Under siege: Life in the shadow of Israeli settler violence in Masafer Yatta

Philippe Pernot
9 min read
16 April, 2024

Masafer Yatta - A cool wind blows across the green hills of Masafer Yatta, south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on an early spring day.

Ibrahim, a Palestinian shepherd from Wadi Jheish, leads his sheep out of their pen. His face tanned by the sun and adorned with a white beard, Ibrahim’s eyes scan his surroundings - danger looms over him and his flock.

The day before, several Israeli settlers, dressed in army uniforms, came to harass him as he brought in the herd with his son, joined by his wife and their daughter. "They pointed their rifles at us, made us lie on our stomachs, on the ground... before hitting me in the back with their rifle butts," he says in a voice that barely conceals his pain.

As his sheep graze peacefully on grass dotted with spring flowers, a military watchtower stands in the background a hundred meters from the hamlet of Wadi Jheish, where he lives with his family, an omnipresent symbol of the Israeli occupation.

"Before the war, there were problems, but we could access most of our land. Directly after 7 October [the settlers] built this tower and attack us as soon as we take our cattle out, in order to confiscate our grazing land," Ibrahim told The New Arab.

"This is apartheid: the settlers have water, electricity, security and all the rights, and a few meters away, we're totally excluded"

Protecting against settler violence

Since the Hamas attack and Israel’s deadly war on Gaza, settlers have been unleashing their fury on farmers living in the occupied West Bank, with the approval and even the participation of the army.

While the 700,000 settlers who live in 300 settlements and outposts enjoy new roads, civil rights, and state funding - illegally under international law but with the support of the Israeli state - Palestinians are isolated from each other by 700 checkpoints and road blockades.

Ibrahim can no longer graze his herd to the east, where a settlement extends, nor to the west, where the tower scrutinises their every move - all they have left is a small valley near a road. “The most confusing is that many settlers have joined the military so that we cannot know who exactly is attacking us – the distinction doesn’t matter anymore.”

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On some days, Israeli activists accompany Ibrahim and his family. "We're here to document violations, and to dissuade settlers from attacking," explains Miriam (first name changed), in her forties, who speaks to Ibrahim in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew.

Around fifty international and Israeli activists, most of them Jewish, take turns to protect the shepherds and Bedouins from incursions by settlers, the Israeli army, and the police. They sleep in the homes of the most at-risk inhabitants, accompany shepherds, and rush to the scene when an incident breaks out – several times a day.

The settlers often turn back when they discover the presence of journalists and observers - even if they too have been the target of attacks in the past.

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View of part of Umm al-Khair and the surrounding area in Masafer Yatta. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

A wave of arrests, violence, and harassment

At least 466 Palestinians have been killed and almost 8,000 arrested in the West Bank since 7 October. Over the weekend there was a surge in violence, with a group of around 50 settlers rampaging in towns near Nablus, killing two Palestinians.

Repression against Israeli and foreign Jewish activists has also increased. Last month, a Knesset subcommittee met to discuss violence in the West Bank, with right-wing Israeli politicians blaming “radical, anarchist left-wing activists” that “harass” soldiers and “heroic settlers” and calling for tougher measures against them.

Since then, several of the activists The New Arab met in Masafer Yatta have been arrested and even banned from entering the West Bank by Israeli authorities. They report being harassed and intimated by the army more than ever before.

“The hearing has unleashed the aggressivity of the soldiers and settlers,” one activist from the Jewish Center for Nonviolence (JWNV) told The New Arab, preferring to remain anonymous.

“It appears that Israeli authorities have escalated their repression of volunteers,” the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) said in a statement. Attacks against activists were justified by Knesset politicians by framing “aid workers in the West Bank - Palestinian, Israeli, and international alike” as a “key enemy in Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza”, the ISM added.

"They are not only protected by the army and police but also financed and armed by the government"

Settler shepherds

Live fire, beatings, insults, and demolitions; for the 3,500 Palestinian inhabitants of Masafer Yatta, every day brings a new danger.

Later that same afternoon, after The New Arab spoke with Ibrahim, a shepherd from Susya, a neighbouring hamlet, sounded the alarm: settlers were approaching. Three activists rushed to their car to document the incident.

"The Palestinians are all terrorists, we must occupy their land!" shouts the youngest settler, about ten years old, as he intrudes into the Palestinian area with his herd while others watch from afar, armed and ready to intervene.

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They are part of the so-called ‘Hilltop Youth’, an organisation of settlers who storm the Palestinian hills with their herds, building outposts and farms.

"This has been the settlers' new tactic for the past two years, and it's very clever: with just one herd, they can terrorise Palestinians for miles around, while pretending to be simple shepherds," explains Alma, an Israeli activist.

