“Any Second They Could Come”

As Israeli demolitions and settler attacks escalate, Palestinians in the village of Umm al-Khair stare down the possibility of expulsion.

Maya Rosen
July 11, 2024

The Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair and the settlement of Carmel, separated by a fence, July 7th.

Emily Glick

On July 1st, Samira was feeding her two young children in her home in Umm al-Khair—a small Palestinian Bedouin village of some 250 people in the southern West Bank region of Masafer Yatta—when she heard cries for help. She rushed outside to find her 16-year-old cousin on the ground, tears streaming down his face as Israeli settlers from a nearby outpost stood over him, pepper spray in hand. Other women from the village, many of them elderly, gathered around, and the settlers began to beat them with sticks. “I saw my mom lying on the ground next to me, and my mother-in-law on the other side of me,” Samira, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her safety, told me. “I didn’t understand what was happening.”

Samira recognized these settlers; they often harassed the village’s residents, and had become bolder in the past weeks after the Israeli military demolished 11 structures in Umm al-Khair, leaving 38 people, including 30 children, homeless. Three days after the demolitions, the settlers arrived and forcibly entered Palestinians’ homes, demanding to be served coffee; two days after that, they carried out the attack Samira witnessed. During that incursion, Shimon Attia, a notoriously violent local settler, arrived with a gun and began shooting live fire into the air as his compatriots continued pepper spraying and beating the old women. When an ambulance eventually arrived to try to bring the six injured women and children to a hospital, the settlers blocked it, with Attia calling out in Hebrew, “come on, come on, to the grave, to the grave!”

The attack on Umm al-Khair was one of hundreds that Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank have faced in the past months as the Israeli government has intensified its demolitions in the region and settlers have continued to rampage. The goal of such activities is clear: to make life untenable for Palestinians in these rural villages so as to facilitate the large-scale Israeli takeover of their land. Israeli officials have said as much: On Thursday, Orit Stroock, Israel’s minister of settlements and national missions (and herself a settler in Hebron), spoke to residents of the recently-legalized outpost of Givat Hanan in Masafer Yatta about plans to advance settlement construction in the West Bank. “As long as this government continues,” she said, “it’s a miraculous time. We’re living in a miracle. I feel like I’m at a traffic light and there’s a green light.” Because of this, “we need to do as much as possible, especially in the South Hebron Hills,” she said, referring to Masafer Yatta.

Settler leaders are taking this instruction to heart, repeatedly showing up to Palestinian villages and terrorizing their residents with the goal of getting them to leave. And judging by the degree of fear that Umm al-Khair locals are now living with—fear of demolitions as well as of settler assaults—this expulsionist effort seems to be gaining steam. “I feel I could get attacked any second,” Samira told me. “This is the first time I’ve felt the village is not my home.”

In Umm al-Khair, settlers and the state have been working together to take over Palestinian land for decades. The village was first established by two Palestinian refugees who had been forced out of their homes, alongside roughly 750,000 other Palestinians, during the mass expulsions of the 1948 Nakba. Umm al-Khair was never large, but in the early 1980s, significant amounts of the village’s already limited land was seized by Israel in order to build a military base. Very soon, the base was turned into the residential settlement of Carmel, which has continued to take over Umm al-Khair’s land in the years since. Nearly half of Umm al-Khair’s original land has now been appropriated by Carmel, and some of the settlement’s large, suburban-style houses now stand literally meters away from Umm al-Khair’s tents and makeshift one-room tin homes, separated only by a thin chain-link fence. While Carmel has been built up, in Umm al-Khair, building permits are nearly impossible to obtain, and access to basic infrastructure is routinely denied. Indeed, as Umm al-Khair residents have pointed out, the settler-owned chickens on the farms that surround their village have more rights and greater access to water and electricity than they do.

Now, settlers are once again working with the state to steal more of the village’s land. Carmel residents have long complained about Umm al-Khair’s communal tent—a central gathering place for community meetings and celebrations. Though the tent predated the establishment of the settlement, the settlers said its location very close to the Carmel fence posed a security risk to them. In recent weeks, these complaints increased in intensity as settlers repeatedly called authorities about the tent. According to Umm al-Khair residents, this renewed pressure is what eventually led to Israeli soldiers entering the village on June 26th to demolish the communal tent as well as ten other structures, including homes. As the military’s bulldozers knocked these tents and buildings to the ground, Umm al-Khair resident Tariq Hathaleen told me, Carmel residents stood on the other side of the fence, clapping and cheering. The settlement regional council later posted on social media, thanking the military for carrying out the demolitions and reminding settlers to continue reporting “illegal building.”

Eid Hathaleen sorting through the rubble of his home in Umm al-Khair, July 7th.

