Trigger warning: Sexual violence, assault, racism
‘Today we have no food, no clothes, no schools, no homes, nothing. Now, we’re wandering. I’m 50 years old. Everything I have worked for, for my children, it’s over. The occupation has taken my house and everything else. They’ve done to me what they did in 1948, and today I’m a refugee.’
These are not the words of a displaced Palestinian in Gaza, but of Abu Bashar, a Bedouin community leader from the West Bank village of Wadi al-Siq.
On 12 October, armed settlers and Israeli soldiers stormed his village, nestled in the hills east of Ramallah, telling residents they had one hour to leave, or they’d be killed. In the scramble to escape, Wadi al-Siq’s 187 residents were forced to abandon cars and belongings, fleeing on foot in scenes reminiscent of the Nakba (Catastrophe) 75 years ago.
Wadi al-Siq is not an isolated case. Under the cover of the massive ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza – where more than 6,500 Palestinians have been killed – following Hamas’s attack that claimed some 1,400 Israeli lives in southern Israel on 7 October, colonists have accelerated their violent political project to uproot Palestinians from their land and expand Israeli control of the West Bank.
Eight entire Palestinian villages – home to 87 families numbering 472 people, including 137 children – have been abandoned in under two weeks, and six others have been partially depopulated. Many rural Bedouin communities are now facing an existential threat. The operations have targeted communities across the West Bank, from the remote hills east of Ramallah to the Jordan Valley and to the south, around the city of Hebron. The current political climate – one where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clamouring for ‘revenge’ and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant can confidently call Palestinians ‘human animals’ has created a situation of almost total impunity for Israeli settlers.
‘They entered our homes and beat us’
Wadi al-Siq has been home to Bedouin refugees since 1973. Abu Bashar says his parents were forced out of the Naqab (Negev) desert, in the Zionist ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948, wandering for several years before settling in the rocky hills near Ramallah. For years, the small community has faced a constant campaign of violence and intimidation from illegal settler outposts surrounding the village. In a bid to protect Wadi al-Siq from attacks, Palestinian activists set up a round-the-clock presence there in June 2023. The organizing was done by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission (CWRC), in collaboration with Israeli opponents of the occupation and international volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
I joined the collective presence in Wadi al-Siq several times during September 2023. Close to 20 of us spent those nights in a large tent in the Bedouin village. We took turns sleeping and doing patrols around the area with cameras and flashlights – hoping to deter attacks from the settlers from the outpost. During the day, we sat in the school playground. The swings and benches became a makeshift lookout post with a clear view of the colonists’ tents, just 200 metres from the school.
The people of Wadi al-Siq were kind and welcoming, bringing us tea and snacks and sitting down to chat while we all kept watch. The children were friendly and inquisitive about us foreigners. As we boarded their school bus in an attempt to deter attacks on their way home from class, young boys made jokes and asked us about our favourite football team. But the perpetual threat of violence hanging over the village was clearly taking its toll. The villagers were sleep deprived from constant night watches, and the teachers were worn down and stressed, working just a stone’s throw away from an encampment of violent extremists.
Teachers told us that settlers had pointed their guns through the windows of a classroom crowded with children and stolen the batteries from the school’s solar panels during the night.
After 7 October, the attacks against the community intensified. Armed settlers dressed in military uniforms blocked the roads to the village, attacking anyone who tried to leave and confiscated residents’ phones, Abu Bashar says. In the days that followed, armed settlers repeatedly invaded the village, breaking into homes, opening fire on residents and smashing up the school. ‘They entered our houses while we were sleeping and beat us, and terrorized the children,’ Abu Bashar recalls. Fearing the worst, many families began to pack up their belongings on 10 October. In just two days, the majority of the village had fled.
Members of the protective presence were also targeted. Salah Khawaja, one of the Palestinian organisers had been staying in Wadi al-Siq overnight on 11 October when armed settlers came to his tent and threatened to kill anybody who took pictures of them. The next day, three Palestinian men – two members of the CWRC and a Wadi al-Siq resident – were abducted by settlers and soldiers. A shocking photograph was posted on an ultra-Zionist Facebook group of the men stripped almost naked and blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. New Internationalist has also received photos of the men later that day covered in bruises. Some of these pictures were taken when the men were admitted to hospital. The three told Israeli media that they were beaten with an iron bar, two of them were urinated on, one had cigarettes put out on his skin, and one was sexually assaulted with an object. They were held for six hours. (The Israeli army told local media that an investigation had been opened about this incident and the commander in charge has been ‘dismissed’).
