For Palestinians, the Future Is Being Bulldozed

Megan K. Stack / The New York Times
For Palestinians, the Future Is Being Bulldozed “It’s easy to leave,” said Fuad Al-Amor, who oversees a council of 24 villages in the South Hebron Hills. “It’s not easy to come back.” (photo: Samar Hazboun/NYT)

The men came alone that morning, leaving families and sheep behind, and climbed the hill to see what was left of their village. On the sun-bleached crest, they found a scene of wreckage: The windows of the makeshift clinic had been smashed, household furniture lay shattered; sections of the schoolhouse had been burned to ash. There were drifts of clothing and stray shoes spread on the ground throughout the abandoned village, small things dropped in haste when the families fled.

The Palestinians who live (or lived) in this hilltop hamlet had decamped in terror a few weeks earlier. A gang of Israeli settlers — their neighbors — had been tormenting them for weeks, they explained, beating them up and threatening murder if they didn’t leave.

Similar scenes are playing out across the West Bank these days as Israeli settlers, backed and sometimes aided by soldiers, force Arabs out of villages, farmlands and herding pastures. Human rights monitors say they are documenting an apparently coordinated campaign to bring vast swaths of land under the control of Jewish settlements (all of which are illegal under international law, and some of which are also illegal under Israeli law) while forcing Palestinians into densely populated cities and towns.

I was visiting the occupied territory that morning late last month for the first time since reporting here two decades ago. Insofar as one can still traverse the increasingly checkpoint-choked and claustrophobic West Bank, I’d been roaming around talking with Palestinians and trying to speak with settlers, who tended to rebuff conversation. Statehood has long been promised to Palestinians and is still invoked by U.S. officials in increasingly hollow platitudes. But what land remains for Palestinians, what rights do Palestinians have, what possibilities for collective betterment — indeed, what future — can Palestinians see?

It’s not a revelation to suggest that the dream of a Palestinian state, rooted in the West Bank, may turn out to be something we just talked about while a harder destiny slowly manifested. But what if the alternative to Palestinian sovereignty is not, as I’ve long supposed, a slow and messy acceptance of a single state for everybody but instead more displacement and death? I used to assume the international community, for all the fecklessness it has shown here, would stop Palestinians from falling too far, being killed in numbers that were too great, losing too much territory. Now I look at Gaza, and I look at the West Bank, and I’m not so sure.

All of that was playing in my mind as I watched the men of Khirbet Zanuta trudge up the hill to try to get home — only to be met by representatives of the various forces arrayed against them: Israeli military power, religious zealots and faceless technology.

On the hilltop, an official with Israel’s Civil Administration awaited them in boots and camouflage. The administration is the powerful bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation and, given the dysfunction of Palestinian officialdom and Israeli oppression, it is the closest simulacrum of governance that many Palestinians experience.

How did he know we were coming?” the village head, Fayez Til, told me he wondered as he walked over to the official. Mr. Til was plainly dressed and distinctly unarmed, in comparison with his visitor. He speaks Hebrew and studied nursing at Hebron University and treated patients at the village clinic before the settlers started marauding.

The uniformed visitor laid down the law in soft, even tones: If you insist on coming home, he told Mr. Til with an air of generosity, you can — so long as you accept its trashed condition. “It’s as-is,” he said, as if he were selling a house. Army drones had photographed every detail, he explained. If the residents moved so much as a stone or pulled a tarp over an unroofed house, it would be considered an illegal construction, and there could be trouble.

Mr. Til and the others were incredulous: What if it rains?, they pressed. What about the summer sun? The official held firm: You move things, you put up a tarp, you break the law. And then, having delivered this discouraging welcome, he drove off.

Mr. Til and the other men paced and muttered, absorbing the official’s message. By fleeing their homes, they had shown that it was possible to frighten them off the land; now their position appeared even more precarious. Fuad Al-Amor, who oversees a council of 24 villages in the South Hebron Hills, including this one, put it succinctly: “It’s easy to leave. It’s not easy to come back.”

