Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, July 2021
Joint militias: How settlers and soldiers teamed up to kill four Palestinians
A Local Call investigation reveals how on a single day in May, Israeli settlers and soldiers cooperated in attacks that left four Palestinians dead. The unprecedented spate of joint assaults has inaugurated a new era of terror.
Nidal Safadi was a quiet man, his neighbors said. He lived in Urif, a Palestinian village of several thousand people in the West Bank. Just 25, Safadi had three children with his wife and a fourth, a girl, on the way.
Urif is not always quiet. With the Palestinian city of Nablus less than 10 miles away, the occupying Israeli military established a base on a nearby hilltop in 1983. A year later, it was turned over to civilian purposes: part of Israel’s illegal settlement program in the Palestinian territories. Since 2000, the settlement, called Yitzhar, has been home to a yeshiva known for its hard-line Jewish nationalist views; the settlement has become known for its extremism. The so-called outpost settlements it has spurred — illegal even by Israeli law, but nonetheless defended by the Israel Defense Forces — have gradually encroached on villages like Urif. Over the past 10 years, settler aggressions have given rise to violent recriminations between the Israelis and Palestinians living nearby.
On May 14, though, Urif was calm — unlike much of the West Bank. In dozens of places around the territory, Palestinians protested against recent Israeli provocations: police storming Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and heavy bombardment, in response to Hamas rocket fire, of the Gaza Strip.
“There were many protests in the area, but Urif was quiet,” said Mazen Shehadeh, head of the village council. “It is a small village and the residents stayed indoors. Had the settlers not arrived to attack the houses, nothing would have happened.”
Shehadeh said a group of settlers arrived at about 2 p.m., along with six soldiers, and began wreaking havoc. “The settlers uprooted almost 60 fig and olive trees,” he said. “Then they attacked the school with stones and broke its solar panels.” The damage was still evident when I visited a month after the attack. “While the settlers did all of that, the soldiers covered for them by gunfire,” Shehadeh continued. “The soldiers led, gave orders, everything looked coordinated. The soldiers pointed for the settlers, where to go, where to uproot, and then they shot at anybody who tried to get close. After a few minutes, residents came to protect the village.”
One of the villagers who arrived was Nidal Safadi. “Nidal arrived at the school terrified,” said his brother, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution. “We have relatives who live nearby, and the mosque’s loudspeaker announced that the settlers were attacking, so he ran.”
Photos and videos from the scene show settlers and soldiers from the IDF aiming their weapons toward the Palestinian villagers. One video, obtained by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, shows a shirtless settler with a face covering walking around and chatting with nearby soldiers. At one point, the settler, armed with an automatic rifle, stands directly in front of a solider, takes aim toward the villagers, and opens fire. Other photos show settlers and soldiers alike with weapons raised.
Amid the chaos, Safadi was struck by four bullets in the chest and abdomen, according to Shehadeh. He died of his wounds.
“We do not know whether it was a settler or a soldier who shot him,” Shehadeh said. “We had many who were wounded by gunfire that day. Nine people were hurt: one in the abdomen, another was shot three centimeters from his heart. And there was Nidal, who got killed.”
Shehadeh went on, “It was a planned attack. Revenge, not a confrontation. We used to have clashes every day and it never looked like that. They didn’t use live ammunition before, only tear gas and rubber bullets. Also, more soldiers used to be present.”
Safadi’s death was one of 11 violent killings of Palestinians in the West Bank on May 14, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. While Israeli media reported that the killings occurred amid “clashes” — implying the widespread protests over Al-Aqsa and the Gaza bombings — at least four of the deaths occurred during deliberate attacks by settlers and soldiers on Palestinian villages, an investigation by Local Call and The Intercept found.
The joint attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers were not linked to protests in the targeted villages; no demonstrations preceded the violence in three of the four locations. The incursions all occurred at almost the same time, around 2 p.m., and all involved the settlers destroying agricultural land, including by setting fires, as well as stone throwing and the use of live ammunition.
Attacks on Palestinians by stone-throwing settlers, as Israeli soldiers stand idly by, are a common occurrence in the occupied Palestinian territories. But scenes like those from May 14 — settlers and soldiers attacking villages in apparent cooperation, with live ammunition — are unprecedented.
“The only way I can describe this is by calling it militias,” said Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, an attorney and a partner in Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights, an organization that works in the Israeli court system to represent Palestinians who have faced settler violence. “These cases, in which soldiers enter villages together with settlers, and in which there is massive gunfire by settlers — this is unprecedented.”
