Amid Israel's ongoing military operations in Gaza, human rights groups have documented an alarming increase in settler violence and forced displacement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The last few weeks have been extremely difficult, said Halima Khalil Abu Eid.
The mother of two little girls lives in Khirbet Susiya, a village in the South Hebron Hills in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A month ago, while the family was asleep, Israeli settlers raided her family's home, beat her husband and threatened them with an ultimatum.
"You have to leave the place. If you don't leave, we will shoot you. And you must destroy your home," said Abu Eid, relating the warning she received that night.
Since the Israel-Hamas war started, Abu Eid said, settlers have intensified their pressure on the residents of Khirbit Susiya. "They are ransacking, destroying and terrorizing us, and the last time they also attacked my husband and his brother-in-law." One of her daughters was vomiting out of fear, she said.
Khirbet Susiya has seen years of harassment by settlers living in nearby Israeli settlements and settlement farms. But since October 7, the occupied West Bank has witnessed a "significant" increase in settler violence and displacement of Palestinians, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA.
On October 7, an attack by Hamas — considered a terrorist organization by the EU and US — killed at least 1,200 people living in southern Israeli communities close to the Gaza Strip and saw at least 239 taken captive, currently being held hostage in Gaza. The attack has sparked ongoing retaliatory strikes from Israel and a ground offensive in Gaza. According to the Hamas-led Health Ministry, Israeli bombardment of the closed-off territory has since killed more than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Rockets are still being fired towards Israel.
Settler violence in the West Bank
The Israel-Hamas war is also having an impact on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. According to OCHA, 168 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, and an additional eight have been killed by Israeli settlers. Three Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.
According to the United Nations, about 1,149 people from 15 Bedouin and farming communities have been displaced, forced to pack up or demolish their own homes and livestock pens. Some couldn't even take their belongings with them. Just like in Khirbet Susiya, rights groups have documented several incidents in which armed settlers have entered Palestinian villages and threatened the residents if they did not leave.
Khirbet Susiya is a small community of Palestinian families, scattered across the hilly landscape. Most here are farmers and make their living from agriculture and their flocks of sheep. Abu Eid's simple one-storey house, tents and sheep pen appeared almost peaceful on the day DW visited, with a ginger-colored cat snoozing in the mid-day sun while chickens roamed freely. But the threat of settler violence hangs like a dark cloud over everything — and affects their livelihoods.
"Where should we go? What do they want from us? They just want to take our houses; we know this from the past. Where else can we go? This is our house, this is our home, we can't leave it," said Abu Eid.
Damage to infrastructure and harassment
Khirbet Susiya's residents must now climb over walls and mounds made of earth which block entrances into, and passage within, the village.
"It was on October 16, that settlers in uniform and soldiers came here, including a bulldozer driven by a settler that we know. They blocked all the access routes into Susiya, and they also damaged two water cisterns," says Nasser Nawaj'ah, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, who also lives in Khirbet Susiya. Another cistern was damaged and some water pipes were cut as well, explained Nawaj'ah.
Some of the residents here now rely on the presence of Israeli activists, who stay in the village on 24-hour watch. But these activists themselves have come under attack in several areas and were harassed by settlers, some of them in military uniform. Yehuda Shaul is an Israeli activist and a co-founder of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, who now works for a different organization, Ofek. Shaul is currently spending much of his time in South Hebron Hills to help the villagers.
"For years the military did not intervene to protect Palestinians, but since October 7 when the war began, we have today a reality where the settlements' rapid response teams, these are local settlers, were recruited into reserve duty, and they're now in uniform with guns and full equipment with the authority of soldiers," Shaul told DW. "Palestinians basically have nothing to protect them anymore," he added.
The Israeli military said in a statement that "the mission of the IDF is to maintain the security of all residents of the area, and to act to prevent terrorism and activities that endanger the citizens of the State of Israel. In cases of law violations by Israelis, the main body responsible for handling these claims is the Israeli police."
The response by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) added that while present in the area, soldiers encounter violent incidents directed at Palestinians or their property.
"In these cases, the soldiers are required to act to stop the violation and, if necessary, to delay or detain the suspects until the police arrive at the scene. (...). In situations where soldiers fail to adhere to IDF orders, the incidents are thoroughly reviewed, and disciplinary actions are implemented accordingly," the statement read.
Uptick in attacks against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank
Over 240 settler attacks against Palestinians have been recorded since October 7, according to OCHA. The UN said that this reflects a significant increase. The current average is seven incidents per day, compared to three incidents a day before the start of the war.
These attacks have resulted in the displacement and clearance of whole communities, mainly in Area C, which makes up about 60% of the occupied West Bank. Area C was created under the Oslo Accords in 1995 and was intended to be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction but still remains under full Israeli security and administrative control.
US President Joe Biden has condemned the violence in the West Bank, saying "It has to stop. They have to be held accountable. It has to stop now." On a recent trip to the region, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited the West Bank and warned that it "must not be dragged into this whirlpool of violence."
There is an urgent need for the international community to act to reach a political solution, says Shaul, the Israeli activist. "You will not be able to make up a Palestinian State from 165 enclaves that are disconnected from one another by settlements and an Area C dominated by settlers," said Shaul. "There is no two states without Area C for Palestinians."
For some Palestinians, help has arrived too late. Salah Abu Awad is a herder from a different community nearby. He was forced to leave his home and grazing grounds on October 15, after constant settler attacks and threats against the villagers. "They came every Friday and Saturday, destroying things, threatening us. I had enough, I left," said Abu Awad.
Abu Awad had already moved several times before because of intimidation and harassment. At his current location, he has no grazing land for his sheep or goats, and he doesn't know what he will do next.
"I am a herder. Without my sheep, I am nothing. What am I supposed to do?" Abu Awad asked. The young man doesn't expect much help to avert his fate. "Nobody cares about us."