Emily Glick

Palestinian residents say that settlers often seize upon moments of crisis and despair following demolitions to escalate their violence. “Settlers think that once Israel has taken the step of demolishing our homes, we will lose hope of continuing to live in this community. So that is when they come to raise the pressure on the people,” Ali Awad—a journalist and community organizer from the nearby village of Tuba, whose family owns an orchard in Umm al-Khair—told me in an interview. In keeping with this trend, settlers began making near-daily trips to Umm al-Khair in the two weeks since the demolition, including one where Attia set up a tent inside the village and his sons shouted racial and sexual slurs at locals, and another where settlers cut the village’s only water pipe as the army stood by and watched, leaving Palestinian residents with no access to water even as temperatures approached the high 90s. “What the state and the Civil Administration can’t do by law against Palestinians, settlers do masked,” Awad told me. The impulse behind these attacks is clearly expulsionist. Tariq showed me a video that he filmed a few months ago where two of the settlers who carried out the past week’s attacks discuss their plans. The settlers had either not seen him or assumed he didn’t understand Hebrew, enabling Tariq to covertly film them workshopping strategies. “They’ll pack up and go, no doubt about it,” one says, explaining the way harassment wears Palestinians down. “Just cut their water pipe, bro,” the other responds.

The attacks on Umm al-Khair tend to receive significant international attention due to the community’s deep relationships with Masafer Yatta’s community of solidarity activists (which, for transparency, I have been involved with for close to ten years). The village has been working with outside activists since the early 2000s, and in the past decade or so, it has been a standard stop on trips organized by groups like IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, Breaking the Silence, or J Street, where American Jews come to learn about or fight against the occupation. While these connections certainly do not make Umm al-Khair immune to state or settler violence, they do enable the community to share its story globally in times of crisis. “The international pressure of people watching is so important,” Awad told me. “People are living under catastrophe, but once they know others are coming, they feel less alone. This is enough for them to be able to resist and stay in their homes.” Israeli and international activists have also helped by providing “protective presence,” that is, physically accompanying Palestinians at risk of settler violence, documenting attacks and demolitions, and communicating, when requested, with Hebrew-speaking police and soldiers. Support from solidarity activists has been beneficial recently: For instance, after Attia cut Umm al-Khair’s water pipe, the Israeli military faced enough scrutiny that it eventually accompanied Palestinians to restore the water pipes. Umm al-Khair locals say that sufficient protective presence might have helped other villages in the area that were expelled after October 7th: “I hope that one day they will all receive the same attention that Umm al-Khair receives, where people speak out for the community and raise awareness,” said Tariq.

Ultimately, however, there is only so much activists can do under the settler-state onslaught, especially as it plays out in dozens of villages at once. During the slightly over 24 hours I spent in Umm al-Khair reporting for this article, the village was quiet. However, in that same 24-hour period in the rest of Masafer Yatta, settlers established a new caravan on Palestinian land; entered Palestinian property on at least four occasions to intimidate local residents, stealing a donkey in one case, and grazing their sheep in Palestinian villages in another five cases; destroyed a Palestinian garden; attacked a Palestinian man’s home and destroyed many of his possessions; and attacked four activists as police watched, unconcerned. Meanwhile, Israeli forces demolished three Palestinian houses, three animal pens, and a school; arrested seven activists in one instance, and a Palestinian resident who was being intimidated by settlers in another; and detained an Israeli activist and two journalists. That was all in a single day; in the same period, not a single settler was detained for violence committed, nor were any settlement building projects stopped. In recent months, every day has looked like this in Masafer Yatta. Under this rampage, over 1,000 individuals in Area C have been expelled from their villages since October 7th.

Palestinians in Umm al-Khair have been watching these expulsions in fear; now, the recent demolitions and attacks signal that their own village might be next. Those whose homes have been demolished talk about rebuilding, but don’t yet know how that will be possible. “There is no guarantee. The Israelis can come back and can demolish it again and again,” Eid Hathaleen told me as he stood among the rubble of his home, which he built in 2007 and which he lived in with his wife and five daughters until its destruction a week and a half earlier. The first night after the demolition, Eid slept among the rubble of his home, but has since stopped because his children are afraid of the demolition site; his youngest daughter won’t even cross to the side of the village where the house used to stand. “I feel less power, less hope. I feel there are no more choices,” Eid told me. “There is no guarantee for any house, and that makes you desperate.” Other village residents I spoke to also echoed the particular horror of not knowing when the next catastrophe might strike: “Everyone in the village is afraid of the future,” Awdah Hathaleen told me. Although he was adamant that the only way the people of Umm al-Khair would leave the village was if they were killed there, Awdah conceded that people would not survive if the settlers succeeded in permanently severing their water supply, which increasingly seemed like a real possibility. “For the first time, I truly feel desperate,” Samira said. “I wish, for the first time, that I wasn’t born here, that this wasn’t my life.”

As I interviewed Samira, her nearly four-year-old son played nearby, babbling to himself in Arabic. Twenty minutes in, we heard him mention Attia; he had concocted a game in which his mother and I were the settler’s two sons, who had both taken part in the attack a few days earlier. Samira watched him worriedly: “He was so afraid during the attack,” she told me, explaining that he had seen Attia shoot his gun, after which he hid under the bed for hours. That night, he shook in his sleep and woke up repeatedly, screaming from night terrors. And since the attack, he has developed a stutter. Samira has tried in vain to reassure her son. “I told him they won’t come back, but the next day they were back,” she told me. Now, many people in the village are asking the same question: When will they next come back, and what will they do to us this time? Some have been staying up all night to watch for possible settlers entering in the dark. “They could come any second to take us,” her husband, who had been up until daybreak watching for settlers, said, as Samira nodded. “Any second they could come.”

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.