Five such attacks on May 14 left four Palestinians dead. One was killed in the village of Asira Al-Qibliya, in the Nablus area; another in Iskaka, near the Israeli settlement Ariel; a third in the village Al Reihiya, in South Mount Hebron; and Nidal Safidi in Urif. In the fifth village, Burin, which is also near Nablus, a similar attack ended without any deaths.
Videos, photographs, and villagers’ testimonies of the attacks indicate that, in at least three cases, Israeli settlers and soldiers acted as a combined fighting unit, effectively working as a joint militia attacking civilians and firing interchangeably at Palestinian residents. Coordination between the military and settlers is a burgeoning political issue in Israel: On Tuesday, 100 former combat soldiers sent a letter to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz demanding he take action against settler violence that they themselves had witnessed during their service. “In the past year, settler violence has intensified and manifested in, among other things, property destruction, stone throwing, and physical violence against Palestinians,” the former soldiers wrote. “We are the ones who witnessed how the ‘lords of the land’ behave unrestricted and what this violence looks like on the ground. We were sent to defend them but were not given the tools to deal with them.”
Local Call and The Intercept sent a detailed description of our findings to an IDF spokesperson, including photographs and footage. The spokesperson said the cases “are under processes of checking and investigating.” Though the IDF spokesperson declined to comment on many of the specifics, they acknowledged, in response to one of the photographs showing a settler closely interacting with an IDF officer in Urif, that the settler was in the area without permission.
No autopsy was carried out on Safadi’s body, nor on those of the other Palestinians killed that day, so there is no way of determining whether soldiers or settlers were responsible for the deaths. Israeli police have not announced any inquiries into the killings.
Despite the common timeframe and modus operandi, there is no evidence that the May 14 attacks were coordinated. Some settler ideologues, though, did note the confluence of events. Zvi Sukot, a spokesperson of the settlement Yitzhar and a rising online star of the movement, posted photos from some of the incidents on Facebook. The photos he shared show, among other things, a dead Palestinian with a bullet in his head and another with a bleeding chest, as well as a host of bodies lying prone in various settings.
“The security situation in Samaria is excellent. No need for protests!!” Sukot wrote in his Facebook post, asking his fellow settlers to stay at home. He used the common Israeli term “Samaria” to describe the northern West Bank. There are “casualties, lots of people injured and serious trauma on the Arab side,” he wrote. “In all my years in Samaria, I do not remember the army being that determined.”
Many village residents interviewed by Local Call and The Intercept attributed the attacks to “revenge” by both soldiers and settlers — apparently for protests against the Israeli assaults on Al-Aqsa and Gaza, as well as unrest in “mixed” cities inside Israel. The incursions fit into a pattern of so-called price tag attacks, where settlers launch retributive assaults on anyone deemed to be even remotely viewed as an obstacle to their movement.
The yeshiva in Yitzhar, near Urif, was instrumental in formulating the religions justification for “price tag” attacks. The concept gained notoriety among some Israeli Jews because it rationalized attacks against the Israeli military in rare cases where, for instance, the IDF was used to evacuate settlement outposts. The most common targets of “price tag” attacks, however, are Palestinian civilians. On May 14, soldiers were far from being targets or even ineffectual bystanders. Instead, they were active participants and collaborators in the joint assaults.
“The army now perceives the settlers as an auxiliary fighting force,” said Mishirqi-Assad, the human rights lawyer. “The cooperation is more transparent. No one is ashamed of it. The soldiers see the settlers as a backing force, it is very noticeable. And the settlers, too, are more fearless. It’s clear that things have become more organized over the last year.”
Asira Al-Qibliya: ‘They wanted to unload their rage’
Just a few miles away from Urif, in the Nablus Governorate, lies the village of Asira Al-Qibliya. Atop a nearby hill sits the outpost of Ahuzat Shalhevet, overlooking the outskirts of the Palestinian village.
On May 14, Hussam Asaira, 19, along with other young people from the village, responded to a settler incursion. At around 2 p.m., according to accounts from village residents, a group of soldiers and armed settlers arrived together. The settlers began throwing stones at the houses near the edge of the village.
“It was a tough attack,” said Hafez Saleh, head of the village council. Saleh was standing on the roof of his sister’s house, watching events unfold and snapping photos. “About 20 settlers came — half of them armed with rifles — and 12 soldiers escorted them. Youngsters from the village were called to come and protect the houses.”