The Palestinian shepherd instructs the young settler to leave but doesn't dare get any closer for fear of being shot. He calls the Israeli military police, who arrive a little later. The young settler moves away, and the police take the shepherd's statement, offering to press charges.

"Since the courts systematically clear the settlers, everyone knows it's pointless," sighs Alma. "And they systematically send young minors to escape prosecution."

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Samiha Nowaja and her flock of sheep in the Susya valley, below an outpost of the Israeli settlement of the same name. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

Expulsions and destruction

On the same day, the Israeli army demolished a house in a nearby village, without The New Arab being able to visit the site. An outpost will probably take its place.

Masafer Yatta is in Zone C, under Israeli military control (as is 61% of the West Bank), and a large part of it is designated as a "firing zone" or army training area. Palestinians are forbidden to build any structures there - and if they do, they can all be demolished.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government decided to evict over 1,000 inhabitants from their homes in Masafer Yatta last year.

In the neighbouring hamlet of Umm al-Khair, most have faced evictions before. "We were expelled from our land in Arad (now in Israel) in 1948, then from the top of the hill in 1982, our whole village was razed several times - but we always came back," says Awdeh Hathaleen, a young activist and teacher from Umm al-Kheir.

"Masafer Yatta is a strategic region for settlers, as it allows them to carve up Palestinian territory from the south and connect with settlers in the Jordan Valley"

Since 2007, 109 houses have been demolished and rebuilt. The hamlet of 300 people resembles a shantytown, while only ten meters away stand the red-roofed houses of Israel’s Carmel settlement.

"This is apartheid: the settlers have water, electricity, security and all the rights, and a few meters away, we're totally excluded," he sighs. Activists tell how when a young settler murdered a young Palestinian earlier this year in Umm al-Kheir, the police only confiscated his pistol.

"You have to understand that the settlers are just the tip of the iceberg of a whole colonial and genocidal system," says Awdeh. "They are not only protected by the army and police but also financed and armed by the government." National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both far-right activists, live in settlements and co-lead settler organisations that support the Hilltop Youth.

International and Israeli organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty, and B'Tselem have denounced Israel's "apartheid regime" in the West Bank. Only 18% of the West Bank is under the effective control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), itself accused by many Palestinians of collaborating with the occupation.

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The state arms settlers

"On 7 October, the settlers and the army blocked all the roads and forbade us to leave our villages for over three months," says Awdeh. "We're on our own, and the [Palestinian] Authority isn't going to help us," he sighs. Unable to cultivate their fields, herd their animals or go out for supplies, the inhabitants of Masafer Yatta have survived thanks to deliveries of humanitarian aid from solidarity organisations.

"Masafer Yatta is a strategic region for settlers, as it allows them to carve up Palestinian territory from the south and connect with settlers in the Jordan Valley," asserts Jamal Juma’, director of Stop the Wall, a Palestinian organisation that documents the construction of Israel’s separation wall and settlements.

"The settler-herder tactic is fairly recent and allows the Israeli state to escape sanctions: it's easier for the West to sanction a few individual settlers than the whole state," he explains.

The European Union and the United States issued travel bans for a dozen "ultra-violent" settlers in December and March. But "the theory of isolated ultra-violent settlers is a decoy, and these sanctions won't change anything in practice, because they don't affect the systemic and political root of colonisation", criticises Jamal Juma’.

Settlements in the West Bank are illegal in their entirety under international law, which prohibits any occupying power from colonising or annexing occupied territories. But, in addition to subsidies on electricity and water and exemption from certain taxes, the government has distributed over 300 assault rifles to settlers since 7 October.

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Ibrahim, a shepherd from Wadi Jheish, poses in front of his flock of sheep and the Israeli settlers' watchtower in Masafer Yatta. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

As the sun sets, orange light floods the Susya valley’s green pastures. After a long day out, Samiha Nowaja, a fifty-year-old shepherd, leads her sheep back to the village.

“Nothing has happened so far, for the first time in a while,” she sighs with relief, grinning. Suddenly, two settlers appear on the opposite ridge, riding motorbikes. Samiha’s smile vanishes, the hope of an uneventful day gone.

They stay there for a few long minutes before turning back. “Who knows what they would have done to us if you hadn’t been here,” she tells The New Arab. As the red sun disappears behind the hilltops, a sense of fear pervades the valley

“Of course, I have thought of leaving. But we will remain steadfast no matter the intimidations because our land is all we have,” she said. Since then, Samiha has sent The New Arab daily videos of settler attacks and provocations in her area. There are too many to keep count.

Philippe Pernot is a French-German photojournalist living in Beirut. Covering anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements, he is now the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau and an editor for various international media. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilippePernot7