Qalqilya, occupied West Bank – In his lifetime, Ibrahim Salah, 65, has planted 450 olive trees on his land in Far’ata village.
In recent years, almost half of those trees have been uprooted or set ablaze by settlers. And each time Salah travelled to his land to harvest his remaining olives after receiving Israeli permission, the olives had already been harvested and stolen by Israeli settlers.
Salah is now forced to work as a construction worker to make ends meet after losing his olives — his main source of livelihood.
The settler violence began 16 years ago, almost immediately after the first Israelis came to the area to settle on the hilltop, establishing Havat Gilad as an illegal Israeli outpost. The outpost began with no more than 10 Israeli settlers, but is now home to more than 40 Israeli families.
While Palestinian villagers’ lives unraveled, the settlers focused on reshaping the landscape to fit their religious ideologies: that this land is only for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and, most importantly, devoid of Palestinians.
“We used to always be on our land. Before the settlers came, we had a simple life. There were always people farming or making barbecues with their families on the land,” Salah said.
Salah, like more than half of the residents in Far’ata village, was dependent on the olive harvests. He owned several acres of land that were consumed by the outpost.
“When they began targeting the olives, they took our main source of income,” the father of seven told Mondoweiss. “We would wait the whole year to get olive oil to sell. But now there’s no chance for me to plant or take care of my olives.”
“It feels like our entire world collapsed after this outpost was established,” he added.
Earlier this year, the Israeli government retroactively legalized the Havat Gilad outpost, despite condemnation among rights groups.
‘They’ll have to kill us to get us out of here’
The Havat Gilad outpost was established by Itay Zar in 2002, following the killing of his brother Gilad, one of the founders of the Israeli settlement of Itamar, by a Palestinian gunman in 2001.
Havat Gilad is situated within a ring of settlements in the northern West Bank that includes the settlements of Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Itamar, Elon Moreh, and Shavei Shomron. The settlements surround the northern city of Nablus and severely restrict Palestinian movement in the area, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
These settlements are a hotbed for Jewish extremism. According to Shabtay Bendet, head of the settlements watch team at the Israeli NGO Peace Now and a former settler himself, religious settlers believe “it is imperative to seize every spot on the ground” in the West Bank in order to prevent the possibility of the land becoming part of a Palestinian state in a potential peace deal with Israel.
Ezri Tubi, the former spokesperson for the right-wing Yitzhar settlement where a high percentage of settler attacks originate, told Mondoweiss that “no power in the world can stop this historical miracle of the Jewish people returning.” He said that the media’s criticisms of settlers in the occupied West Bank “has crossed the line into anti-Semitism and Jew hatred.”
All Israeli settlements established in the occupied Palestinian territory are considered illegal under international law. However, internal Israeli law only considers settler outposts, which are established without official government authorization, to be illegal.
Despite this, however, the Israeli government routinely provides the informal settlements with infrastructure, such as electricity, roads, and security. There are upwards of 600,000 Israeli settlers currently residing in the occupied Palestinian territory.
The Israeli government dismantled illegal structures and evacuated Havat Gilad on several occasions in the past, spurring violent clashes between settlers and the Israeli army.
Itay Zar and other residents of Havat Gilad refused Mondoweiss’ request for interviews.
However, Itay told the Israeli media outlet Ynet following a razing of the outpost in 2011 that “Our Zionist response to the destruction of the country is to build immediately, not just the razed structures but several other ones.”
“They’ll have to kill us to get us out of here,” Itay told The New York Times back in 2009.
The settlers of Havat Gilad are infamous for carrying out so-called “price tag attacks” on Palestinians and Israeli security forces. These attacks — usually involving anti-Palestinian graffiti, vandalism, slashing car tires, burning cars, homes and mosques in Palestinian villages — are considered by settlers as retribution for any actions taken against the Israeli settler movement.
The Palestinian villages of Far’ata, Immatain, Tell, Jit, and Sarra are all directly affected by Havat Gilad.
According to B’Tselem field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi, at least five major attacks on Palestinians in Far’ata and neighboring villages have occurred since the start of the year.
Just during the span of this year, Israeli settlers have vandalized homes and cars in the villages, physically assaulted Palestinians attempting to access their lands, set ablaze dozens of dunams of land belonging to villagers, and destroyed at least 20 olive trees and 15 almond trees.
Itay claims that the land of Havat Gilad — consisting of about 350 dunams, according to Peace Now — was sold by Palestinian landowners to his father Moshe Zar, an extremist settler leader and former member of the “Jewish Underground,” a radical right-wing group.
However, according to Peace Now, “it appears that only one of dozens of plots on which the outpost is located was registered in their names.”
The rest belongs to numerous Palestinian landowners from neighboring villages.
Moshe is the influential patriarch of the Zar family, many of whose members are avid supporters and leaders in the Israeli settlement movement in the occupied Palestinian territory. In 1984, Moshe was sentenced to three years in prison for the assassination of Palestinian mayors; however, he was released after a few months.
Following Gilad’s death, Moshe reportedly vowed to establish six outposts in his son’s memory, representing each Hebrew letter of Gilad’s name. One of these outposts was Havat Gilad.
Tubi told Mondoweiss that: “Everyone says that the two-state solution is dead. There’s no chance for a two-state solution. And a two-state solution would be halfway eradicating the state of Israel.”
“We are here and we are going to stay,” he said. “This is our ancestral lands. This is our promised land. Everything here belongs to the Jewish people.”
Tubi continued: “Palestinians can be here on the condition that they accept the fact that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.”
“If they accept that, then they are most welcome to live here and enjoy what the state of Israel can give to its minorities,” he said. Having a Jewish majority in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory is central to his and other settlers’ beliefs, he added.
‘Day by day the settlements expand’
The seemingly tranquil atmosphere of Far’ata village, with humble, narrow streets and olive groves as far as the eye can see, is interrupted by Hebrew graffiti and a Star of David graffitied on the walls and homes in the eastern outskirts of the village — the closest point to Havat Gilad.
One graffiti reads: “Down with the Civil Administration.” Tubi explains that settlers from Havat Gilad and other right-wing settlements in the area believe the Israeli civil administration favors the rights of Palestinians over those of Israeli settlers, owing to the administration at times enforcing the law on Israeli outposts.
“The settlements are like cancer,” Salah explained. “They start and then they spread. They take a small amount of land, and then — day by day — they expand.”
From 2002, when the outpost was first established, Salah says, Palestinians depended on protection from left-wing Israeli activists to access their lands amid frequent attacks by Havat Gilad residents.
However, after 2004, the Israeli army refused to permit Palestinians from entering the area. Now Palestinians are forced to apply for permits from the Israeli civil administration to access their lands.
The permits are provided only three or four days in October for olive harvesting season and two days in March for Palestinian farmers to plow their lands.
“Every time we go to our lands, we face issues with the settlers,” Salah explained. “They have beaten my wife and children. They throw stones at me when I am trying to harvest my olives. My wife has even been hospitalized after settlers threw rocks at her.”
Salah says that such attacks occur in the presence of Israeli soldiers, who rarely intervene during the violence. This practice among Israeli soldiers has long been documented by Israeli and Palestinian rights groups.
According to B’Tselem, “the Israeli legal system has consistently refrained from taking any action against Israeli assailants from Gilad Farm [Havat Gilad], as elsewhere in the West Bank. Even when soldiers are present during attacks against Palestinians, they often stand back and sometimes even take part in the attacks.”
This impunity “constitutes a privatized and ostensibly independent mechanism of land seizure that is applied throughout the West Bank, enabling the state to establish and expand dozens of settlements while claiming internationally that it is not,” B’Tselem has noted.
Following at least one incident in which settlers had stolen Salah’s olive harvest, he found the IDs of two settlers on his land who belonged to the Yitzhar and Shavei Shomron settlements, leading residents of the village to believe that Havat Gilad coordinates with other right-wing settlers in the area to carry out attacks and destroy the property of Palestinians.
Tubi, meanwhile, scoffed at the allegations of settler violence, saying that “their [Palestinian] lives are much more protected than ours.”
“The media isn’t interested in the violence that comes from the other side [Palestinian], which, of course is 10 times more dangerous and [occurs] more often against the Jews living here in Judea and Samaria,” he said.
According to the United Nations, since the start of this year, at least 201 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, as opposed to eight Israelis who have been killed by Palestinians.
At least 144 settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have been reported during the same time period.
Just 8.1 percent of investigations into ideologically motivated crimes against Palestinians have led to indictments, according to data from Israeli rights group Yesh Din, while only three percent of investigations have resulted in a conviction against an Israeli.
In contrast, Palestinians who carry out attacks on Israelis are routinely shot dead at the scene or face harsh prison sentences.
‘They are being rewarded’
In January, 35-year-old Rabbi Raziel Shevach, a father of six children and resident of Havat Gilad, was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen in a drive-by shooting on a highway near the settlement.
During Shevach’s funeral, right-wing settler youth — commonly referred to as “Hilltop Youth” — chanted “Revenge,” and, following the funeral, carried out attacks in Far’ata village.
According to Sadi, hundreds of settlers, some of whom were masked and armed, stormed the village. They threw rocks at Palestinian homes, shattering windows, slashed car tires and spray-painted Hebrew graffiti around the village.
It was the worst attack on the village since the outpost was established, Sadi says.
Aziz Tawil, 33, was one of those who had their homes attacked. “I heard people shouting in Hebrew,” the father of five told Mondoweiss. “I was scared for my wife and children.”
Tawil snuck out of the house during the attack and drove his wife and small children to the center of the town. The attack on his home lasted for about 15 minutes, he said.
Nowadays, like other residents in the eastern part of the village, Tawil has installed meshed metal bars on his windows to protect the house from rock-pelting settlers.
Tawil’s children, aged six to nine, were scared to return to their home and stayed at a relative’s place closer to the village center for about a month following the attack.
“My children were scared of even sleeping next to windows after the attack,” Tawil told Mondoweiss.
“Even for me, my mood has been affected. It’s hard living day by day and having no idea what will happen in the future. I feel anxious all the time.”
Less than a month following the killing of Shevach, the Israeli government decided to legalize the outpost.
Residents of Far’ata believe the legalization of the outpost will make their lives even worse, and the settlers have already expanded the original outpost, with an extension constructed more than 1.5 kilometers away.
All the land between the original outpost and the extension is now largely inaccessible to Palestinians.
“I think the settlers’ behavior will become worse now,” Salah said.
“The [Israeli] government is making them more confident and rewarding them for taking our lands and attacking us. But, in the end, the settlers are the government and the government is the settlers.”
“I am scared about what’s in store for us during the next olive harvest,” Salah added.