A few young men arrived and started throwing stones at the settlers, Saleh said. The settlers fired “very intense” volleys of live ammunition. Then the soldiers joined the shooting.
“I shouted to the soldiers, ‘Stop shooting! You are near people’s homes!’” Saleh recalled. “I addressed one of them in Hebrew and told him that he just needs to get the settlers out of the village and it will all be over. He said, ‘That’s not my job.’ In other words, it was clear that the soldiers were there to cover for the settlers and protect them. They wanted to unload their rage on the people, as revenge. They were determined to kill. I felt that their goal on that day was to kill as many Palestinians as possible.”
Saleh filmed the incident. The footage, published by B’Tselem, shows a group of Israeli soldiers and civilians — all armed, and the settlers with their faces covered — standing together in a field. One settler jaunts away from the group, fires a few rounds at Palestinians, and then goes back to the soldiers. To one side, a settler throws stones at a Palestinian home; another runs in the field with his gun drawn. The confrontations lasted around four hours, winding down around 6 p.m. The soldiers retreated several hundred meters to a nearby hill, toward Ahuzat Shalhevet, the settler outpost.
“There were no longer clashes or stone throwing,” Saleh said. The atmosphere on the video still appears tense. “One soldier, who was standing far away, went down to the ground and took aim at the youngsters,” Saleh said. “I shouted at them to be careful. And I screamed to the soldiers, ‘Enough! There is nothing going on anymore!’” In the video, the soldiers and the settlers are standing on the hill, about 300 meters away from the young Palestinians. A villager standing next to Salah says in Arabic, “They want to shoot.” Saleh’s voice can be heard shouting a warning to the young people: “Go back, go!”
They all start running away — except Hussam Asaira. His back to the soldiers, he keeps walking along the wall, a white Covid-19 mask covering his nose and mouth, seeming not to notice what was going on. “Then there was a shot,” Saleh recalled. Asaira stumbles, then collapses. Fellow villagers catch him and carry him out of view. Asaira was taken to the hospital, where he died of his injuries.
Iskaka: ‘The first time one of our residents was shot’
Iskaka is a small village with a population of 1,000. Nearby is the mega-settlement of Ariel, one of only four settlements to have grown large enough to enjoy status as an Israeli city and, of the four, geographically the farthest into the West Bank.
When the settlers and soldiers came on May 14, Awad Harb, a 27-year-old husband and father, was at a friend’s home. Harb and his friend heard a call from the local mosque about the incursion, said the friend, Mouid, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution. They ventured out to see what was happening. “It all happened within 10 minutes,” Mouid told me.
The incursion into the village had been unprovoked, eyewitnesses said. “It started at 2 p.m., when settlers attacked the village,” said Nabil Harb, Awad’s brother. “They came in and stood by the municipality building, armed. They came deep into the village.”
“I’m 57,” Nabil Harb said. “I was born here. Nothing like this ever happened before. On that day, everybody was at the mosque and then went back to their homes, to rest, to have lunch. And then the settlers came. They came to kill.”
When I arrived in Iskaka a month after the attack, Fauzi Lami, the head of the local council, took me on a tour in his car. “Up until then, it was a normal day,” he told me as we drove around. “Settlers never came in here before.” The soldiers and settlers came as a convoy, he said. “They walked between the houses and shot at water tanks. Residents locked themselves in. The call came from the mosque, through the loudspeaker, for the young men to come out and defend the village.”
Nabil Harb noted that only three soldiers were present. “All the rest were settlers, Israeli civilians,” he said. “Young people from Iskaka arrived and started throwing stones at the soldiers and the settlers.”
Mouid showed me where he and Awad Harb had walked out into the street. “Here is where he was shot,” Mouid said, gesturing at a sewage cover between two houses, about 600 meters from the hamlet’s entrance. Black bloodstains were still visible on the ground beneath the white flecks of sand. Mouid said that the shooter was a civilian — an Israeli settler — but documentation of the claim was hard to come by. “He stood there, with two soldiers,” Mouid said, pointing down the road, “and shot a bullet from 18 meters range.”
Harb collapsed and bled out. He was later pronounced dead.
“This was the first time in Iskaka’s history that one of our residents got killed,” said Lami, the village council head, referring to the fact that no residents had been killed by Israelis inside the village’s borders. “We never had any confrontation.”
Lami said, “We are all in mourning now.”
Al Reihiya: ‘We have no one to protect us. Nobody.’