On 12 October, settlers and soldiers returned to Wadi al-Siq, this time with an explicit order to leave or die. ‘They took our IDs and telephones, so that we couldn’t record or photograph,’ Abu Bashar says, recalling the nightmare of that day. ‘They handcuffed our young men and told us: “You have one hour”.’ The community leader claims the command came from both the soldiers and the settlers. (The Israeli military did not respond to New Internationalist’s request for comment over allegations it took part in the displacement of residents of Wadi al-Siq.)
West Bank annexation plan
The recent spate of attacks mark a terrifying escalation in Israel’s decades long war of attrition against the rural communities of the West Bank. As the B’Tselem human rights organization wrote in a recent report: ‘It may appear as though settlers show up at Palestinian communities and start attacking them on their own initiative. In fact, these actions are part of Israel’s well-known, longstanding policy to make life so miserable for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank that the residents eventually leave, seemingly of their own accord.’
Over the past year the campaign of intimidation by Israeli colonists, emboldened by Netanyahu’s far-right government, has reached new heights. At least four communities – Al Beqa’a, Al Qabun, Ras-al-Tin and Ein Samia – have been forced out of the East Ramallah area alone since 2019, after 10 new illegal settlement outposts were set up nearby. The villages are all located in Area C, the region of the West Bank under total Israeli military and political control. Israel uses its jurisdiction to unlawfully populate the region with settlers, and routinely demolish Palestinian homes.
The settlers’ objectives are in line with the long-held aims of the Israeli state, which has had its eye on the arid pastoral lands between Ramallah and Jericho for decades. In July 1967, shortly after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, former Israeli general Yigal Allon proposed a scheme which became known as the Allon Plan. This plan aimed to bisect the West Bank and annex a large proportion of it to Israel. Crucially, it intended to expropriate a strategic corridor of land, running from the west of the territory occupied in 1967 all the way to the Jordanian border. This area has been heavily colonized since 1967, and is roughly where some of the recent displacements of Bedouin communities have taken place.
‘We have to go back to our homes’
The 27 displaced families from Wadi al-Siq are now staying in the nearby villages of Ramun and Taybeh.
When residents were finally allowed to return to the site of their former homes, escorted by the army, they found the village had been ransacked. Tents, solar panels and batteries were gone, flour strewn on the floor, houses emptied, money stolen and the school damaged. ‘They left us nothing,’ Abu Bashar told me. ‘Everything’s ruined. I’ve lost equipment to the tune of 200,000 shekels (48,975 US dollars). More than that, I lost herds and fodder, on top of the house... but God gives me strength against the oppressor.’
The people of Wadi al-Siq have received help from neighbours, however, they have yet to get support from the Palestinian Authority (PA) or NGOs. The displaced community now face a winter without shelter. Abu Bashar says his people ultimately want to return home, but in the meantime are calling on the PA to provide land for a temporary camp. ‘Winter is on the way, and we’re finding it hard to go on. We need support. We’ve lost everything. And we need people internationally to make pressure for the settlers to leave our homes so that we can return to them… we have to go back to our homes.’
The ransacked remains of abandoned Bedouin villages are now scattered across the West Bank. Just days after the displacement of Wadi al-Siq, villagers in the nearby community of Ein Rashah were also chased out, according to Israeli activists. Elsewhere, settlers have launched deadly attacks on Palestinians. On 11 October, a group of armed settlers opened fire on Palestinian youths in the village of Qusra, near Nablus, killing four people. The next day, the funeral procession for the four men was also attacked, and two more people were killed.
There is a clear threat that the ethnic cleansing will carry on unabated. B’Tselem has described the settler violence as ‘pogroms’. ‘We are seeing the settlers exploiting the situation in order to expedite and accelerate their efforts to Judaize Area C,’ the group’s spokesperson Dror Sadot says.
Sadot sees the settlers’ actions as the opening of a ‘new front’, and a ‘fast-forwarding of the settlers’ and states’ efforts’ that will not stop without international intervention.
Khawaja agrees: ‘It’s very important to also campaign about what the Israelis are doing in the West Bank. All the eyes of the people are looking at what’s happening in Gaza, but they are not seeing what’s happening here.’