Amid a Settler Onslaught, Protective Presence Activism Falters

As settlers rampage, Israeli and international activists are struggling to leverage their relative privilege to protect Palestinians in the West Bank.

Aman Abhishek
November 28, 2023

Israeli soldiers prevent a Palestinian shepherd from continuing on the road in the village of Tuwani as activists intervene and record the incident, May 2022.

Photo by Emily Glick

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On October 12th, five Israeli activists with the anti-occupation group Ta’ayush traveled to the West Bank village of Wadi a-Seeq. Over the past week, Israeli settlers and soldiers had ramped up their violence against the area’s Palestinian communities following Hamas’s October 7th attacks, and the activists aimed to reduce the brunt of such assaults by physically accompanying Palestinians, a strategy known as “protective presence.” Under protective presence, Israeli and international activists try to use their privilege to “be the buffer between the Palestinians and the Israeli authorities and settlers,” as Elie Avidor from the anti-occupation group Jordan Valley Activists told me. However, since Israel began its war on Gaza—which many understand as an all-out war on Palestinians—the power of this form of activism has appeared to wane as Israeli settlers and soldiers operate with near-total impunity. The activists in Wadi a-Seeq witnessed this shift firsthand when soldiers and uniformed settlers attacked the village. Their presence did nothing to deter the assailants; indeed, the settlers proceeded to take all five Israelis captive alongside the three Palestinians they were trying to support.

The kidnappings represented an unprecedented escalation, calling into question the premise animating protective presence activism—namely, that under Israel’s apartheid system, non-Palestinians enjoy relative safety that can be leveraged to create something like a “protective presence” around Palestinians. In Wadi a-Seeq, Israeli American activist Oriel Eisner told me that Israeli activists themselves were “zip tied, shuffled around, and held in a room,” while their presence did nothing to protect Palestinians from torture and attempted sexual assault. “This situation represents a new level of violence that we are not used to,” Eisner said. Sahar Vardi, an Israeli activist from South Hebron Hills said that since October 7th, “the level of risk in doing protective presence is growing, and the effectiveness of protective presence is decreasing.”

Protective presence has been a part of anti-occupation activism in the West Bank since the early 2000s, when organizations like Ta’ayush and the International Solidarity Movement began bringing Israeli and international activists to help Palestinians resist dispossession. The strategy has been especially important in recent years as settler attacks and military raids have grown increasingly frequent. Palestinians often try to resist these assaults through legal challenges, individual defiance, and collective protest. But Israeli soldiers and settlers are quick to repress such efforts, violently cracking down on Palestinians trying to hold on to their land. In this context, the presence of non-Palestinian—and especially Israeli Jewish—activists becomes a useful avenue of resistance. Israelis, and to some extent foreign nationals, find it easier to engage in nonviolent direct action like filming settler and army transgressions because they enjoy significant protections under Israel’s civilian legal system, unlike Palestinians—who, if arrested, are tried in Israeli military courts and sentenced to harsh punishments with a 99% rate of conviction. By being present at the scene, such activists are thus freer to involve Israeli police in an attempt to deter settlers, demand that soldiers show the orders they are following rather than acting arbitrarily or illegally, and sometimes even use their bodies to nonviolently obstruct house demolitions, evictions, arrests, and assaults targeting Palestinians.

While such activism has not been enough to halt the overall pace of the dispossession, it has nevertheless had some important successes. Large mobilizations of Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists have been able to delay or even avert destruction of entire villages, like in the case of Khan al-Ahmar in 2018, where the Israeli government was forced to indefinitely delay the demolition of the village. “Every single day that we are able to help stop the Palestinian communities from getting displaced is a success,” said Guy Hirschfeld, an Israeli activist from the group Looking the Occupation in the Eye.

