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Israeli settler violence brings destruction and fear to West Bank as war rages

A few nights ago, the school in Khirbet Zanuta, a small Palestinian village in the hills south of Hebron, was destroyed along with most of the houses, by a bulldozer.

Its tracks lay fresh and undisturbed in the sand when we arrived. The village was empty as its population of about 200 Palestinians left around a month ago, after sustained pressure and threats from armed and aggressive Jewish settlers who live in nearby outposts that are illegal under both Israeli and international law.

A twisted metal sign lies in the rubble of the school in Khirbet Zanuta. In bold black letters it reads “Humanitarian Support to Palestinians at risk of forcible transfer in the West Bank”. The sign records the donors who gave money to the project. The European Union was the lead donor and, among a panel of European development agencies, is also the coat of arms of the British royal family over the words British Consulate-General Jerusalem.

Nadav Weiman came with the BBC to the village. He is a former Israeli special forces soldier who is now an activist with Breaking the Silence, a group of former combatants who campaign against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Nadav believes that Jewish settlers, the most militant of whom are known by name to local Palestinians, were once again flouting the law with the police and army.

“They’re demolishing Palestinian villages, beating up Palestinian farmers, stealing their olives, trying to open a third front, an eastern front against the Palestinians in the West Bank. Why? Because they want the land without Palestinians.”

Two Israeli soldiers came to investigate what we were doing. One of them told an Israeli member of the BBC team that he was a traitor for visiting Palestinians. They filmed us but took much less interest in what had happened in Khirbet Zanuta, a few miles down the road.

 

When I asked the police if they were investigating the flattening of the school and the village, they emailed back that they were waiting for a complaint. In fact, lawyers for Zanuta’s Palestinians had petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court.

 

The school in Khirbet Zanuta had been funded by international donors
Image caption,

The school in Khirbet Zanuta had been funded by international donors

In three days of travelling through the occupied West Bank, Palestinians have said consistently that since the war in Gaza started on 7 October, Jewish settlers are better armed and much more aggressive.

Violent attacks, including fatal shootings of Palestinians by armed Jewish settlers in the West Bank have risen sharply. So many attacks are happening that Israel’s closest allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have condemned violence by extremist settlers and demanded that those guilty of crimes should be prosecuted.

In practice, settlers rarely end up in court and if they do, they can usually expect light sentences.

The settlers are armed and supported by powerful allies in the Israeli government, led by Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister for national security and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who also has security responsibilities in the West Bank.

Controversially, Mr Smotrich just found more than $100 million for the settlers. Apparently referring to opinion polls saying Palestinians were supporting Hamas, he told The Times of Israel newspaper that “there are two million Nazis in Judea and Samaria, who hate us exactly as do the Nazis of Hamas-ISIS in Gaza”. Judea and Samaria is a biblical term for the West Bank.

 

Members of the Mhilat family, who say settlers attacked them and accused them of stealing goats
Image caption,

Members of the Mhilat family say settlers attacked them and accused them of stealing goats

The reality of settler attacks was captured in a video taken by Muntassar Mhilat, a young Palestinian man from a family of Bedouins who live in the Judean desert not far from Jericho.

Their family home was invaded by about 20 violent, armed Jewish men. Muntassar filmed them yelling and pointing weapons.

“He was shooting at my uncle, so I ran down there and confronted him. We were pushing each other and screaming, head-to-head. And I was filming him. Then, around 20 settlers came.”

The video shows a settler loading his M-16 assault rifle and pointing it at the family. One of the women there, Umm Omar, carrying a month old baby, thought they were about to die.

“They attacked our house, stole our sheep, threatened my kids with guns and threatened me. Then they hit me and my husband’s sister. I thought they were going to slaughter us.”

No-one was killed. The settlers accused them, falsely the family said, of stealing their goats. The man who pointed a loaded weapon was wearing a police jacket.

 

A common complaint is that settlers have been drafted into the security forces as reservists since 7 October and are abusing the power and position that come with the uniform and automatic weapons issued by the state.

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