On March 24, in the West Bank, Naji Tantara was hospitalized with a skull fracture after being attacked with an ax. Arua Nasan was hit in the face with a hammer and beaten by youths with iron rods. Eight settlers surrounded Ali Zoabi while he was lying on the ground, and kicked him repeatedly.
Israeli security forces and human rights organizations have recorded a rise in attacks on Palestinians by Jews in the West Bank in the past few weeks. Sources in both attribute it to the Israeli government closing down educational institutions because of the coronavirus epidemic.
According to data provided to Haaretz by a defense official, 16 physical confrontations were recorded in March between settlers and Palestinians, compared to only nine in February and five in January. Human rights organizations operating in the area corroborate the trend: Out of the 51 cases of violence, vandalism, theft and threats recorded by monitor B’Tselem since the beginning of 2020, 21 took place in March alone.
Ax, hammer and iron rods
On March 24, in the early afternoon, a settler and his herd of cows arrived at the olive orchard of the village of Umm Safa north of Ramallah. Residents of the village who spoke with Haaretz said the settler is known to them, has lived in the nearby agricultural outpost for the past two years and occasionally tries to prevent village residents from walking around the area.
Said Tantara, a resident of the village, says that when the cattle arrived at the orchard, a few youths threw rocks at the herd in an attempt to drive them off. Naji Tantara, Said’s cousin and the deputy head of the village council, said he came down to the site to speak with the settler and ask him to distance his cows from the orchard.
Several minutes later, say Naji and Said, four more settlers showed up – two of them with rifles, one with an ax and another with a wooden club. Naji said he felt blows on his head and back and lost his consciousness. A short while later soldiers arrived and the assailants fled, they say. Naji was brought to hospital in Ramallah where he underwent surgery for a skull fracture.
“I spent five days in hospital and left the moment I could, fearing I’d contract corona,” Naji, 45, says. “I still lose my balance every time I try to get up, and feel dizzy. Ordinarily I’d have stayed in the hospital longer – but this is not an ordinary situation.”
Two days later, says Said, policemen came to the village, after having received a report of the incident. But nothing had been heard of the police since then.
Arua Nasan, of the village of Al-Mo’eir north of Ramallah, says that he and his cousin were on their way to pick akub (known as dwarf chicory in English, or Gundelia tournefortii in Latin, it is a wild plant popular in Palestinian dishes) at the Ein Samia spring, which is frequented by both settlers and Palestinians in the region.
“We were on the main road when we saw three settlers on donkeys heading our way,” he said. “At first we didn’t even see they were settlers. They were 16-17 years old, practically children, and when they came close to us they asked what we were doing here and said we’re not allowed to come here.”
At this stage, one of the youths phoned someone, he says. Within minutes two cars showed up from the direction of the settlement of Kochav Hashahar.
Nasan’s cousin doubled back to call for the help of a military vehicle they had seen nearby, and the youths shouted at Nasan to throw down the hoe, with which he had been planning to pick the akub with. “I didn’t throw it down because I wanted to keep it for self—defense,” he says. One settler threw a hammer at him, hitting him in the face, while the others beat him with metal rods, he says.
At that point the military vehicle drove up and most of the youths got into a car and fled the scene. The soldiers took the phone numbers of those who remained. “I told them to check the boys’ phones and see who they had called to come and attack me,” Nasan says.
He was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with injuries to the jaw and shoulder. He was released several hours later, and filed a complaint the following day at the Binyamin police station in the West Bank.
“I want to see if they do anything about it – after all, if I had hit someone Jewish I’d be in prison now,” he says. So far no one has spoken to him from the police. “If they do nothing I’ll know the law doesn’t protect me – not as a Palestinian or an Israeli – but as a human being,” he says.
‘Violence will only increase and spread’
Information gathered by the Yesh Din human rights NGO shows that 91 percent of the cases opened by Israel Police in the West Bank following complaints of settlers’ crimes are closed without charge.
“The quantity and severity of the violent cases we’ve handled in recent weeks is mind boggling,” says Yesh Din Director Lior Amihai.
“As long as authorities continue to disregard Palestinians’ lives instead of protecting them and arresting the hooligans, the settlers’ violence will only increase and spread,” he says.
Over the last few weeks, residents of villages near the Homesh settlement, which was evacuated in 2005 as part of the disengagement plan, have reported five violent incidents perpetrated by settlers. Despite the settlement’s evacuation, Palestinian landowners haven’t been allowed for years to access their lands there, while settlers have come to the symbolic site frequently, and even established a yeshiva on it.
Last December, the court ordered the state to enable Palestinian land owners access to Homesh, but the settlers at the site still won’t allow them to come anywhere close.
Ali Zoabi, a resident of the nearby Fandaqumiya village, says he was going to pick za’atar on his land with another villager, Asam, on March 24. They left at about 5 P.M. because they were told the settlers leave the site in the early evening.