Activists Are Putting Themselves Between Israeli Settlers and Palestinian Shepherds

Settlers act 'like vultures', say volunteers.

by Daisy Schofield

8 April 2024

A shepherd herds sheep across a road in Palestine
A Palestinian shepherd herds sheep in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Photo: REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Palestinian shepherd Hamze Shawaheen was herding sheep with his sons near his West Bank village last month when armed Israeli settlers attacked them. Two men dressed like soldiers pushed one of Shawaheen’s sons to the ground, he said, and beat the boy, as well as attacking the family’s sheep. Before leaving, the settlers let their dog loose on the flock, injuring several more animals. When Shawaheen got his phone out to film the assault, one of the men threatened to shoot him.

Shawaheen had little opportunity to recover from the incident – he had to graze his sheep again that afternoon. This time, he asked solidarity activists to accompany him to a different field. Three settler vehicles quickly pulled on to a nearby hill and waited, but, unlike earlier in the day, they kept their distance. Shawaheen believes this was only because of the activists; if they hadn’t been there, he said, it’s likely the settlers would have attacked him again. 

Settlers – Israeli citizens who live on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem – have been targeting shepherds like Shawaheen for years. But since 7 October, their campaign of violent harassment – including arbitrary arrests, home demolitions, land grabs and murders – has intensified as Israel accelerates towards what many see as its ultimate goal: ethnic cleansing

Anti-occupation activists – mostly Jewish Israelis who object to what the Israeli state and its settlers are doing  – have also operated in the area for years, accompanying shepherds when they graze their animals and taking turns staying in their homes at night to reduce the risk of settlers attacking them while they sleep. Over the past few months, their activity has also had to intensify. 

“This is the time that we volunteers really have to be there to protect the Palestinian shepherds,” activist Elie Avidor told Novara Media. “The situation in Gaza is being taken advantage of by the settlement movement.” 

Nearly 400 people – including more than 100 children – have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces since 7 October, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Much of the violence has erupted in Area C, which covers over 60% of the total West Bank and is under full Israeli military control – despite this contravening international law. Avidor’s group – the Jordan Valley Activists (JVA) – works with shepherds in the Jordan Valley, which is part of Area C and home to nearly 65,000 Palestinians as well as 11,000 settlers.

JVA was founded six years ago, Avidor said, by an initial membership of 10 to 15 people who worked across an area of about 100 square miles. The group now coordinates 80 to 100 volunteers and is asked for help “every day” by around 20 shepherds. These shepherds report having their herds stolen, shot at, dispersed by loud sounds or drones, and held for ransom by settlers – in addition to facing physical assaults themselves. 

Over the past five months, large swathes of Palestinian-owned land have been effectively stolen through makeshift encampments, known as settler outposts – nine in total, according to the human rights organisation Peace Now. While all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, these outposts are not even officially authorised by the Israeli state – although they serve its ends and are often approved retroactively. “Israel has realised that it’s much more efficient to drive people away with outposts, rather than settlements,” Avidor said.

In this immensely hostile context, Avidor believes JVA’s tactics are working. “The communities we represent are still around,” he said. “For us, any extra hour the herd is grazing is a success.” 

Along with acting as a “protective presence”, JVA – which uses non-violent tactics – documents illegal activity by settlers and the abuse of the local Palestinian population. This acts as a deterrent, Avidor said: “Knowing that everything is being documented, the Israeli settler is less likely to be violent.” Increasingly, the group is asked to share its footage with international news outlets, as condemnation of the settler movement grows worldwide. 

Eli, another volunteer with JVA, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said the group avoids creating a “paternalistic relationship”, or imposing its presence, by working directly and collaboratively with Palestinian families. “[We’re] sensitive to doing things on the Palestinians’ terms,” he said. “It’s like, ‘We’re here in solidarity with you guys; we want to help you out if you want it, and how you want’.” 

Burhan, a Palestinian shepherd from the north Jordan Valley, has teams of volunteers assist him two to three days a week. “If I go with my sheep to the mountain, and there are people from [JVA] with me, I feel much more secure,” he told Novara Media. 

The Israeli army has been making it harder – and more expensive – for shepherding communities to access water, so JVA activists have been fundraising to help Burhan and other shepherds access water. “This has been a huge help,” Burhan said. 

Teenager Evyatar Rubin has been volunteering in Masafer Yatta – a collection of 19 Palestinian villages in the south West Bank, within Area C – alongside ten other solidarity activists. “We get tenfold times more requests [from Palestinians] than we have the manpower to carry out,” the 19-year-old told Novara Media. As well as accompanying shepherds to their fields during the day, Rubin has been supporting a family in the West Bank village of Um Darit. In October, settlers broke into their home and scared them away. About a month and a half ago the family returned, but within weeks, settlers once again attacked them while they were sleeping, arbitraily arresting two members of the family. (Thousands of settlers have been drafted into the army and can therefore arrest people under Israeli military law). 

At the family’s request, Rubin and other volunteers have taken turns to stay in the house with them. “When we’re there, you can see all of these settler cars just passing around the house like vultures, just waiting for when we will not be there to come back,” he said. “A lot of what we [volunteers] do is just sleep in different villages. We have this privilege as Israelis that the settlers do not act the same way [towards us].”

Jewish-Israeli solidarity activists aren’t always safe from settler attacks. “It’s still very dangerous for us: activists have been shot at, activists have been beaten with sticks and taken to the ICU. Some activists have had their cars lit on fire,” said Rubin. “We don’t have guns. We’re not violent. We don’t have any tools to resist whatever the settlers choose to do.” But this violence is nothing, he stressed, compared to what Palestinians living in the occupied territories are subject to.

“When [settlers] feel like they’re being watched by their own people, it makes them a little more uncomfortable,” said Eli. “It shows the rampant dehumanisation of Palestinians.”

Daisy Schofield is a freelance journalist.

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