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Israel Settlers Rampage in Palestinian-Americans’ West Bank Hometown

Published in: Middle East Monitor
A man walks near a mural depicting slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. The mural by Palestinian artist Taqi Spateen appeared early Wednesday, days ahead of a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden. © 2022 AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean

When Kayed Abu Awwad sold his home in Oak Lawn, Illinois, in June, he never imagined that he and his family would be homeless a few weeks later.

Like many American-born Palestinians, Abu Awwad, a 38-year-old truck driver, planned to move his family to “our homeland” for two or three years, so his American-born children, aged 3, 11 and 14, “could learn the language and the culture.” It’s what his father did with him when he was a kid growing up in the US.

He and his wife, Dina, who became a US citizen through marriage, shipped their furniture to a house that his father had built in the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya, next door to the house where Dina grew up.

Their plan went up in flames. Literally.

On 21 June, two weeks before the family’s planned arrival, a mob from nearby Israeli settlements, all of which are illegal under international law, rampaged through Turmus Ayya, torching cars, smashing windows, and fire-bombing homes.

The settlers broke into Abu Awwad’s enclosed porch, pried open the gated window of a sitting room and torched that room and the porch. They were unable to get past the main door, thereby sparing the belongings that the Abu Awwads had shipped.

No one was there, but Dina’s 75-year-old mother Khadija was in the house next door, which settlers also firebombed. Neighbours helped her escape through a back door.

Settlers had vandalized property in Turmus Ayya many times before, but this rampage seemed more organized, Sa’ed Ihmoud, a town council member, told us when we visited on 10 July. On 29 January, settlers had also smashed windows of Abu Awwad’s house and caused damage elsewhere.

At first, Abu Awwad hesitated to replace the windows, telling himself nothing could prevent the settlers from doing it again, but went ahead anyway in advance of his family’s planned arrival on 5 July.

Abu Awwad’s family is now crowded into a single room at a relative’s home. Their own house, now damaged, is particularly vulnerable: on the northern edge of the town, it is among the first that settlers reach when they march across the valley from the illegal settlement of Shiloh.

Located on a hill off Highway 60 between Ramallah and Nablus, Turmus Ayya looks handsome and prosperous. Town officials report that 70 to 80 percent of its population has either US citizenship or permanent residency. Its winter population of 3,000 swells to more than 8,000 when diaspora Palestinians return each summer. They include businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, and at least one US state senator, Abdelnasser Rashid of Illinois. Late-model SUVs sit outside their spacious houses.

Palestinian-Americans are not spared the abuses that Israeli occupation authorities commit against other Palestinians. The US is unable to protect them, despite its $3.8 billion in annual aid to Israel.

The 21 June rampage is one of hundreds that settlers have carried out in recent years in the occupied West Bank. The one carried out in Huwara, near Nablus, on 26 February was denounced as a “pogrom” by Israeli Major General Yehuda Fuchs. Settlers injured 204 Palestinians and killed six during the first half of 2023; Palestinians killed 24 Israelis in the occupied West Bank and Israel during this period, according to the UN. Casualties are up dramatically compared to a year ago.

Settler violence flourishes in an environment of indulgence from the security forces and impunity from the criminal justice system. Between 2005 and 2022, Israeli authorities closed 93 percent of investigations against settlers who attacked Palestinians without charging any suspects, according to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. Only three percent ended in a conviction of some kind. This tally does not include the many cases in which Palestinians filed no complaint and no investigation was even opened.

Like many previous rampages, settlers on 21 June acted in the name of revenge. The day before, two armed Palestinians had killed four settlers eight kilometers north. The presumed Palestinian attackers, who were shot dead, came from the village of Urif, which settlers also raided on the 21st.

Several residents of Turmus Ayya told us that the settlers formed their mob at the Shiloh settlement cemetery shortly after the funeral of Nahman Shmuel Mordoff, a 17-year-old killed in the 20 June attack. They said that at no point did the Israeli occupation’s security forces challenge the settler mob as it descended the fields, crossed a highly securitized road, and climbed up through the olive groves belonging to the village at about 1:30pm. Residents estimated the group was at least 200 strong, mostly boys and men between ages 15 and 25, most of them masked and at least two wielding rifles. 

