Nablus, occupied West Bank – No matter how hard he tries, Abdulatheem Wadi is unable to hide the devastating pain written all over his face.
With his eyes fixed on the distance, the 50-year-old chokes up as he recalls how Israeli setters murdered his 63-year-old brother Ibrahim and his 24-year-old nephew Ahmad, on October 12, while they were attending a memorial service for a group of Palestinians also killed by settlers the previous night.
What was a funeral for four became a funeral for six.
“It was a massacre in a small village,” says Abdulatheem.
That village is Qusra, home to some 7,000 Palestinians living just south of Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank.
Even though the funeral procession and its planned path were approved by the Israeli army through the Palestinian Authority (PA) side of the District Coordination Office (DCO), it was still attacked, Abdulatheem explained.
He was standing some 20 metres (66 feet) away from his relatives when they were shot dead.
“We were surprised to find a settler ambush. My car was the first car in the procession – I was in front of the four ambulances carrying the four martyrs,” he recalls.
“Armed settlers then jumped onto the main road, put burning tyres and blocked our path. We couldn’t go forward or back – it was chaos. Then, there was indiscriminate live fire and rocks being thrown at us by the army and settlers,” says Abdulatheem, adding that the “Israeli soldiers were standing with the settlers and were shooting at us.”
“Within minutes, another settler car came and fired at my nephew and brother while they were standing on the street after they had gotten out of their car, killing them,” he continues, his voice cracking.
“My other nephew Yasser – Ahmad’s brother – is 14 years old. The settlers showered the car he was sitting in with bullets,” says Abdulatheem. “He doesn’t speak any more. Many people have tried to get him to talk, with no luck.”
Decades of settler violence
Settler attacks have been a daily reality in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967 when Israel occupied those areas with the approximately three million Palestinians living there.
At least 700,000 Israelis live in illegal, fortified, Jewish-only settlements across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the majority of which were built either entirely or partially on private Palestinian land.
Attacks include shootings, stabbings, fatal rock-throwing, severe beatings with pipes and wooden sticks, as well as arson and serious damage to homes, vehicles and agricultural lands.
Israeli settlers killed three Palestinians in 2022, five in 2021, and two in 2019. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators do not face any accountability for their crimes.
But since October 7, settler attacks have increased exponentially in the occupied West Bank. That day, the Gaza-based Hamas armed resistance group launched a surprise operation just outside the besieged Gaza Strip on Israeli territory, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
Israel responded immediately with a relentless shelling campaign and later a ground invasion that continues to this day, killing close to 16,000 Palestinians, including more than 6,000 children.
In tandem with Israeli attacks on Gaza, settlers have killed at least nine Palestinians over the past 58 days. They have been raiding Palestinian villages daily, assaulting residents and their properties, and have injured dozens.
The United Nations noted that “in nearly half of all incidents, Israeli forces were either accompanying or actively supporting the attackers”.
Abdulatheem’s family members were among those killed by settlers after October 7.
His brother Ibrahim was a father to 11 children. “My brother was very educated. He graduated with an MA in chemistry from Pakistan, and worked at the Ministry of National Economy in Ramallah,” Abdulatheem says with pride.
Ibrahim also worked with villages in south Nablus to form protection committees and local councils for residents.
“Ahmad was his second-eldest. He completed a law degree and was engaged to be married,” continues Abdulatheem.
Villages south of Nablus
The governorate of Nablus, particularly the villages south of the city, is consistently the most affected by settler attacks in the occupied West Bank every year, followed by Hebron and Ramallah.
The same cities have the highest number of illegal Israeli outposts, which correlates with the high level of violence. Israeli outposts are housing communities with dozens of residential units built outside the borders of a settlement to seize more Palestinian land and “create facts on the ground”.
All Israeli settlements, including outposts, are illegal under international law. Israel, however, considers only outposts as illegal under its own laws, claiming that they were built by individual settlers or settler groups, and not by the government, even though the latter provides infrastructure, support and funding for the outposts. In addition, the Israeli government has over the past few years retroactively legalised many outposts and passed legislation that makes it easier to do so.