For years, such activism has also attempted to check the rising dispossession in smaller ways, especially through the use of filming. “If there is no documentation, then unfortunately it’s like the event didn’t happen,” said Yeheli Cialic from Mesarvot, an anti-occupation group that supports Israeli military service refusers. Arik Asherman, who led the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights for two decades, said that “filming settlers deters them a bit.” Such recordings are also useful in protecting Palestinians and allies against false accusations of attacking settlers or soldiers. “There have been cases where the police or the army wanted to frame us, and the footage saved us because it showed that we didn’t do what the army accused us of,” Asherman said. On rare occasions, visual evidence has even helped compel the Israeli police to register a case against violent settlers. Filming has also made the occupation more visible to the international community and the Israeli public, with human rights organizations like B’Tselem including visual evidence of violence in their reports and databases, and journalists relying on the footage in their reporting.

Even before October 7th, doing protective presence work was not easy. As Hirschfeld told me, activists “are sometimes hated more than Palestinians,” with settlers and soldiers, as well as Israeli media, seeing them as antisemites, traitors, and Hamas supporters. Still, activists were able to operate relatively safely most of the time. But amid the growing militarization of West Bank settlers, that safety has become increasingly precarious. According to Haaretz, the Israeli army has distributed about 8,000 weapons to settlement defense squads and regional battalions in the West Bank since October 7th, and plans to recruit settlers with no prior military experience to “defend” the settlements. Activists on the ground are seeing the results of that policy. “A lot of settlers are enlisted into some settlement security force. Some are in uniform, some not, and all have military-grade weapons,” Vardi told me. Eisner agreed that there has been a “proliferation of weaponry in settlements under the guise of security,” noting that “settlers see themselves as part of the Israeli war effort.” In addition to being armed and given free rein, Vardi said, “settlers are talking about revenge—and they mean it.”

Such growing settler impunity has made protective presence activism much harder, with activists sometimes struggling even to enter Palestinian communities because of physical roadblocks that have been placed to obstruct the way in. David Shulman, an Israeli scholar and longtime member of Ta’ayush, described how some Israeli activists were accompanying Palestinians to deliver medicines to a West Bank community on October 15th when they came across a roadblock manned by armed settlers. “The settlers stopped the car and wanted to drag the Palestinians out of it and beat them up,” he told me. While in this case an army officer intervened to prevent violence, such intercession is far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israeli forces have either accompanied or actively supported settlers in nearly half of their recent attacks on Palestinians. On October 12th, for instance, settlers attacked the village of Tuwani, but far from stopping them, “the army chatted and shook hands with the settlers as they returned to their outpost,” said Eisner, who was one of the protective presence activists present in Tuwani. When Eisner and his companions called the Israeli police to try and stop the settlers, the police likewise “completely ignored [us] and didn’t even call back,” Eisner recalled. Efforts to use filming to deter settlers also failed; in fact, the settlers proved their indifference to activist scrutiny by shooting in the direction of an Italian activist who was also present in the village for protective presence.

In addition to showing the limits of protective presence in wartime Israel/Palestine, attacks like the kidnapping in Wadi a-Seeq and the shootings in Tuwani have also had a chilling effect on activism itself. In the days following these two incidents, text messages began circulating among anti-occupation activist groups suggesting that the scope of protective presence activism should be curtailed because of unprecedented risks. “We’re not going to give up,” Shulman said. “We’ll go on doing whatever we can in those places that we can still reach, and we’ll take the risks.” However, as Vardi explained, “it is now important that seasoned activists, or those with connections in the area, go there, and that they know what they are getting into.”

While activists might be forced to scale back protective presence efforts, settlers are continuing to dispossess small, isolated Palestinian communities in Area C—the roughly 60% of the West Bank’s territory under full Israeli control. Already, over 800 Palestinians have been displaced in settler attacks since October 7th, a figure that represents 43% of all Palestinians displaced since 2022. Many activists are seeing these displacements happen in real time. In the village of Ein al-Rashash, for example, round-the-clock protective presence had helped the community hold on to their land, but eventually settler violence became too much to bear. In mid-October, the residents—18 families consisting of 85 Palestinians—packed most of their belongings and left the village. The 180 residents of Wadi a-Seeq also met with the same fate despite activists’ protective presence, and the list continues to grow. “I am really devastated,” said Shulman. “We persevered through all kinds of violence for years. These communities are friends of ours. To watch them go into exile is an agony. Truly an agony.”

Aman Abhishek is a PhD candidate in media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.