-Advertisement-

How settlers took revenge for a murder in the West Bank

At dawn on Friday 12 April, Israeli teenager Benjamin Achimeir walked out from his settler outpost in the occupied West Bank, with a flock of sheep, and disappeared.

Achimeir, 14, had been living and working on a tiny farm outpost near his family’s settlement, Malachei HaShalom – one of nearly 150 Israeli settlements in the West Bank regarded as illegal under international law.

The young teenager was murdered that morning out on the pasture, according to Israeli police, but it would be 24 hours before his body was found. When the flock of sheep returned to the farm without him, a massive search began, involving the Israeli police, military, air force, intelligence services, and thousands of volunteers from the settler community.

For some, it was not enough. At 08:30 on Saturday, Elisha Yered, a former spokesman for MP Limor Son Har-Melech and extremist settler suspected in the murder of a Palestinian man last August, posted in a WhatsApp group for settlers.

“Shabbat Shalom, it’s been nearly 24 hours of heavy suspicion that Benjamin was kidnapped from the pasture and still the obvious measures have not been taken,” Yered wrote.

The same message was being posted in various settler WhatsApp groups that morning. It called on them to take matters into their own hands – “crowning” of nearby Palestinian villages (a term for blocking residents from leaving or entering), “home-to-home searches”, and “collective punishment against the murderous Arab population”.

The message also contained a list of meeting points. Hours later, a similar message would circulate in the settler groups but with fire emojis attached to each location, as well as calls from individual settlers to “eliminate the enemy”, “exterminate the beasts”, and – referring to a nearby Palestinian village – “let all of Duma burn”.

Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Achimeir was found dead after disappearing from his settler outpost last month.
Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Achimeir was found dead after disappearing from his settler outpost last month

What followed was a wave of shooting and arson attacks across 11 Palestinian villages in which a dozen homes and more than 100 cars were torched, thousands of animals were slaughtered, four people were shot dead, and scores of others were seriously wounded. In the weeks since, five Israeli settlers have been arrested in connection with the reprisal violence, and one Palestinian is being held in connection with the murder of Benjamin Achimeir.

Achimeir’s body was found very close to his outpost. But in their rampage, the settlers would attack Palestinian villages up to 7km (4.3 miles) away. Records of some of their WhatsApp group chats that day, as well as testimony from Palestinian officials and families in the villages that came under attack, paint a picture of an organized campaign of revenge that was incited in part using WhatsApp, carried out by co-ordinated groups on the ground, and targeted against ordinary Palestinians with no apparent connection to the murder other than the bad luck of living nearby.

graphic

Religious West Bank settlers would not normally communicate via WhatsApp on a Saturday, because of the laws of the Sabbath. But messages posted by Yered as well as Eitan Rabinovich – the founder of an organization that advocates for not buying from or employing Palestinians in the West Bank – and others, stressed that Achimeir’s disappearance was the “true Pikuach Nefesh”, a Hebrew term which states that the preservation of human life overrides all religious law.

Excerpts from the WhatsApp groups, collected by the Israeli monitoring groups FakeReporter and Democratic Bloc and shared with the BBC, show that many settlers believed the disappearance also overrode any adherence to actual law. The description text for one of the most active groups used that day, named “Investigating Fear of Kidnapping”, and containing 306 people, called on settlers to establish checkpoints at key locations around Palestinian villages and stop and search cars and passengers – actions that settlers have no legal authority to take.

The admins of “Investigating Fear of Kidnapping” were David-Zvi Atia, Yedidya Asis, and Israel Itzkovitz. Asis, a member of the far-right settler organization Hilltop Youth, has previously served a ban from the West Bank. Itzkovitz is also a member of the WhatsApp group “Honor Guard of the Nablus Area”, which was used to organize a rampage of violence against the Palestinian town of Huwara and three other villages in February last year.

