“As the world watches Gaza, the violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has skyrocketed”. Marilyn Tyzack wrote these words for Critical Mass yesterday. Since October 7th violence, threats and intimidation from Israelis towards the Palestinians have been increasing rapidly.
There have been savage attacks on families from the village of Wadi Al-Seeq, ten miles east of Ramallah. One report from the villagers describes how they were forced to leave at gunpoint: “People were bleeding, and women and children were screaming. I was terrified my wife and children would be slaughtered.” There are reports that reached CNN news that some of the men were kidnapped and then stripped of their clothes, beaten, tortured and urinated on.
Prior to 7th October, there had already been an escalation in violence in the West Bank. The death toll had reached its highest since 2005. Now the violence has intensified, and about 200 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,000 have been arrested. The Israeli military often backs the violence, either standing guard over the perpetrators or by being directly involved. There are descriptions of “soldiers and settlers working hand-in-hand”, although for many years the distinction between attacks by the settlers and attacks by the military has been blurred. The Israeli government has a duty under international law to protect the Palestinians, but its active role in the settler violence was made clear in a report published just under a year ago by Yesh Din: “The fact that this is a longstanding systemic failure proves the State of Israel normalises and supports ideologically motivated violence perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank as a matter of policy, and benefits from its effects.” The Israelis make life so unbearable for the Palestinians that many communities leave, seemingly of their own accord, but in reality they have been driven from their homes.
In June 1967 the Six-Day War, or Arab-Israeli war, broke out. It was a war between Israel and the Arab countries of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israeli forces captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan River.
The West Bank is a rugged area characterised by limestone hills and olive groves. Since the 1967 war it has been under military occupation. The Oslo Accords were agreements reached in the 1990s between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that attempted to establish a peace process involving a two-state solution, and the land was divided; Israel had almost total control, and Israelis began to establish settlements on the occupied land. Although there is international recognition that these settlements are illegal, at least 700,000 Israelis live in the West Bank.
In a fertile valley eight miles northwest of the city of Nablus lies the Palestinian village of Sabastiya, where a little over 3,000 people have their homes and grow figs, olives, almonds, grapes and other fruit, and vegetables. It has a long and fascinating history, and there are many ancient ruins.
In 2009, Hanwell Friends of Sabastiya (HAFSA), which is based in West London, was established. HAFSA was created as a group which would offer and receive lasting friendship. There has been a great deal of support for projects in Sabastiya, but the focus has always been on mutual benefit and friendship. A young visitor from the UK who stayed in Sabastiya not long ago commented, “It was a privilege to live in the Palestinian community and to spend so much time together sharing our cultures, beliefs, languages, humour, opinions, hopes and fears… HAFSA has helped us create mutual friendship, support and understanding”.
Some of the villagers have managed to stay in contact with HAFSA since 7th October, but of course their current situation is perilous. They cannot leave their village easily, which makes life almost impossible as they depend on being able to travel to Nablus. The settlers in the West Bank have become increasingly aggressive and threatening. They have destroyed crops and set fires where fruit and olive trees grow. This will devastate this year’s harvests. The villagers fear that they could be driven out of their lands and be coerced into taking refuge in Jordan. They received menacing letters recently: “You have the last chance to escape to Jordan in an organised manner…After that we will destroy every enemy and expel you forcefully from our holy land that God has written for us and from which He has commanded us not to turn away from it no matter what happens.”
Two days ago, HAFSA set up a Zoom call with one of the villagers, Abu Yasser, who had agreed to talk about the evolving situation and some of the day-to-day effects of their ever-worsening situation. The people are extremely scared and fear a new Nakba.
The villagers are heavily dependent on Nablus for shopping, banking, working and healthcare, but travellers are being blocked by many Israeli checkpoints and threatened by armed settlers. Abu Yasser explained that the short eight-mile journey to Nablus now takes five hours, as they have to take an extremely circuitous route, using minor roads all the way. Schools are closed, as teachers cannot travel to Sabastiya, people cannot reach their workplaces, and there are fears electricity could be cut off, so the village is trying to stock up on torches and tilly lamps.
The situation is desperate, but, as well as the fear they are all experiencing, Abu Yasser gave such a clear impression of how resilient the community is, a resilience which is going to be of vital importance for their future. He also stated how encouraged the Palestinians are when they hear news of the increasingly large protests in the UK and elsewhere in the world. They feel they are not forgotten. Even if our politicians fail to listen and act, if we are providing some support for Palestine, we should continue to be out on the streets and make our voices heard in any way we can. The village of Sabastiya clearly values the strong links with the group in Hanwell, and everyone on the Zoom call reinforced their feelings of love and friendship.