Soon a beat-up Isuzu pickup crunched up the hill. Eyes darted and a ripple of attention slid through the morning air: the settlers. Like many Palestinians, the men of the village know their tormentors quite well. It’s usually the same people: their neighbors.

Three settlers hopped down from the truck — young men who, in an American college town, would pass as worse-for-wear frat boys who’d just woken up after a rough night of drinking. Sunburned and insolent, they swaggered around, smoking cigarettes and demanding information from the villagers.

“You don’t live here anymore. You left. What are you doing here?” one of the young men asked Mr. Til. “Where are you sleeping at night?”

“We didn’t leave,” Mr. Til replied quietly. His posture and tone were deferential. At least one of the settlers carried a pistol stuck in the back of his pants.

As a Palestinian civilian, Mr. Til is forbidden to own a gun, and even if the settlers hit him, he would be ill advised to strike back. Both law and practice are tilted against him. In the West Bank, settlers enjoy the full protection of Israeli civil and criminal law, while their Palestinians neighbors are subject to draconian military orders. That means, among other things, that Palestinians can be indefinitely imprisoned without charge.

Settlers, on the other hand, are routinely armed to the teeth. Many of them recently got government-issued assault rifles in a drive to harden Israeli defenses. The national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settlement dweller himself, was filmed passing out rifles to settlers. On Monday, Israel’s head of firearms licensing resigned in a scandal over the distribution of illegal gun licenses; a senior security official told the Haaretz newspaper the government was “handing out guns like candy.”

“You left,” the settler yelled again, stepping close to Mr. Til. “Where did you sleep?” His two friends circled restlessly behind him.

“This is our land,” Mr. Til said.

“This is Jewish land for more than 3,000 years,” the young man said.

Mr. Til sat on a boulder and lit a cigarette. The three settlers formed a triangle before him. One of them hocked theatrically and then spat.

After pacing and smoking for a while, the settlers piled back into the truck and left. They ignored my questions, saying, “I’m not interested.” One of them, a lean young man in khaki pants, called out menacingly to Mr. Til before they left: “We’re coming back to have a party here.”

Next came a drone, buzzing overhead like some huge, ominous hornet, creeping low over the villagers’ heads, then swinging up into the air again, circling and hovering. The settlers use the drones to monitor and pester them, the men explained. The buzzing noises drive the sheep crazy, they added, causing the ewes to suffer miscarriages.

“We’re not worried about how they talk and what they say,” a villager named Raed Battat told me dryly when I mentioned the settlers’ ominous visit. “We’re worried about what they do.”

Mr. Battat said his 72-year-old father had agreed to flee after settlers broke his solar panels, busted his water barrels and came at midnight to throw rocks at him through the windows.

Still, Mr. Battat and Mr. Til tried to project determination. They would endure the attacks and hang on to their land, they insisted. But a faded conviction had come into their faces, and an unspoken understanding seemed to have taken hold. The mood on the hilltop had darkened. I tried to imagine the terror of spending the night up here, vulnerable under the sky to whoever might come.

When a photographer from The Times visited the village the next day, it was once again abandoned.

When land keeps changing hands, inaction is also a kind of action. Negotiations have been dead since 2014, and Israeli military occupation of the West Bank is now so old that it more closely resembles annexation. Israeli officials make tortured arguments that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legal. They’re not; international law prohibits occupying powers from transferring their own people to live on occupied land. And yet the settlements keep growing, feeding on the belief that Judea and Samaria (the biblical names preferred by settlers) are the God-given home of the Jews. Palestinians keep getting shoved into smaller spaces. In a book I wrote more than a decade ago, I pointed out — as many others have — that, even then, there wasn’t enough contiguous land for a state.

Still, the West Bank had lingered all these years in my memory as a fundamentally Palestinian expanse, interrupted and speckled with settlements. Not anymore. Visiting in late November, I had the feeling of entering a vast settlement dotted with Arab communities and refugee camps, shrinking remnants of an earlier place.

