Inside Beita’s Protests: ‘The settlers didn’t understand who they were dealing with’

By Oren Ziv

Over the past few weeks, the town of Beita in the occupied West Bank, home to about 18,000 residents, has become one of the most prominent faces of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler land takeovers.

In May, a month after an Israeli was shot dead by Palestinians at the nearby Tapuach Junction, settlers established the outpost of Eviatar on land that belongs to Beita, as well as three other Palestinian villages. The settlers of Eviatar got to work quickly, paving roads and building dozens of structures while receiving protection and even active assistance from the Israeli military.

The outpost was named after Eviatar Borowski, a resident of the nearby settlement of Yitzhar, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian in May 2013. Settlers have made three different attempts to build an outpost on the site, but the buildings were evacuated very soon after they were erected.

In response, Beita’s Palestinian residents began organizing demonstrations on Fridays, and later nightly protests, against the settlement.

There are over 130 settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, all of which were established illegally under both Israeli and international law (under the latter, all settlements in the occupied territories are considered illegal). In February 2017, the Knesset passed the “Regularization Law” to retroactively legalize settlements and outposts that are built on land that Israel recognizes as privately-owned by Palestinians. Following its passage, a group of Palestinian local authorities and three human rights organizations petitioned Israel’s High Court to cancel the law.

The law’s implementation has been frozen as part of an agreement between the government and the petitioners until the High Court rules on its constitutionality.

The demonstrations in Beita this past month have looked and felt like a battlefield: over a thousand residents and workers from other villages protest every week, with Israeli soldiers and Border Police attacking them with tear gas (sometimes fired from a drone), stun grenades, rubber-coated metal bullets, and live “toto” bullets. The army has killed four residents of the town, including 16-year-old Muhammad Hamayel and 15-year-old Ahmad Bani Shams, and has wounded more than 50 people by live ammunition.

The demonstrations in Beita are quite distinct from those that characterized the Palestinian popular struggle against Israel’s separation barrier and settlements during the late 2000s and early 2010s, which have largely waned in recent years. Unlike in other villages in the West Bank, such as Bil’in, the Beita protests are not joint Palestinian-Israeli demonstrations, but clearly Palestinian ones; although individual Israeli activists attend, they do not march alongside Palestinian residents. And compared to most West Bank protests in recent years, Beita’s demonstrations are much larger, more frequent, and more intense.

I joined Beita’s demonstrations over a number of weeks. The following is a chronicle of the town’s resistance and the attempts to suppress it.

Friday, June 4

Around noon, hundreds of cars make their way up a dirt path toward the hills around the Eviatar outpost, which was established on the highest ridge of Mount Sabih. More than a thousand Palestinian protesters — most of them from Beita but also from other villages — gather for Friday prayers on a piece of land that overlooks Eviatar. Once the prayers come to a close, hundreds begin to march in the general direction of the outpost, while others burn tires nearby.

Within seconds, Israeli soldiers and Border Police officers begin firing massive amounts of tear gas. Many protesters flee backwards, but some of the young people continue to move forward. Then, dozens of meters away from me, protesters begin to hit the ground after being struck by live fire, despite the fact that the demonstrators had not even approached the outpost. While some protesters threw stones, others who did not were shot and then evacuated on foot by local residents to ambulances. Most of them were hit in the leg, but others sustained wounds across their body.

The feeling on the ground is that instead of firing rubber-coated metal bullets, they are now opting for live fire. In general, it seems that since the attack on Gaza and the violence that spread across Israel-Palestine in May, Israeli security forces have been given permission to use live ammunition. A total of 15 protesters were wounded by live fire that day. The demonstration lasted for hours, as young people tried to climb from different directions and reach the main road that leads to the outpost.

Friday, June 11

Arriving at Beita is getting more difficult; the army blocked one of the main entrances to the town following the protests. Some of the entrances from the nearby village of Udala were also blocked with mounds of dirt — a form of collective punishment against Beita’s residents.