That rampage was among the most intense and systematic settler attacks in the West Bank for decades. In the months since the Hamas attack last October, according to Israeli human rights groups, violence against West Bank Palestinians has surged dramatically and the settlers have acted with near impunity.

Posters in the West Bank with the image of Benjamin Achimeir and the word "Revenge". The same image was widely shared on WhatsApp.
Posters in the West Bank with the image of Benjamin Achimeir and the word “Revenge”. The same image was widely shared on WhatsApp

Within hours of Benjamin Achimeir’s disappearance, messages had begun spreading on settler WhatsApp groups calling openly for revenge attacks against Palestinian villagers. Some contained a poster image of Achimeir with the word “REVENGE” emblazoned across it in capital letters – an image that was also physically posted around the occupied West Bank that weekend. Some messages contained a new list of places to meet, with fire emojis attached.

The first location on the list spread on WhatsApp by Yered, Rabinovich and others on Saturday morning – in the same message that called for “collective punishment of the murderous Arab population” – was Duma Junction, where the main road exits towards the town. A few hours after the messages circulated, at one of the first houses past the junction, Murad Dawbsheh, a 52-year-old construction worker and father of three, was hand-pumping water up from his well when he heard a woman screaming, he said, followed by the sight of black smoke rising nearby.

Dawbsheh ran to his driveway and saw a large group of settlers gathered about 100m away in the trees. The settlers split into two groups – the first heading for his neighbour’s property and the second for his. The second group then split again – some heading for the main house and others towards his outbuildings.

Dawbsheh corralled his family into a small safe room in the house with metal grates on the windows. The settlers smashed all of the home’s windows and set fire to the doorway but were not able to break in. His three sons, all hearing-impaired, were terrified, he said.

Murad Dawbsheh stands in the ruins of a kitchen in a new home he built for his son.
Murad Dawbsheh stands in the ruins of a kitchen in a new home he built for his son
Dawbsheh in his burned garage, where both his cars he uses for his business were reduced to shells.
Dawbsheh in his burned garage, where both the cars he uses for his business were reduced to shells

The settlers torched a new house on the property that Dawbsheh had built for his son, along with Dawbsheh’s tools, his garage, both his cars, his timber shed, and his entire collection of timber. Worse, he said, they burned down his “sanctuary” – a small two-room outbuilding that contained all of his books, his own poetry, his late mother’s possessions, and his family’s identity documents, records, heirlooms, and photographs.

“Every piece of paper concerning my past, present, and future was there,” Dawbsheh said, under a fierce sun, tears mixing with beads of sweat on his cheeks. “It is a loss that cannot be compensated. Like losing a limb. You keep looking and finding it missing anew.”

At the same time that the home was under attack, the WhatsApp group “Investigating Fears of Kidnapping” shows the settlers co-ordinating group movements around Duma Junction, calling urgently for cars to collect settlers from the area, and asking for advice on how to avoid police.

“We are on our way out of Duma, it’s full of security forces,” said one of the group members, Israel Yuval, in a voice note. “We were chased by soldiers. What’s the plan? Where should we go? Let us know.”

graphic

Shmulik Fine – a settler who was convicted in 2015 of incitement to violence and terror – reported to the group that Israeli police were beginning to arrest settlers in Duma.

“Why arrests? Let all of Duma burn,” replied “Tali”. A Facebook account linked to this number belongs to a Tali Dahan, with a status that suggests she worked for the Israeli police at the Allenby Bridge border crossing nearby.

“That’s the way,” Dahan replied to pictures of Duma on fire. “Make them afraid, those beasts. Exterminate them.” (Dahan denied working for the Israeli police or writing the WhatsApp messages, despite being contacted by the BBC on the number used to post in the group. The police did not respond to questions.)

Israel Baniuk, a 17-year-old settler who has advocated elsewhere on social media for Jews to resettle the Gaza Strip, warned that Palestinian villagers were posting videos online and the settlers could lose the “media war” against the “Nazi” villagers.