I shared this impression with Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization negotiators. She replied by describing an unremarkable thing that sounded amazing to me because I never saw it: You could once drive down main roads in the West Bank, she recalled, straight into Palestinian cities. Settler bypass roads built since the 1990s — a nominal period of peace that nevertheless saw settlements expand at an unprecedented clip — routed traffic away from the places where Palestinians lived, restricted or even banned Palestinian cars and helped to choke off Palestinians’ movement.

Ms. Buttu grew up in Canada on stories of the 1948 destruction of her family’s village near Nazareth. “It wasn’t a one-time event. It was uprooting an entire community,” she said. Ms. Buttu was a ubiquitous presence during the peace talks of the early aughts but has come to regret her role in the negotiations. She no longer believes that Israel was bargaining in good faith and regards the talks as a largely theatrical process that kept everybody busy while Palestinians literally lost ground.

“It gave this very false impression that there was movement happening, and it served as a great distraction,” Ms. Buttu said. “The common diplomatic refrain was, ‘It’s OK, it will go with the negotiations.’ More settlements got built, but, ‘It’s OK, because they’ll go with negotiation.’”

Even U.S. observers sympathetic to Palestinians tend to describe the existing oppression as an unmovable reality. But this, too, is inaccurate, for things have clearly gotten worse.

Under the Oslo Accords, which were the agreements that brushed closest to making peace here, the largest chunk of territory in the West Bank, known as Area C, was to gradually transition to Palestinian jurisdiction, albeit with negotiating room for land swaps.

But that logic has since been turned entirely on its head. Israeli settlers, enthusiastically backed by key parts of the far-right Israeli government, are openly seeking to thin the Arab presence from the same land once envisioned as the raw material of a future Palestinian state. The forced displacement of Khirbet Zanuta is part of that movement, known by some hard-line settlers as “the battle for Area C.”

The legalistic contortions altering the landscape of the West Bank are various: designating land a “firing zone” needed for military training; invoking Ottoman law under which the state may seize uncultivated land. Even archaeological sites — of which there is no shortage in the Holy Land — can be used as a justification for displacing Palestinians.

And then there’s the question of permits.

Palestinians in the West Bank have long lived under a tyranny of impossible paperwork. Despite severe water shortages and a 75 percent Palestinian population growth since the agreement stipulating the amount of water Palestinians could draw from a shared water source was set in 1995, Arabs need a permit to dig a water well. Settlers, who consume about three times as much water as Palestinians per capita, enjoy the luxury of being connected to Israeli water lines. This fall, I was shown secret wells that Palestinians, in desperation, had dug by hand and camouflaged to avoid detection by settlers.

Permits are also needed to build new houses or buildings in Area C, or to renovate existing structures. But building permits are virtually never granted to Palestinians anymore — by the Israeli military’s own account, less than 1 percent of Palestinian permit requests have been granted in recent years. It wasn’t always this hard: In 1972, 97 percent of Palestinian building permits were approved.

And yet, of course, babies keep coming and buildings get old — homes and schools must be built, fixed and expanded. Palestinians build when they can, eking out an increasingly extralegal existence. The lack of permits means that Israeli bulldozers may come without warning to pull it all to the ground.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is a co-founder of a somewhat surreal but undeniably effective NGO called Regavim. Mr. Smotrich has lamented that Israel’s founders didn’t “finish the job” of removing Arabs from Israel and argued in March that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The organization he founded neatly reflects his thinking.

Mr. Smotrich and his ideological companions are themselves devoted to rampant Jewish settlement expansion. And yet Regavim busily works the courts to shut down what the group describes as an epidemic of illegal Palestinian construction in Area C — illegal under Israeli law because Israel has mostly stopped granting permits to Arabs. The organization describes Palestinian construction as a kind of sinister plot designed to create a state in Area C.

In one typical campaign, Regavim zeroed in on an elementary school built in the impoverished village of Jubbet Adh Dib with European Union funds. The organization petitioned the court for demolition, arguing that the structure was unsafe. In May, the Israeli military arrived before dawn and razed the school. That was, in fact, the second school the village lost to Israeli bulldozers — in 2017, Israel demolished an earlier school and confiscated a solar power system installed with funds from the Dutch government. When the Dutch protested, Israel returned the solar panels.