Yitzhar, six kilometres (about four miles) southwest of Nablus the most notorious, has at least six outposts extending out of the illegal settlement, home to hundreds of settlers.
Settlers living close to Palestinian villages in the south of Nablus, sometimes metres away, are also among the most violent in the occupied West Bank and have carried out deadly attacks, including Yitzhar, Itamar, Adei Ad, Esh Kodesh and Har Bracha.
The presence of Israel’s illegal settlements, the separation wall Israel built to annex more Palestinian land from the West Bank, and hundreds of military checkpoints and bases have turned the West Bank into 165 disconnected Palestinian “enclaves” suffering from severe development and movement restrictions.
In the northern and central West Bank, illegal Israeli settlements separate the villages south of Nablus from the villages north of Ramallah, where the majority of settler attacks in those areas take place.
“We have a problem in the south of Nablus. Here we have the seven [settlement] hills: Eli, Shiloh, Ahiya, Kida, Adei Ad, Esh Kodesh and Shvot Rahel,” Abdulatheem meticulously recites.
“The villages of Burin, Madama, Asira al-Qibliya, Urif, Huwara, Qaryout, Jalud, Duma and Qusra in Nablus, are the last villages before the towns of Turmus Aya, al-Mughayyer and others north of Ramallah. These are the most targeted,” continues Abdulatheem, noting that the settlers “want to take these lands”.
In July 2015, Israelis living in Adei Ad descended on the village of Duma and set the Dawabsheh family home on fire, killing an 18-month-old baby and his parents.
In 2019, a 38-year-old Palestinian man in the village of al-Mughayyer was shot dead by settlers from Adei Ad, who also wounded another 30 people, of whom six were shot with live ammunition.
In 2023, two large settler attacks took place in the same areas. In February, hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked the village of Huwara, killing a 37-year-old Palestinian man and torching dozens of homes and cars in what was described as a “pogrom”. A similar attack took place in June on the village of Turmus Aya, where another Palestinian man was also killed.
Top Israeli officials have publicly incited more violence. In Huwara, after the attack, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also has authority over the army, called for Huwara to be “wiped out”.
‘Massacres await us’
Some 20km (13 miles) west of Qusra is the small village of Madama, home to about 2,300 people.
The village is sandwiched between the illegal settlement of Yitzhar and Route 60, the main highway used mainly by settlers and built on part of the village’s land.
On October 18, Israeli settlers attacked the Ziadeh family home while the army shot live ammunition. At least 30 people were in the family building, including 15 children.
“The settler attack on the house came in tandem with the Israeli army attack,” says 43-year-old Talaat Ziadeh.
“A large group of terrorist settlers attacked our house and other houses in the area from 9:30pm until 1am. They burned several cars, smashed windows, tried to burn down homes,” he told Al Jazeera from his village.
During the settler assault, Israeli soldiers opened fire at Talaat’s brother, 32-year-old Ahmad, shooting him in the foot.
“I went up to the road outside our house. I was surprised to find a 16-year-old boy on the ground who the army had shot. I tried to give him first aid and carry him, when the soldiers shot me,” Ahmad tells Al Jazeera.
The family, like many other Palestinians, say they “do not differentiate between the army and settlers. The settlers are soldiers and soldiers are settlers,” says Talaat. This reality has only become more evident after October 7, they explain.
“After October 7, the attacks became more brazen and violent. The army protection and coordination with the settlers is much more open,” says Ahmad.
“If we use anything to defend ourselves – rocks, sometimes kitchen tools like plates and cups – the army immediately shoots live ammunition at us,” he continues.
Talaat agrees. “No one protects us here – we protect ourselves. We are fighting alone.”
Amid the ongoing war on the Gaza Strip and the further arming of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, the villages south of Nablus say they expect more attacks.
“We are very afraid of what’s coming,” says Talaat. “Massacres await us in this area.”
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