“Always remember that this is an open group,” warned Ofer Ohana, a prominent far-right settler activist from Hebron. “All the messages here can leak to those who gather information against us.”

graphic

The wave of attacks had begun a day earlier, just hours after Benjamin Achimeir went missing. In al-Mughayyir, a village of about 2,500 people less than a mile from Achimeir’s outpost, Abdellatif Abu Aliya was at Friday prayers when he heard about the disappearance.

The 52-year-old construction worker, who lives in the house on the northernmost edge of the village, returned home to see settlers massing around his house. From his rooftop that morning, he said, he witnessed a level of organisation and intent among the settlers that he had never seen before in all his years in the village and three previous attacks on the house.

Video footage filmed by the family shows armed settlers patrolling around the property, at least two in what appear to be Israel Defense Force (IDF) uniforms, prior to the attack beginning. They approached the house through olive groves that Abedllatif said once belonged to his family, he said, but which were now, like many once-Palestinian olive groves, off limits because of settler expansion.

Abdellatif looks out from a broken window in his home. Bullet shells, collected from where the settlers fired on the house, sit in front of him.
Abdellatif looks out from a broken window in his home. Bullet shells, collected from where the settlers fired on the house, sit in front of him
Blood on the floor of the house. Abdellatif's cousin Jihad Abu Aliya was shot dead on the property during the attack.
Blood on the floor of the house. Abdellatif’s cousin Jihad Abu Aliya was shot dead on the property during the attack

“First they surrounded the house on all sides, before attacking,” Abdellatif said, sitting in his home, surrounded by broken windows, bullet holes, and the shells of his burned cars.

“They worked in groups and were following orders from two men, one in uniform and one not. They covered their faces, then one group came forward to throw rocks and set fire to the cars. Another group stood at the edge of the property with pistols. Behind them was a group with M16s who fired at the house from the olive groves.”

The settlers also cut the electricity to the house and drained the property’s water tanks by shooting them. The Palestinian men who had come to defend the house threw rocks back from the roof towards the settlers. But the settlers returned gunfire, killing Abdellatif’s cousin Jihad, 20, with a shot to the head.

Jihad’s blood still stains the walls and floors of the house and there are bullet holes in the windows and tiles on all sides of the building. Abdellatif collected about 20 bullet casings from the edge of the property, and he said many more were taken away by local officials. The settlers torched a dozen cars on the road from between the village and the house.

The garage and home of Mohamed Abu Aliya, torched by settlers in two separate attacks that weekend.
The garage and home of Mohamed Abu Aliya, torched by settlers in two separate attacks that weekend
Mohamed Abu Aliya looks from the window of his burned house, which he said could now be structurally unsound.
Mohamed Abu Aliya looks from the window of his burned house, which he said could now be structurally unsound

Two other families whose homes were attacked nearby in al-Mughayyir that day described similar, organised operations. At the home of Shehade Abu Rasheed, a 50-year-old farmer, a group of settlers came down his driveway and threw rocks at the family, hitting his wife in the face and knocking her over, they said, while another set fire to his cars. When his 17-year-old daughter Noor ran forward to her mother, she said she was shot twice, once in each leg. Both bullets went into her soft tissue, although only one could be removed that day at the emergency hospital in Ramallah.

Yaqoub Nasan, a 17-year-old from the village who went to defend the family’s house, was shot in the neck from a distance, video shows, while standing alone and apparently unarmed. It was an injury which would temporarily restrict blood flow to his brain, causing a range of complications including an inability to use his legs, the chief of medicine at the Ramallah Hospital told the BBC.

According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 32 people in al-Mughayyir were wounded by gunfire that weekend.

Yaqoub Nasan, 17, was shot in the neck during an attack on Duma by a large group of settlers.
Yaqoub Nasan, 17, was shot in the neck during an attack on Duma by a large group of settlers

Across the road from Shehade’s house, the settlers attacked a garage belonging to mechanic Mohamed Abu Aliya, 25. On Friday, he said they burned 14 cars on the property and attempted to burn the garage itself. On Saturday, they returned and torched the entire building.

