Over a ten-day span this month, there were 100 reported attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank. "In recent weeks, the security establishment has identified an alarming increase in acts of violence by settlers throughout the West Bank," Haaretz reported, quoting an anonymous Israeli security official who dismissed the claims of many Israeli politicians that the perpetrators are just "a handful of violent, out-of-control settlers." The violence, in fact, is far more widespread among the settler population. "Older adults, women with children are also arriving and simply starting to go wild," the official told Haaretz of recent rioting and attacks on Palestinian villages.
The village of Huwara, on the outskirts of Nablus, has seen the worst of it. In the first week of October, settlers gathered at and blocked entrances to the city of Nablus, including in Huwara. Israeli soldiers then arrived and effectively enforced the blockade of Nablus—ostensibly to target a new Palestinian militant group, known as the Lion's Den. Over the past week, while keeping Nablus all but closed to the outside world, the Israeli army launched a major offensive in the city, conducting near daily raids and arrests, which culminated in a deadly incursion early in the morning of Oct. 25 that killed at least five Palestinians.
A longtime activist and community leader from Huwara, Abu Ahmad—whose real name is being withheld to protect his identity—spoke to DAWN from his home in the village about the situation there "under siege."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
"The settlers want to create new facts on the ground. I think they want us Palestinians to leave the country for good. They want to replace our communities."
In some of the reporting, especially on social media, we see images that are horrifying—of settlers and soldiers attacking businesses and people and homes, in Huwara and all around Nablus. Can you give us an idea of what it's like to live there and to be experiencing this violence?
What I can say is that there has been a change in behavior of settlers towards the local community here, and it stems from the far-right government or, as I see it, the settler government. For the last couple of decades, we have had only settler governments in power. The surge in the settlements—in colonialism, in general, in the West Bank—has doubled or tripled the last few years. The numbers have increased such that hundreds of thousands of settlers now live in the West Bank. This increase in number, I think, is a result of Israeli government policy that makes it easy for them. So they can recruit a big number of people whenever they want to attack a Palestinian village. It has become easier for them—and, of course, always with the full support of the Israeli army. This is what is going on right now.
It's scary. An Israeli settlement is exactly one kilometer away from my house. In the past, they would attack those houses that were closer to the settlements. But now, because of their larger numbers, they feel empowered. They have started attacking entire villages, not only those houses that are on the outskirts of the villages. The settlers want to create new facts on the ground. They want to create to achieve certain goals. I think they want us Palestinians to leave the country for good. They want to replace our communities.
But because it's not happening—the Palestinians are steadfast—this makes it very hard for them. So they increased their violence, thinking that by doing so, that will make it happen—that we will leave the country and say, "OK, sorry that we were here. Now we are leaving to Jordan or somewhere around the world and leaving the country for you." This is not happening; it will never happen. Not in one year or one century. We learned the lessons of 1948 and 1967. We are not leaving at all, never again.
They have become so violent, using force against civilians, every single day—smashing cars, injuring people, cutting olive trees, burning olive trees, burning fields. They became so violent to the point that, before going to sleep, we pray that our families will be spared from and survive the night. And we had something like, according to Haaretz, 100 attacks by settlers in the last 10 days. It was never mentioned by the Israeli chief of staff of the occupation army. The only time they went on TV to condemn an attack was by the settlers against soldiers. Nonetheless, the army continues to protect and support the settlers. During settler attacks, when they vandalize houses or stores, for example, the army shoots at Palestinians who are around.
Is the Palestinian Authority able to do anything to protect the Palestinian residents?
During the last two decades, the Palestinian Authority failed to achieve anything through diplomacy—all the time calling for negotiations, and nobody's listening. Nobody is listening at all. And thus the PA goes around the world—to Europe, to the U.S., to the U.N.—calling for protection by the international community, which has never happened and which will never happen. Palestinians started to feel the way they were feeling before the start of the First Intifada and the Second Intifada: that we are left alone. Nothing in the horizon, no hope. And that breeds a new wave of resistance. And it's going on both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance.
Nablus is under siege now. People cannot go in or out easily. This means tens of thousands of employees and students cannot reach their work, schools and universities, and people can't go to stores or to the market. People can't buy what they need. It is a collective punishment that Israel is imposing, punishing millions of people for one or two or three actions done by few people. This is where we are now.
What is going on here inside Nablus and in Jenin, against the so-called Lion's Den, is a new phenomenon. Young, armed men from different political and social backgrounds pose a real challenge to Israel and to the settlers. This is the first armed group formed since the end of the Second Intifada, around 2005. As to what those guys are doing and who is supporting them, it's very complicated. For me, personally, this is sad, because when people turn to arms, it doesn't make things better, and doesn't necessarily bring about the national goals that we are seeking.