Jubbet Adh Dib has no electricity without the solar panels and has struggled to maintain water access, which villagers lost for a time as the neighboring settlement expanded. When the village invested in a small pickup truck and a digger, they said, Israeli soldiers confiscated the equipment. With scant employment opportunities, some of the villagers have earned money working construction jobs at the neighboring settlement — even if they feel they are building the instrument of their own expulsion.

“You despise yourself for doing that,” said Fadia Alwahsh, a mother of six and head of the village women’s council. “But there are no alternatives.”

Since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the villagers are no longer allowed to work in the settlement. Threats from the settlers have increased, they said. Stray dogs released into the village killed most of the chickens, they said, and the baker decamped to Bethlehem after getting beaten up.

“They terrorize us at night, send messages to leave the village,” Ms. Alwahsh told me. “We sleep in our clothes. We are constantly terrified.”

Josh Hasten, a spokesman for the surrounding settlements, called the villagers’ account “hard to believe.” While not explicitly denying that the villagers have been threatened and harassed, he argued that the violence of extremist settlers has been grossly exaggerated.

“There are over 500,000 peaceful, law-abiding Israelis living in Judea and Samaria,” Mr. Hasten said “We are opposed to violence, but it is minuscule when compared to the coverage it gets, and in scope compared to the deadly attacks carried out against Jews by Arabs in our areas.”

But to Palestinians, the scenes in the West Bank amount to what a longtime Palestinian politician, Hanan Ashrawi, calls “annexation on steroids.”

Dr. Ashrawi told me she’s been unspeakably frustrated to hear U.S. politicians talking in recent weeks about a Palestinian state. It was painful, she pointed out, for Palestinians to accept the terms on which statehood was offered — as a parallel country that would permanently enshrine Palestinian exile from lost homes within Israel proper. Considering what Palestinians have lost since 1948, when Israel was founded at the cost of violently displacing hundreds of thousands of Arabs, the state is arguably a paltry promise. And yet perpetually unfilled.

“For years they saw Israel build settlements, steal land, evict Palestinians,” she said. “Biden suddenly woke up.”

“Now he can talk about the two-state solution,” she added. “Well, good morning. It’s too late.”

“I saw my neighbor just now,” Issa Amro told me. “He said, ‘I don’t like to see you.’”

We were sitting on decrepit sofas in Mr. Amro’s garden, under an old and gnarled olive tree, as skittering clouds washed light and shadow over the hills of Hebron below.

“Which neighbor?” I asked.

“That one right there,” Mr. Amro said, gesturing toward the pomegranate tree that marked the end of his garden. A group of Orthodox men sat on the balcony of the neighboring house, just around the corner; their voices rang clear through the air.

“What’s it like to hear that from your neighbor?” I was trying to imagine.

“That’s nothing,” he snorted. “Sometimes they tell me, ‘I will kill you.’”

Standing on the edge of Mr. Amro’s property, I tried to start a conversation with the men on the balcony. They stared at me and said nothing. After a few minutes, they moved inside.

The presence of Mr. Amro, an engineer by training and a defiant philosopher-provocateur by nature, in this house, squeezed between hostile settlers and military posts, is itself a form of resistance. Mr. Amro lives in Tel Rumeida, an ancient Hebron neighborhood now controlled by Israeli forces. It is the militarized home of a beleaguered community of Palestinians and some of the most notoriously and unabashedly anti-Arab settlers in the West Bank.

With security cameras monitoring his house and a GoPro camera slung around his neck when he goes out, Mr. Amro keeps a growing collection of videos documenting his humiliations and assaults at the hands of settlers and soldiers. He has sometimes sued his assailants and has twice been granted compensation from the Israeli government and, once, a settler (Mr. Amro said the settler never paid him).