Private video surveillance cameras recorded the mob marauding through the northern end of town, throwing rocks and, some townspeople told us, nail-filled chunks of concrete. Their progress was eventually slowed by rocks hurled at them by local youths, at least seven of whom were injured by live ammunition fired by the settlers, according to the municipality.

Israeli occupation forces did not enter the village until at least a quarter of an hour after the settlers arrived, townspeople said. A video camera captured at 1:43pm a lone security vehicle stopping in their midst, opening a door to drop a tear gas canister on the ground, causing the boys and men to scatter, and then driving away. The members of the forces did not get out of the vehicle to arrest anyone.

The settlers continued to vandalize and burn property as they withdrew toward the road separating Turmus Ayya and Shiloh, town officials told us. They burned five homes and 22 cars that afternoon and damaged many more.

As the settlers were leaving the town, additional Israeli occupation forces entered. Met with a hail of rocks and other projectiles, the forces opened fire, the army said. They wounded four more Palestinians, according to the municipality, and killed Omar Qattin, a 27-year-old US Green Card holder married to a US citizen and the father of two young children.

According to the Israeli police, officers “accurately” fired at an unnamed “rioter” who “endangered their lives.” But a young Palestinian who was with Qattin told a B’Tselem field-worker that at the time he was shot, they were not throwing or firing anything, but rather looking out for soldiers who they thought were approaching the village from the field.

Among the at least 12 Palestinians hit that day in Turmus Ayya by settler or soldier gunfire, at least three hold US citizenship or a Green Card, according to Sa’ed Kook, a town council member and former mayor. 

On the day of the incursion, the US State Department spokesperson called for “full accountability and legal prosecution for those responsible for these attacks, in addition to compensation for lost homes and property.” The next day, then-US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides declared: “We will not stand by, and we’re pushing the Israelis to take whatever action they need to take to stop those people.” Both also condemned the slaying of the four settlers. Diplomats from the US and other countries toured Turmus Ayya on 23 June.

Israel has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection and safety of those under its occupation. The army acknowledged that it had “failed” to stop the settler rampages in Turmus Ayya and elsewhere, saying its troops were “stretched too thin.” The heads of the various security services denounced the rampages as “nationalist terrorism.”

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, the persistent laxness in deterring setter violence is intentional; it “serves as a major informal tool at the hands of the state to take over more and more West Bank land.” 

One way this happens is that, under the guise of reducing intercommunal friction, the military “prefers to remove Palestinians from their own farmland or pastureland rather than confront settlers, using various tactics such as issuing closed military zone orders that apply to Palestinians only,” B’Tselem said.

In Turmus Ayya, the army closed off 2,500 dunams [617.7 acres] of land abutting illegal settlements and grants the owners access only twice a year for three days each time, according to Ihmoud, the town council member.

Abu Awwad doesn’t know what to do. “I’d build a tall fence to protect my property,” he said, “but the municipality told me to forget it because Beit El [Israel’s Civil Administration for the West Bank] won’t allow it.” His house is in Area C, where Israeli authorities exercise exclusive authority and require Palestinians to apply for building permits that are rarely granted. This leads Palestinians often to build “illegally” at risk of being fined and seeing their structures demolished.

“I was planning to travel often to the US to earn money,” Abu Awwad said, “but without a fence, I don’t feel safe leaving my wife and children alone in our house.”

Israeli authorities announced on 23 June the arrest of three settlers following several West Bank rampages that week. They later stated that two settlers had been indicted and five others placed in administrative detention (more than 1,100 Palestinians are currently in this form of detention without charge or trial). To date, no arrests have been announced specifically for the attack on Turmus Ayya and no compensation has been paid to its residents.  

Turmus Ayyans are hardly the only Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank to have faced repression of late. On 11 May 2022, Israeli forces shot dead Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh as she reported on a raid in Jenin while wearing a blue press vest, at a distance from any active combat. On 12 January 2022, 78-year-old Omar As’ad was found dead after troops handcuffed and gagged him near an impromptu checkpoint and left him lying there. The army announced there would be no prosecutions in either case.

The human rights of Palestinian-Americans are worth no more and no less than anyone else’s. But it is clear that Israel, a recipient of substantial US aid, has been severely abusing the rights of these US citizens, and doing so on the basis of their ethnic, national, or racial identity.

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