforms. They have been armed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s shameless minister of national security, a follower of the racist Meir Kahane and a pyromaniac who loves nothing more than fomenting havoc in mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Lod, Ramleh, Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. Ben-Gvir has been handing out rifles—some eight thousand in the last few weeks—to whoever wants one (provided the recipient is Jewish, of course). They may come in handy in the civil war that Ben-Gvir is conniving to bring about. Some of these settlers are now organized in paramilitary units supposedly under the aegis of the Israeli army. In reality there is no longer any clear distinction between the settler militias and the army units, mostly manned by settlers from the area, that are stationed in South Hebron and only too eager to join the hunt.
For years the settlers in the illegal outposts now littering all of Area C in the West Bank (the 62 percent under full Israeli control) have been terrorizing their Palestinian neighbors. I’ve met not a few—actually too many—of them. They often seem to be troubled, confused, even lost, though they have found refuge in the outposts and undergone an ideological brainwashing by the older settlers. By now the average age of the marauding settlers has gone up; adolescents have turned into adults in their twenties or thirties. Their guiding idea is that the Land of Israel belongs uniquely to the Jews; all others have to be expelled or worse. If that plan materializes, the Messiah will come—possibly, or even preferably, in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war—and install a theocratic state in place of the present corrupt and dangerously democratic one. These settlers are now in a state of messianic ecstasy, with the Gaza war providing them the opportunity they have long been preparing for. They are stealing with impunity more and more Palestinian land while perpetrating ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, with considerable success. We are seeing the beginning of a second Nakba, accelerating day by day.
Over the years I’ve had several conversations, if you can call them that, with some of these boy-men. Once at Ein a-Rashash, one of them had just attacked and wounded one of our activists in Ta‘ayush, the human rights group with which I have been involved for many years. We called the police—in those days they would sometimes come in response to an emergency call—and while we were waiting for them, the boy started cursing me for being there at all and, of course, for trying to protect a Palestinian shepherd and his herd. I said to him, speaking relatively politely, “Perhaps you haven’t heard that God said ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ since what you are doing here is outright theft.” “It’s not so simple,” he replied; “there are other verses in the Bible.” “Indeed there are,” I said; “maybe we should have a contest and see who can recite the largest number of them correctly.” This took him aback, and for a moment he was quiet. Then he said, “You people just choose the biblical verses that are convenient for you.” I said, “It seems to me that the commandment about not stealing is quite unequivocal, and for that reason I think you may not last long on this land.” Then a policeman showed up, and I took my friend to the hospital.
But of course the young settler was right, in a way. There are enough verses in the Bible to prove a great many things. I happen to think that the Ten Commandments have a certain privileged status, like the commandments in Leviticus 19 to love your neighbor like yourself and to respect the strangers in your midst. But here’s another telling example. Once three other activists and I in Ta‘ayush were climbing a hill in the Jordan Valley in order to reach the shepherds when we were intercepted by a group of four or five of these outpost settlers, all but one of them very young (the oldest was maybe twenty). Fortunately they were not in a violent frame of mind. They were curious about us, these Israeli Jews who, mysteriously, come down to the valley to help Palestinian shepherds. So we explained ourselves, not sparing them any of our feelings about who they were and what they were doing. They listened. After about fifteen minutes, the older settler surprised me. “You know,” he said, “what you are saying is true. What we are doing to these people is actually inhuman.” I thought to myself, “So far, so good.” Then he went on, “But if you think about it clearly, it all follows inevitably from the fact that God promised this land to the Jews, and only to them.”
Human beings need rationalizations, however brittle or hollow they may be. In the case of the West Bank settlers, they have all they need in this respect. They are part of a religious system that has, to my mind, been cruelly distorted, indeed perverted. It is utterly remote from classical Jewish humanism. Nonetheless it’s important to recognize that many of the settlers—from the veteran settlements, not the new outposts—are (or were) ordinary people, not inclined to violence, though I am sorry to say that the settler movement as a whole, through its official spokesmen, has never, in my experience, been capable of denouncing the outpost settlers’ violence in no uncertain terms. They invariably wriggle and find excuses. There are also some who have left the settler fold and come back home (to Israel), so to speak. A student of mine grew up in one of the most toxic and sadistic of all the West Bank settlements but somehow, as a young teenager, extricated herself from the mental world of her parents. She said to me, “I will never, ever, treat any human being the way I was taught to look at and treat Palestinians.”
But now we are at war, a war provoked by the murderous violence of the Hamas terrorists on October 7. And Israel has an extreme right-wing government headed by a man gifted, above all else, in destruction. It is he who, among his other contributions, rehabilitated the crazed, bloodthirsty Kahanists and Jewish supremacists and brought them into his government as ministers. Those ministers are now directly responsible for supporting, probably also initiating, settler violence in the territories. Over the last few months, and more so since the war began, we have been seeing entire villages fleeing in panic from the settlers. At the latest count, some twenty villages in the central West Bank have been partially or entirely emptied of their inhabitants. Israeli human rights activists are doing what we can to support those who are left—we have shifts 24/7 in some of the most threatened villages in South Hebron and the Jordan Valley—but in many cases the Palestinians can simply no longer stand the threats, violence, and harassment. In Wadi a-Siq in September, before the war, the elders of the village said to me, “We want to stay on our lands, but our children cry all the time; they are terrified.” Wadi a-Siq no longer exists. Neither does the once-beautiful village of Ein a-Rashash.