When the garage was fully engulfed, the settlers went across the road and set fire to Shehade Abu Rasheed’s family home too. As the house was burning, a member of the WhatsApp group “Investigating Fear of Kidnapping” posted a voice note.

“We need as many adults with vehicles as possible to come out to the road by al-Mughayyir to pick up people running towards the road,” “Itiel” said. “There are a bunch of police chasing them. Is the route to Shilo open?”

graphic

By Saturday evening, after Achimeir’s body had been found, two Palestinians had already been killed and at least 20 homes and more than 100 cars had been torched. But messages were still spreading in settler WhatsApp groups calling for revenge. Before the violence was over, two more Palestinian men would be killed in the village of Aqraba, 7km (4.3 miles) away from where Achimeir went missing.

Abdul Rahman Bani Fadel, 30, and Mohammad Bani Jamea, 21, were shot dead during an attack by dozens of settlers, many of them armed, just one mile from Gitit Junction – one of the meeting places marked with fire emojis on a settler WhatsApp group.

Video footage of the incident shows what appear to be IDF soldiers watching on as a large group of settlers, some armed, surround several Palestinian men from the village. “The settlers are looking for any reason to increase their aggression against us,” said Fadel’s older brother, Ahmed Maher. “And the death of Benjamin was a reason.”

graphic

As the homes of Murad Dawbsheh, Shehade Abu Rasheed, Mohamed Abu Aliya and many others lay smouldering on Saturday night, members of the WhatsApp group “Investigating Fear of Kidnapping” began attempting to erase their tracks, sharing advice on how to permanently delete messages.

“Each person erase their messages,” admin David Zvi-Atia instructed, “then get out of this group and hide it in your settings.”

Zvi-Atia declined to comment for this story, accusing the BBC of “virulent antisemitic propaganda”. Shmulik Fine and Elkana Nachmani sent identical messages, declining to comment. Elisha Yered and Eitan Rabinovich also accused the BBC of being antisemitic and declined to comment. Israel Yuval denied writing the messages. Israel Baniuk, Ofer Ohana, Israel Itzkovich, Yedidya Asis, Eliezer Eyal and Yair Kahati declined to comment or did not respond.

The IDF says that its forces operated in the area that weekend with “the aim of protecting the property and lives of all citizens” and that complaints about soldiers’ behaviour during the violence would be examined. The Israeli police have not responded to the BBC.

Graffiti on a burned Palestinian home in the West Bank reads, “Israel will live forever”.
Graffiti on a burned Palestinian home in the West Bank reads, “Israel will live forever”

On Sunday 15 April, with parts of Duma and al-Mughayyir in ruins, and some residents still in hospital, Adar Lpair, a 29-year-old DJ from the Amichai settlement, who had offered in a WhatsApp group to drive people away from Duma after the attacks, posted on Facebook.

“Thank you to all the hundreds and thousands of brave men who came out to take revenge,” he wrote. “Blessed are the eyes that saw Duma and al-Mughayyir on Saturday.”

Lafair declined to comment on his messages.

Sunday also saw Noor Abu Rasheed return home from Ramallah Hospital, her legs bandaged, to the dilapidated tent her family now shares next to their burned home. Two weeks after the attacks, she was with her family in the remains of their home as they cleared out the last of the blackened furniture. “My hope is to return to school and finish my exams,” Noor said, looking down at the place on her leg where she was shot. Then she looked up, and smiled. “If I stay alive,” she said.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You might also like
where to buy viagra buy generic 100mg viagra online
buy amoxicillin online can you buy amoxicillin over the counter
buy ivermectin online buy ivermectin for humans
viagra before and after photos how long does viagra last
buy viagra online where can i buy viagra