The attack on the Tubasi family, in South Mount Hebron, also came on May 14. As Local Call and the Israeli National Broadcasting Corporation’s Kan News previously reported, a group of settlers, accompanied by soldiers, arrived in the village of Al Reihiya around 2:30 p.m. The settlers began vandalizing villagers’ properties and setting their fields on fire.
Ismail Al-Tubasi, a 27-year-old villager, went to put out a fire on his family’s land. A group of settlers then ran toward him, according to his brother and nephew. Suddenly, five shots rang out. Jamal Al-Tubasi, Ismail’s nephew, found his uncle lying on the ground bleeding. Ismail urged his nephew to escape; settlers were still nearby. Jamal saw axe-wielding settlers approaching, so he ran.
Eventually, help was able to reach Ismail. As he was being taken to the hospital in the nearby city of Yatta, however, Jamal noticed something: Ismail had deep wounds on his face. Those wounds, the nephew said, were not there when he’d first spoken with his uncle in the field. “The one thing I’m sure of is that when I reached my uncle, after his first injury, his face was clear of wounds,” said Jamal.
The hospital workers were unable to save Ismail Al-Tubasi. In a post-mortem photo, deep wounds are visible on Ismail’s face. According to the hospital report, he was killed by a bullet that penetrated the back of his head; the face injuries were caused by “sharp tools.” (Kan and Local Call were told by military sources that Israeli soldiers were present, but when they arrived on the scene Ismail was already injured. Ha’aretz reported that the Tubasi family tried to file a complaint about the shooting at Hebron’s police station, but the Israeli police has not opened an investigation.)
When I arrived in Al Reihiya, 10 days after the shooting, the Tubasi family’s lands were scorched. Khaled Al-Tubasi — Ismail’s brother and Jamal’s father — invited me into his home and, in a small, darkened room, offered tea with a shaking hand. The death of his brother had led him to discomfort, both bodily — he was physically tight with rage during my visit — and morally. He was reconsidering everything, from the peace process to his job as a Palestinian police officer. “I work for the Palestinian Authority,” he exclaimed, “and today I say: I was wrong.”
In the West Bank, where Mahmood Abbas’s Palestinian Authority rules with a heavy hand, only the security forces are allowed to possess firearms. Increasingly, though, Palestinian police are accused of acting as a brute force on behalf of Abu Mazen, Abbas’s nom de guerre. The police frequently crack down on protests and are often said to be acting as a de facto arm of the Israeli occupation — keeping Abbas in power and keeping the peace for Israel.
“Abu Mazen’s way is a mistake,” Khaled Al-Tubasi said. “The security coordination — it is all a mistake.” He said, “Palestinians need weapons to protect themselves. We have no one to protect us. Nobody.”
Burin: ‘I was afraid the settlers might burn the house’
Muhammad Amran lives in the eastern end of the village Burin, near Nablus. At 2 p.m., on May 14, he heard an explosion. His neighbor Abu Al-Atsi’s car was on fire.
“Dozens of armed settlers were standing there,” Amran said. “They had set the car ablaze, 200 meters away from me. Only girls live in the house over there, both their parents are dead. So I hurried over to put the fire out. I work as a firefighter with the Palestinian Authority, and I have fire extinguishing equipment.”
The settlers, Amran said, had come from Givat Ha-Ro’eh, a nearby outpost that was illegally built on Palestinian lands. The Israeli High Court had previously ruled that the outpost should be closed down, but enforcement of the ruling has been intermittent, at best.
A few minutes before the car was set ablaze, dozens of young men from Burin arrived to defend the village. They threw stones at the settlers, who responded by firing live ammunition. “The settlers had the lead. The soldiers only protected them: shot tear gas at us, rubber bullets, and live ammunition,” Amran said. “When the youngsters arrived, one of the settlers turned toward them and started shooting randomly. He just sprayed them, without looking where he was shooting, without taking aim. Nobody went near him — and he shot like a madman.” Residents said seven of villagers were hit that day by live ammunition, but no one was killed.
As Amran was trying to extinguish his neighbor’s burning car, settlers descended on his home. “First they tried to get into the house, but they couldn’t, because my wife locked the door,” he said. “So they broke everything from outside. They smashed the solar panels, the pipes, the air conditioner outside, and the security cameras. Then they got on the roof of my house, with my family still in it, and started attacking other villagers.”
In a video filmed by one of the village residents, four settlers can be seen, their faces covered, standing on Amran’s roof and throwing stones. Eight armed soldiers are standing near the house — also with their faces covered.