"Here in Huwara, we are under attack, and we are alone. It is one place but is the same for all of Palestine."
Over the last three years, the armed resistance is increasing as a result of the increased attacks against the Palestinian people and the expansion of the settlements, and the inability of the PA to do anything to stop it. This indicates a total failure of Israel's occupation strategy to subdue the Palestinian people. In 20 years since the Second Intifada, Israel has tried different strategies to subdue the Palestinians, and it is not working. It will never work. They think that they can fully control us, subdue us, or kick us out of the country easily. It's not happening and will never happen, even when the price is high. It seems the number of Palestinians imprisoned, injured or killed this year almost equals the number from the last 20 years. The Israelis still think that by doing this—by arresting more people, by shooting more people, by injuring more people, by killing more people, by destroying more houses, by cutting more trees—that Palestinians will look at each other and decide to surrender. To give up. This will never happen.
The Israelis are stuck. The entire colonial project is facing the wall. This is how I see it.
Let's come back to the point where we started, with Huwara and this specific geographic spot. What's happening in Huwara is a continuation of what's been going on for months. Back in May, after Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, settlers came in to Huwara, protected by Israeli soldiers, and removed the Palestinian flag from public spaces. Huwara also has a history of being under siege, by the Israeli army and by settlers. Can you give us a little bit of insight as to why Huwara is in the situation it is?
The location of Huwara is on the main road that connects 3 million Palestinians together and tens of thousands of settlers, with the road passing through Area B and Area C [under the Oslo Accords], which are under Israeli control. The village is on the main road, making it very sensitive. Israeli settlers drive through it to access their settlements, and in recent years, this led to the village of being accused of being too soft with settlers. Settlers used to stop and buy whatever they wanted from the shops and stores in the village itself, and people started knowing each other by name. But at the same time, attacks against Palestinians in the area from these same settlers continued. One day, they would be shopping in our stores, and the next attacking us when we pick olives or cutting our trees. When Shireen was killed, we put the Palestinian flag up on the road and in the shops, along with her picture. She was our hero; everyone loved Shireen. Settlers attacked, climbing poles to rip down the flag, and the army came to protect them. This has been going on since May, the constant harassment and attacks, and in the last week or so has escalated.
The occupation government has been working for a year now to build a settler-only bypass road that will take them away from Huwara, so they won't use the main road through the village. But this will still take time to complete, and it also is robbing our people of our land, and some homes will be demolished. The idea, however, that they could be good neighbors is impossible in this situation where they have all the power. There is no way that both sides can live together when the settlers commit daily attacks, destroy our trees and land, and make daily threats. Of course, the army doesn't want to stop them. But even if the army was to stop them, we haven't seen what that would look like. Instead, we saw pictures of settlers attacking soldiers. Here in Huwara, shopkeepers have removed Hebrew signs. They don't want to sell to them or buy from them anymore.
The timing of all this escalation can be seen as being about Israeli domestic politics. This summer, President Joe Biden came to the region and embraced Israeli leaders—both the current prime minister, Yair Lapid, the former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and even the prime minister before that, Benjamin Netanyahu. Given the upcoming Israeli elections, given the fact that Biden gave a blessing for everything Israel does, what do you expect to happen over the next few weeks, and then possibly, beyond that?
Indeed, this escalation is because of politics. But also because of the failure of the international community, and the failure of the U.S., to intervene and help.
It honestly doesn't matter who will win next Israeli election; it will never change anything on the ground. Regardless of who wins, the settlements increase, and the number of settlers increase. Now we are talking about hundreds of thousands of them. Now there is no way to stop them. So it doesn't matter who's going to form the government. The U.S. will never interfere. I also don't see Europe being neutral as it was previously. And there is the Ukrainian issue. Europe is busy with that and the energy problem.
We are stuck here; everybody's stuck here. Those youth in Nablus—Israel will not stop until its kills them all or finds a way to deal with them. But those guys will never give up. President Mahmoud Abbas cannot order them to give up because he doesn't control them. Hamas cannot stop them if they want because again, Hamas doesn't fully control them. When you want to talk to them, when you need to convince them one by one, there's no head to talk to.
This is a bad time we are facing as Palestinians, as we always have, but it's worsening. We have no choice but to stay and to fight for our liberation. But we have no friends who will help us. Here in Huwara, we are under attack, and we are alone. It is one place but is the same for all of Palestine.