This week, protesters gathered for a prayer on the other side of the outpost, above a local quarry. After the prayers, the village youth begin to roll burning tires toward the steep valley, which separates the demonstration from the outpost. After being fired at with tear gas, the protesters scatter to several surrounding hills, throwing stones at the soldiers, who then respond with live ammunition.

In the afternoon, soldiers shoot Muhammad Hamail, a 16-year-old high school student, who dies shortly afterward from his wounds. His school friend, 15-year-old Ahmad Bani Shamsa, will be shot by soldiers several days later, on June 16. He too will die.

Friday, June 18

After the army blocks all major access roads to the town, including the main entrance, the weekly demonstration gathers in front of a new makeshift checkpoint that is guarded by Israeli soldiers 24 hours a day. About a thousand Palestinian protesters pray on the main road. Now they are forced to travel 20 minutes to head out of the town.

Immediately after the prayer, when the march begins, Border Police officers begin throwing stun grenades and tear gas. Many protesters retreat, while dozens of young people remain and throw stones at the soldiers.

This time, perhaps because of the large number of Palestinian deaths caused by their policy over the past month, the soldiers refrain from using live fire. They nonetheless fire rubber-coated metal and sponge bullets in large quantities at the protesters. A number of journalists standing on the side toward the front of the demonstration were wounded and evacuated. Young protesters took large plastic boxes, which are used to transport agricultural produce, from a nearby warehouse and use them as barricades.

Toward the afternoon, the protest moves to the hills around Eviatar. “We will not give up our land. The settlers who established the outpost did not understand who they were dealing with,” says A., a 30-year-old protester.

“This is not a small village, this is a city,” he continued. “We will continue to go out every week until they clear the land and make a beautiful place for recreation or other activities. We cannot accept that they have taken over our house when all this is happening with the help of the army. Without the help of the Israeli forces, [the settlers] would not have stayed there a single day. We would have thrown them out.”

Thursday, June 24

The Beita demonstrations are not limited to daytime hours. Inspired by Palestinian protests at the Gaza-Israel fence, Beita’s residents are operating “units” that burn tires, light bonfires, and shine powerful flashlights and lasers to disturb and deter the settlers. This morning, army forces raided the hills around the outpost, confiscating tires and blocking access roads. The main entrance and the town were open today because Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited in the morning.

Beita’s residents have been holding these near-nightly demonstrations for the past two weeks. Despite attempts to quell them, hundreds of people regularly gather at sunset on a hill in front of the settlement. Some sit, drink, eat, and pray. In the dark, hundreds of young people descend into the valley and begin to burn tires that the army has not yet confiscated. Others help light the area with flashlights and lasers pointed at the settlement and at the soldiers around it. As opposed to the daylight demonstrations, the soldiers are afraid to move away from the settlement toward the Palestinians, and instead fire tear gas from the nearby terraces.

At around 9 p.m., 200 young Palestinians hold a torchlight procession. Some tear gas grenades cause them to disperse into the hilly terrain.

B., one of the regular Palestinian protesters who holds a flashlight in his hand, says: “They [the settlers] came to stay. When they came they thought [Beita] was a small village, but here everyone goes out to protest, and we understand that the nightly protests are particularly disturbing to them. It’s been like this every night for several days now.”

As we chat, young people pass by and share drinks and homemade food. “This is from the kindness of people’s hearts,” B. says about the food. “People go to grocery stores, buy or cook, and hand out food here to support us. The whole community participates in the protest, each in their own way.”

One of the Palestinian adults looks on at the night protest and says, “Why did they [the army] kill the young people who went out to demonstrate? What danger did they pose?” He points to his friend, a 60-year-old man who came to the protest on crutches after being wounded.

“Here the young people are inspired by the adults and vice versa. Everyone goes out to protest. They killed six of our young people here [including two killed last year during a protest against a settler patrol through the village], and people are still continuing to demonstrate.”