He has also been indicted on 18 charges, including participating in an illegal gathering (any get-together where 10 or more Palestinians discuss politics requires a permit) and insulting a soldier.

After Hamas unleashed the fateful storm of atrocities upon Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, Mr. Amro noticed his settler neighbors had started wearing military uniforms and teamed up with the soldiers in hybrid militias. I heard the same thing from Palestinians in other parts of the West Bank, as well as from human rights groups — the line between settlers and soldiers, it seems, has never been so muddy. (A representative of Israel’s military said that “any misconduct of reservists” is treated “with the utmost severity.”)

Mr. Amro was walking home on Oct. 7 when he was seized and taken to a nearby military trailer by one such group, he said. The soldiers and settlers beat and kicked him, spat on him and staged mock executions. The men were gleeful, Mr. Amro said, filming videos of his torture and playing music.

At one point, Mr. Amro said, his next-door neighbor taunted, “See what I can do to you?” and then punched him in the face. Mr. Amro also said that one of the soldiers called him “my bitch” and threatened to force him to perform oral sex. After 10 hours of torment, when the group finally took him back to the road, Mr. Amro anticipated a bullet in the back as he walked away.

“I was telling myself, ‘If I am going to die, if they want to kill me, I will show them I’m not afraid,’” Mr. Amro told me. He asked for a jacket, he recalled, hoping his captors wouldn’t realize he was shivering in fear.

But the gunshot didn’t come. Mr. Amro went home and resumed his usual harrowing existence.

Later in October, another problem: Soldiers evicted Mr. Amro from his house in what he understood as a punishment for hosting visitors. He was expelled to the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron, known as H1, and spent more than two weeks arguing to come back.

When he finally made it back home, he found a scene of vandalism and wreckage. He found a video on Instagram in which a settler had filmed himself roaming around the house.

I pressed Mr. Amro: What is the experience of living next to a neighbor who hates you so much? A person who throws rocks at you, cheerfully promises to kill you, comes when you’re away to break your things?

“It’s really painful,” Mr. Amro finally said. “It’s not just that they hate me. They have supremacy.”

As we sat in the garden, browsing through Mr. Amro’s videos, voices rang from the road out front. A procession of people had paused to chat with the settler neighbors. The tones were jovial and brisk. It’s a tour, Mr. Amro explained. The group moved on. I glimpsed hats and calf-length skirts and a voluble man leading them along. He was Yishai Fleisher, an American-accented podcaster and spokesman for Hebron settlers.

I spoke with Mr. Fleisher later. He told me that he wanted Hebron to be a city of Jewish sovereignty and that he dreamed of a Jewish state where the only Arabs would be “non-jihadist, pro-Israel” people who were satisfied to do without the right to vote.

The main problem in the region, according to Mr. Fleisher, is jihad. He advocates a harsh crackdown on Palestinians, speaks admiringly of Saudi beheadings and insists that Israel should “start talking in Arab — and not the language of Arabic.” Jihad, he explained, is not just acts of violence but a broad cultural contamination. If you only fight terrorists, Mr. Fleisher argued, you’re doing it wrong — you have to go after anyone who upholds the culture.

Then he told me that he considers Mr. Amro, a secular figure who models himself on Gandhi, a jihadist.

“The jihad has many faces,” Mr. Fleisher said. “He’s the soft face.”

I used to think that hard-line settlers like Mr. Fleisher were delusional — so enraptured by religion or drunk on nationalism that they couldn’t perceive the impossibility of a West Bank drained of its Arab inhabitants.

But maybe I’m the delusional one. The settlers are winning, and not only because they have staunch allies in the government. The slow trajectories of movement and control suggest an ethnic cleansing in slow motion. Settlers have bent the landscape to their will and created an overwhelming reality that would be very difficult to erase.

Palestinian civilians have been left to endure an unpredictable and often violent campaign by their neighbors. There’s nobody to call for help. You can’t defend yourself. It’s an extreme and chilling vulnerability.

Whatever comes next, it will surely be shaped by this realization: The Palestinians are out there on their own now. Nobody is coming to save the day.

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