Compounding the terror is the almost complete passivity (in the best case) or active collusion (most often) of the army, the police, the Civil Administration, indeed the entire apparatus of government, with the settlers’ brutal program. The army command is definitely aware of the situation but either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Occasionally a soldier turns up and does something positive. Recently, in the South Hebron Hills, a shepherd was out with his large flock (some 140 sheep) when two adolescent settlers, armed of course, came and simply stole the entire herd at gunpoint. They were heading back to their outpost with the sheep—the shepherd could do nothing—when an army jeep with four soldiers arrived and the settlers fled; the herd was restored to its owner. The soldiers never dreamed, of course, of trying to catch the thieves or bring them to justice. There is no justice in the South Hebron Hills. I can think of one or two other instances, exceptions to the norm. Here is an example of the norm: a week ago during a settler attack in Tuba, our activists called the police on the national hotline and were told, “Don’t call us anymore. If you do, we’ll come and arrest you for sending false alarms.”
Along with everything else, including daily, hour-by-hour harassment of Palestinian villagers by the combined and coordinated forces of the army and the settlers, many of the villages in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley are on the verge of starvation. Soldiers and settlers have blocked the access roads to nearly all the villages, and Palestinians who work in Israel—a source of income to many families—can no longer reach their jobs. The shelves in grocery shops are nearly empty. It’s almost impossible for the shepherds to take their sheep out to graze; and, to make matters still worse, settlers have been threatening to kill the farmers and shepherds if they try to harvest their olives. This is the olive harvest time, normally a festive occasion for entire families, the main celebration of the agricultural cycle—but not this year. Many indigent Palestinians survive mostly on olives.
I’d like you to hear a Palestinian voice from the remote, extremely vulnerable village of Tuba, situated close to the notoriously violent Israeli settlement of Chavat Maon. I’ll call her D. Her words were recorded by the intrepid activists from the Villages Group, who over the years have forged close friendships with the Palestinians of the South Hebron Hills. These days they are in the field nearly all the time; every evening I receive a heartrending report from Ehud Krinis or Erella Dun. Here’s a random selection from October 30, written by Erella:
We arrived at D’s house in Tuba at 14:30. D, her aged, widowed mother, and her son A were waiting for us. The day before yesterday the settlers destroyed whatever little they had not already ruined. The family tried to make some order in the mess, but they couldn’t recover the four sheep the settlers had stolen. There was no way to prevent the theft; D, her mother, and her son had loaded guns pointed at their heads. They couldn’t move. The settlers also took A’s schoolbag, with its notebooks and books. They burned his telephone with acid and took away whatever little edible food was left in the home. They broke pots and pans, gas cooking cylinders, cupboards and drawers, and anything else breakable.
D is the most courageous person, and the strongest, we’ve ever met. The settlers come, they beat them up, burn, break, destroy, run amok, and afterward she somehow makes order with a bashful smile on her face. She usually speaks very little. But after long minutes of sitting in silence, suddenly she said: “Maybe we should leave?” Stunned, I was silent. She spoke into my silence: “When they steal the rest of our herd, we’ll have no more reason to live here, and nothing left to keep us alive.”
Later that night, when we were already home, soldiers came and searched the homes of other Tuba people; and at 11 PM the settlers were back, rampaging through all the homes. They also came back to D’s home in the cave and cut the electric cables. Darkness.
As messages from the Villages Group go, this one is rather mild. I’ll spare you the stories of severe wounds, hospitalization, explosive devices, and continuous, or repeated, relentless attacks. The miracle is that some of these communities, rooted in those hills for generations, are still there.
I haven’t yet lost all hope. We have work to do, including securing the olive harvest by our presence for those landowners who are brave enough to come out to their fields. And it’s important to tell the story of these days and nights. But for me, the most awful thought of all is this. Let us assume that Israel manages to defang Hamas and even oust it from Gaza. What then? Will we not just carry on as we have been—with the occupation regime, more settlements, more racism, more Jewish supremacy, more lethal violence, more moral corruption, more antidemocratic legislation, more civil war, more Netanyahu, more hate? What we need is a regional settlement, including a negotiated agreement with the Palestinian moderate mainstream. That is what the people I know in the villages of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank want most. They despise Hamas and abhor violence. They want to live a normal life. Like most Israelis, believe it or not, they want peace.
—November 22, 2023
 See Emma Graham-Harrison and Quique Kierszenbaum, “‘The Most Successful Land-Grab Strategy Since 1967’ As Settlers Push Bedouins Off West Bank Territory,” The Guardian, October 21, 2023; Patrick Kingsley, Hiba Yazbek, and Gabby Sobelman, “Israeli Herders Spread Across West Bank, Displacing Palestinians,” The New York Times, October 3, 2023; Jeffrey Gettleman, Rami Nazzal, and Adam Sella, “How a Campaign of Extremist Violence Is Pushing the West Bank to the Brink,” The New York Times, November 2, 2023; Louisa Loveluck, “Settler Violence Is Erasing Palestinian Communities in the West Bank,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2023; Mairav Zonstein, “Settler Violence Rises in the West Bank During the Gaza War,” crisisgroup.org, November 6, 2023; Hagar Shezaf, “Cigarette Burns, Beatings, Attempted Sexual Assualt: Settlers and Soldiers Abused Palestinians,” Haaretz, October 21, 2023; and Yaniv Kobovitz, “As Gaza War Wages On, Israeli Settlers Attack Palestinians and Create a New Reality in the West Bank,” Haaretz, November 13, 2023.
 Jeremy Sharon, “Video Shows Settler Shooting, Injuring Palestinian,” The Times of Israel, October 13, 2023.
 These words are dedicated to the memory of Vivian Silver, Israeli peace activist and humanist, murdered by Hamas terrorists in Be’eri on October 7, 2023.
David Shulman is the author of Tamil: A Biography, among other books. He is a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was awarded the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in 2016. He is a longtime activist in Ta’ayush, the Arab–Jewish Partnership, in the occupied Palestinian territories. (December 2023)