“I went crazy with worry. I have three children, and they were all at home when it happened. I have two girls and a boy,” Amran said. “The army stopped me from getting near the house, where the settlers were standing. I tried from all directions. I called my wife and said, ‘Get out so you don’t get suffocated by tear gas.’ She said she was scared. She didn’t want to open the window and let the gas get in. I said to the soldier, ‘Let me take the children. They will suffocate in there.’ He told me, ‘Go away.’”
“A few minutes later, the settlers broke all the windows of the house, and the tear gas thrown by the army started getting in,” Amran said. “I heard my children screaming and choking over the phone. I was afraid that the settlers might burn down the house, throw a Molotov cocktail in. My wife and the children got into the bathroom, sealed the windows and locked themselves in.”
The family weathered the attack in the bathroom of their home and eventually tried to return to normal, but it proved difficult. “Almost two months have passed since the attack,” Amran said. “My children can’t sleep at night. They wet their beds. I want to do something — sue the settlers somehow — for the trauma they caused my family.”
Urif: ‘When the settler was done, the soldiers gave him more ammunition’
When I arrived in Urif, near Nablus, evidence of the attack that killed Nidal Safadi was everywhere. Entire fields were burned, punctuated with uprooted olive and fig trees. Dozens, if not hundreds, of shell casings were strewn about the road. “All the shooting was out of control,” said a villager, Muntaser Al-Safadi, who witnessed the attack. “They put in a magazine and then emptied it all at once — without taking aim, without stopping — in our direction. Nobody got to throw a stone. They were shooting to kill.”
Shehadeh, the village council head, took me for a tour. We passed by Urif’s school, the site of Safadi’s killing. The school is surrounded by a tall concrete wall, and the playground is covered by a huge, white plastic shed. “It looks like a prison, doesn’t it?” Shehadeh asked when he saw me eyeing the structures, unusual for school grounds. “We built it to protect the children against the attacks of the settlers from Yitzhar. Anything that happens to Jews — no matter what, whether it is in Jerusalem or in Lod — they come here to take revenge.”
On May 14, Shehadeh had watched the attack unfold from one of the nearby houses. He observed as villagers like Safadi raced to the scene, some taking up stones and throwing them at the Israeli soldiers and settlers.
“What would you have done?” Shehadeh said. “Armed people arrive, attack your home, your school. And there is no power to protect you. The soldiers arrive with them and help them.”
Shehadeh had been snapping photos during the attack. Some of them show soldiers and the settlers taking aim with their weapons while standing or lying down in a sniper position. Shehadeh captured several moments of apparent cooperation.
“One of the soldiers gave his weapon to a settler,” Shehadeh said, referring to one of the photos he had taken. A shirtless civilian with his face covered can be seen standing very close to an IDF captain. “They were shooting together,” Shehadeh said. “When the settler was done shooting, he went over to the soldiers and they gave him more ammunition.”
One conspicuous presence in Shehadeh’s photos is a tall, bearded settler wearing a black baseball cap. On the back of the settler’s shirt is the lettering “OSC,” which stands for ongoing security coordinator. Local Call and The Intercept identified the man as Itzhak Levi, the ongoing security coordinator of Yitzhar. In the photos, Levi can be seen wielding a rifle, alternately conversing with soldiers and his fellow settlers. In one photo, he appears to be directing the soldiers’ attention. In another, Levi is standing behind three soldiers, one of whom is taking aim with a rifle-mounted tear-gas launcher. In yet another snapshot, Levi appears to be reloading his own weapon.
I reached out to Levi and asked what brought him to Urif and what he knew about the attack on the village. He refused to respond to my questions. “I don’t remember that date. There were dozens of incidents and riots,” he said. Eventually, Levi became irritated and asked, “What are you getting at? Do you have nothing better to do with your life?” Then he hung up.
Shehadeh’s photographic documents of the day carry with them a sad irony: he is afraid to have his own photograph taken, because he worries he will lose his permit to work in Israel. Many West Bank Palestinians with the permits rely on the elevated wages inside Israel proper. The arbitrary revocation of work permits can smack of retribution, even guilt by association.
Shehadeh’s fears are well founded. It was a common situation in the wake of the attacks: the Israeli government revoking working permits for families of those killed. Two days after Nidal Safadi was killed, the Israeli General Security Service took away the work permits of two of his brothers. In Iskaka, relatives of the slain Palestinian Awad Harb had their work permits revoked by the Israelis. After Ismail Al-Tubasi was killed in the attack on Al Reihiya, members of his family also lost their permits.
Basil al-Adraa contributed reporting to this story.
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