Friday, June 25

The protesters gather for prayer in an open area in front of the outpost. But even before the prayer begins, soldiers hiding among the olive trees near the protest shoot tear gas. “Do not throw stones, do not move toward them,” pleads a Palestinian man with a megaphone. “We’ll finish the prayer and then we’ll go to the demonstration.”

The army continues to fire tear gas and dozens of worshipers remain to pray under a cloud of gas, as a medic with a gas mask hands out alcohol wipes, which help deal with the string of tear gas.

An Israeli military jeep fires rounds of tear gas canisters at Palestinian protesters in Beita, West Bank, June 25, 2021. (Oren
As soon as the prayer is over, the young Palestinians begin advancing toward the soldiers and throw stones. A military jeep launches tear gas at them, about 20 grenades at a time. The protesters flee everywhere, some fall to the ground and are evacuated by paramedics. Later, an Israeli drone also shoots tear gas at the protesters.

At around 2 p.m., a young Palestinian is hit by live fire and falls to the ground. He is taken by an ambulance to a hospital in Nablus. We later hear that the bullet went into one side of his cheek and came out the other side, causing no severe damage.

The protesters continue to demonstrate. Every once in a while, a Palestinian on a motorized scooter arrives from the direction of Beita carrying water, soft drinks, rice, and cakes. At around 3 p.m. the driver delivers rice and meat to the protesters, who sit to eat under the olive trees.

“Write that this is not a conflict, but occupation and apartheid,” one of the young men demands in English. “American money not only finances the tear gas that is being fired at us, but also the settlement they have built here, the roads, everything. International support allows them to take over our land.”

Monday, June 28

Yossi Dagan, who heads the Samaria Regional Council, announces that the residents of Eviatar have reached an agreement with the state. According to the so-called “compromise,” the settlers and their supporters would leave the area, but the structures will remain in place under the army’s protection. In six weeks, the settlers will be allowed to establish a new yeshiva there.

The state will also review the legal status of the land upon which Eviatar was established in order to potentially formalize it retroactively. Palestinian landowners were not included in the discussions. The deal has yet to be made official, which leaves room for both sides to change their position.

According to Dror Etkes, who heads Kerem Navot, an organization that monitors and researches Israeli land policy in the West Bank, Eviatar was established on land cultivated by Palestinian farmers until the army entered the area in the 1980s, built a makeshift base, and left in the late 1990s.

The settlers and their supporters, who arrived at the outpost last night in case the army carried out an evacuation, continue with the construction work. Some are clearly energized by the deal and the potential to formalize the outpost; others are less sanguine, fearing their dream will not come true. They pray and dance in the small school they erected, singing “This is our land forever, and we won’t give it to anyone.”

Daniela Weiss, a prominent settler leader and one of the top figures in Gush Emunim, a right-wing religious movement committed to building settlements across the occupied territories that operated in the 1970s, and who helped establish Eviatar, tells journalists at the outpost:

In Gush Emunim, we learned that our job is not to force the government but to elevate the government. Our achievement is that we have pushed the government to reach the situation that it itself wants. Who could have imagined that this government would find a noble and uplifting way to converse without force, but rather out of appreciation for the builders of the land. The achievement is that together we have transcended our daily political bickering. This is a very significant achievement. I learned that from Rabbi Levinger [one of the leaders of Gush Emunim].

In the afternoon, Palestinians begin burning tires, with the wind carrying the smoke toward the settlement. Settlers say that the situation in the area has improved slightly, after soldiers confiscated hundreds of tires near the village last week. Several young settlers stood on the terraces overlooking Beita, alongside two Israeli army reservists stationed at the site. “If the Arabs come, can they be shot?” one of them asked the soldiers. “You can shoot tear gas,” replied one of the soldiers.”

(Source / 01.07.2021)

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