Palestinians in West Bank’s Masafer Yatta decry settler attacks

Hebron, Occupied West Bank – Aisha al-Huraini has not had a full night of sleep for more than a week.

“Every day, the [Israeli] soldiers are raiding the village,” she says, seated on a couch in her home in the village of al-Tuwani in the Masafer Yatta region of the occupied West Bank. On a couch adjacent to her rests a large poster bearing the image of her husband, 52-year-old Hafez, who was released from a 10-day stint in Israeli detention on Thursday.

“The soldiers shoot tear gas and stun grenades directly at our home,” adds Aisha, a mother of eight. “It never ends.”

On the floor outside her front door is residue from these grenades; a rug on the ground has charred marks on it. From the house, an Israeli flag is visible, fluttering above Israel’s Ma’on settlement and the Havat Ma’on outpost, located just a few hundred metres away. Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are considered illegal under international law.

On September 12, Hafez and other Palestinian farmers were approached by a group of Israeli settlers from the Havat Ma’on outpost, wielding metal pipes and an M-16 rifle, as the farmers were tending to the family’s small farm plot, where they plant olives, figs, tomatoes, zucchini, and other vegetables. A video of the incident shows Hafez grabbing a shovel and swinging at the group, striking one of the settlers and fracturing his skull. According to Sami, Hafez’s 25-year-old son, one of the settlers began beating Hafez with a metal pipe, fracturing his arms.

Moments later, the armed settler fired his M-16 into the air. This is when Aisha heard the commotion outside and ran towards the farm. “When I arrived, Hafez was already on the ground with blood on his hands,” she says.

A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance arrived, along with Israeli police officials and soldiers, and the family put Hafez on a trolley. But they were intercepted by Israeli police and soldiers who informed them Hafez was under arrest. According to Sami, the settlers pulled out knives and stabbed the tyres of the ambulance.

Hafez arrived in Israel’s Ofer military court facing an allegation of attempted murder, which was later reduced to a charge of grievous bodily harm – with two large plaster casts around his arms.  He was released on bail after 10 days. None of the settlers involved in the incident was arrested.

“This is occupation: the victim is arrested and jailed while the perpetrator continues to walk free,” Sami tells Al Jazeera. “This case shows an example to other settlers that if they keep attacking us they will never face any consequences.”

Palestinian farm near Israeli settlement
The Huraini family’s farm, with the Har Ma’on outpost in the background [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

‘Very violent’

Israeli settler attacks are a common occurrence in al-Tuwani, and Hafez has been arrested at least four times before. A prominent human rights activist, Hafez comes from a long line of outspoken Palestinians. His mother, Fatma Huraini, a Palestinian refugee who died in July at the age of 95, was a notable figure in the resistance movement in Masafer Yatta. She suffered several injuries during confrontations with Israeli forces and settlers over the years, causing her to lose an eye and ear, according to the family.

Sami has been arrested several times and says he was intentionally run over by an Israeli settler in 2018, which fractured the bones in his leg. His 18-year-old brother was first arrested at the age of 12, and has since been arrested at least six times, according to Aisha.

The Huraini family’s neighbour, 68-year-old Khadra Rabia, was born and raised in al-Tuwani. She remembers when the first settlers came to the area in the 1980s, establishing the outpost that would expand into the Ma’on settlement.

“They have always been very violent towards us since they came here,” she tells Al Jazeera, sitting on the floor of her small home. Rabia says she has been attacked numerous times while herding her sheep or attempting to access her farmland.

According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, the violence escalated with the establishment of the Havat Ma’on outpost in 1997 and then again in 2000, with the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada. The violence includes attempts to burn down Palestinians’ tent dwellings, attacking shepherds and farmers, preventing them from accessing their pastures or agricultural plots, vandalising olive and fruit trees, setting dogs on people, and stealing and harming sheep.

INTERACTIVE- 4 Settler violence

The group says Israeli authorities generally do not intervene in these attacks and fail to enforce the law on violent settlers.

Rabia has a large scar that protrudes from the side of her mouth. She says she sustained it in 2014 when confrontations erupted with about 25 Israeli settlers who attempted to prevent her and two other farmers from accessing their land. A rock struck her in the mouth, causing a gash on her face that sent her to the hospital. Two years ago, she was hit directly in the chest with a tear gas canister shot by Israeli forces, which caused burns.

“They make life very difficult for us,” she says. “We were living a simple life before. We never bothered anyone. We were just herding our sheep, farming, and taking care of our children. But these settlers have disrupted everything.”

According to the Huraini family, al-Tuwani has seen a noticeable uptick in Israeli raids and settler attacks since a May 4 Israeli High Court decision to reject a petition from families in Masafer Yatta who are among 1,300 Palestinians living in an area designated as a “firing zone” by the Israeli army since the 1980s. Al-Tuwani village lies adjacent to this zone.

The Huraini family has been active in the movement to prevent the forced removal of communities within the firing zone, which are facing imminent expulsions. Daily raids and periodic demolition campaigns have defined life for these communities since the May decision, which UN experts say could amount to a possible war crime.

“Once they finish evicting everyone from the firing zone, they will come for us too,” Rabia says. “No Palestinian is safe here.”

Khadra Rabia
Khadra Rabia says she has been attacked several times over the years [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Hafez was released on bail of 10,000 shekels ($2,890) and into the warm embrace of his family and supporters, who have since been lining up at his home in al-Tuwani to greet the activist. The court also ruled that Hafez not be allowed to enter the site of the incident – his own land – for 30 days.

“We are very happy to have him home with us,” Aisha tells Al Jazeera. “He is a good man who is defending his home, his land, and his family. But we know it’s only a matter of time until the settlers come back to attack us – and the police once again take him away from us.”