In the second intifada the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stationed veteran platoon sergeant Avihai Stollar outside the small West Bank village of Susiya, a herding community that, in the arid, barren land of the South Hebron Hills, falls between numerous settlements and outposts—one, only walking distance away, called by the same name of Susiya.
One day, while Stollar was patrolling the road between settlements in the area, he received notice of a fight between settlers and Palestinians on a Susiya hilltop. When he arrived on the scene, he found three settlers beating up a 70-year-old Palestinian shepherd and his grandson. Each claimed the land they were fighting on as their own. Given only minimal instruction on how to deal with the West Bank civilian population, Stollar had no idea what to do.
“If the Palestinian was the one attacking the settler, I would have arrested him, and if I couldn’t have arrested him I would have shot him. Not only would I get backing for it, but I would be expected to do so,” Stollar said. “But if you dare to touch a settler he’d file a complaint against you. Every soldier knows the settlers are the bosses. They sit with the officers, they see the briefings…they are the sheriffs.”
In the end, Stollar, who is now director of the research department of “Breaking the Silence”—a group of veteran Israeli soldiers who speak to the public about day-to-day life in the Occupied Territories—decided to designate the area a closed military zone. The settlers left the area without punishment.
Indeed, as the world’s eyes remain focused on the devastation in Gaza from Israel’s Operation Protective Edge more than a month and a half after it began, on July 7, 2014, settler impunity in the Occupied Territory of the West Bank continues to exacerbate Palestinian livelihood.
Jihad Nawaja, a farmer from Susiya, says that he lives in fear of settler violence. “They punish, kick, and take our animals, they attack the women, and they graze their animals in our fodder crops before they burn them,” he said.
In a West Bank filled with nearly 140 official Israeli settlements, his story is only one of thousands. In 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that, in the West Bank, 76,000 people across 22 communities are highly vulnerable to settler violence, and 173,000 more are at moderate risk.
Susiya settlement resident Evram Yisrael doesn’t feel the same danger. “I like living in Susiya,” he said. “There are a lot of good people. It’s a warm community, and for the children, it’s a paradise. It’s not safe to be outside the settlement, but inside it’s very safe, and they can come back home late.”
To be sure, although almost all Israeli settlers are shielded against potential Palestinian assaults, according to international humanitarian law, Israel must administer the West Bank land to the benefit of the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din found that settler violence goes ahead in large part because soldiers such as Stollar are reluctant to step in against settler attacks. Furthermore, Yesh Din reported that 90 percent of Palestinian complaints to Israeli police over settler violence have been closed without indictment. Even so, the Israeli government not only grants virtual legal impunity to settlers, but also economic advantages ranging from housing subsidies and discounts on education to cheap water access.
Yet, many settlers move to the West Bank for reasons other than economic incentive. A 49-year-old settler from Susiya maintained, “I made aliyah because this is the Jewish home, and I know it’s right for Jews to live here. But the fact is that Arabs and Jews together are like oil and water. The reality of it is that we just don’t get along well enough with each other.”
Uri Ariel, Israel’s Minister of Housing and Construction, has declared his own desire for Israel to annex Judea and Samaria (biblical terms for the West Bank). He predicted that by 2019 its settlement population would reach 600,000. As it is, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) estimated that, in 2012, the 341,000 settler population of the West Bank was already growing three times as fast as the population of Israel.
Of course, settlement expansion has largely come at Palestinian expense. Many herding communities, for instance, reside in firing zones, where their presence is prohibited barring the rare permission of Israeli authorities, and where Palestinians have particularly limited access to health care and education. In contrast to 10 Israeli settlement outposts growing within the firing zones—which span up to 18 percent of West Bank land—almost all the Palestinian herding communities there are without infrastructure for water, electricity, or sanitation.
Palestinian Susiya, which lies just outside a firing zone, also lacks utility infrastructure even though a water pipe passes only 10 meters away from the community. When the village asked for access to the pipe, which at present connects nearby settlements to a West Bank mountain aquifer, the Israeli Civil Administration declined the request, declaring that the villagers could live on the land, but that they could not build on it.
As a result, most of the homes in Susiya and the surrounding area are plagued with demolition orders, issued on the grounds that these structures never received building permits in the first place. In fact, since 1988, Susiya infrastructure has been demolished over 10 times, and a car, which the IDF crumpled and stuffed into a cistern, remains underground to this day.
Now, with less access to their cisterns, and denied access to the water pipe, Susiya must ship water to the village for 35 shekels (NIS) per liter. Palestinian communities farther away from a main road than Susiya must pay even more money for their water, but meanwhile Israeli settlers pay only 5 NIS.
At the same time, farmers have also seen settlers eat up more and more of their grazing land, so that if they want their animals to live, they must buy fodder that they cannot afford—unless, that is, they sell more of their unnourished, unsheltered herd. Consequently, most farmers retreat to a profession in nearby cities such as Yatta or Hebron. Nawaja, who has seen almost 500 acres of Susiya disappear, claims that only 30 percent of the herd his father passed down to him remains.
The Palestinian Authority and humanitarian organizations have been trying to assist the villagers with basic needs, but Nawaja says that their help is not enough. “I want to fall asleep, and when I wake up for the settlements to have disappeared. These settlers are the reason for our miserable life and our economic hardships. I want to return to our normal life, to the life that we can choose and determine for ourselves.”