The Palestinian village of Burqa, situated on a high ridge in the Nablus region south of Jenin, has a population of several thousand Palestinians. On 23, December, 2021, Burqa became a scene of terror. ‘The village of Burqa has been exceptionally tense in recent days. The municipal government of Nablus, the biggest town nearby, said hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked the village … and dozens were trying to get into individual homes.’ Al Jazeera reported.
These settlers come from Homesh a settlement founded on land belonging to Burqa. In 1978, the Israeli Civil Administration issued Order (T/4/78) by which it confiscated the land under the pretext of it being required for ‘military purposes.’ It then promptly demilitarised the land and turned it over for residential (Israeli Jewish) use in 1980.
This process of seizure of illegally occupied territory on the grounds of military necessity is not unique to Burqa. This is one of 5 mechanisms enumerated in B’Tselem’s 2002 report used by the State of Israel to seize Palestinian land in the Occupied West Bank. Aside from seizure of lands for ‘military needs’, other mechanisms include: the declaration of land in the Occupied West Bank as state land, through the pernicious use of Ottoman Land Law of 1858; seizure of ‘absentee property’, which is purposely broadly defined; expropriation of land for public needs; and acquisition of land on the free market. Burqa, should, however, have been in a stronger position than other areas.
For many Palestinian landowners it is difficult to prove legal title to their land. There are many reasons for this. These include customs of villages holding land communally, the complex, manipulable system of land holdings under the Ottoman Empire (1516-1919), land policies under the British Mandate (1918-1948), as well as the Israeli Military Order of December 1968 (Military Order No. 291 Concerning the Settlement of Disputes over Titles in Land and the Regulation of Water), which froze the land registration process being conducted by Jordanian authorities and ‘denied the opportunity to have their land-ownership formally recognized’.”
As a result, two thirds of the West Bank land was unregistered in 1967. However, in the village of Burqa, the owners were able to prove ownership for the majority of the land, including the land confiscated for the purposes of building the illegal settlement of Homesh. The Burqa village’s ownership was certified in the land registry and settlement to the title to their land was certified in the Israeli Administration’s Land Registry.
The settlement of Homesh was built on 173 Acres (700 Dunams) of the land confiscated from Burqa village by the Israeli military and a small group of religious Jewish settlers lived there from 1980 onwards. In 2005, Homesh, which is recorded as having a population of only 70 families was deemed not ‘strategically worth the resources required to protect it,’ by the then Israeli government. It was dismantled as part of the Disengagement Plan of 2005.
Only three other West Bank settlements were dismantled, all of them in the North. According to the Israeli government, the Disengagement Plan was carried out in order to ‘Improve Israel’s security and international status in the absence of peace negotiations with the Palestinians’. Over 150 settlements remained prior to the disengagement. Recent estimates suggest that the total settler population of the West Bank (including Jerusalem) is in excess of 622,000 people.
Israeli ‘disengagement’ from the West Bank was nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Ariel Sharon’s senior advisor is on record saying that the plan was pursued in order to ‘freeze’ the peace process and preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, the settlement of Homesh was depopulated of its tiny number of settlers. For the Palestinians of Burqa village and its surrounds, this was a hopeful sign. However, the original military seizure Order (T/4/78) remained, alongside the Disengagement Law of 2005. The settlers had left, but Palestinians remained barred from their land.
As is often the case with settlements in the West Bank, initial settler populations come from the ultra-religious segments of Israeli society. Homesh is no exception to this rule and in 2009, a Yeshiva – a Jewish religious educational establishment – was built on the site, marking a flagrant ‘return’ of Israelis to an area they had been instructed to vacate.
In 2010, the Israeli human rights organisation, Yesh Din, working with the villagers of Burqa, petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) to put an end to the military requisition of their land (Military Seizure Order T/4/78). After a three-year legal battle between the villagers of Burqa and the ‘Commander of the IDF Forces in the West Bank’, the HCJ rescinded the seizure Order T/4/78 on 25 May 2013 (HCJ 9389/11). For a brief period, Palestinians went back to cultivate the land they had been barred from since 1979.
The Homesh settlers rejected the ruling by their highest court, and backed by the Israeli army they have systematically denied Palestinian landowners and farmers their right to enter the surrounding area, attacking them and preventing them from reaching their crops.
This development did not go unnoticed by the High Court. High Court Justice Uzi Vogelman criticised that the Israeli army’s failure to protect the rightful Palestinian owners’ right to enter the area. He warned that a failure to enforce the ban on settlers could lead to “the disintegration of governmental authority” (2021).
Confrontations between local Palestinians on one side and settlers and army on the other, have led to increased incidences of violence.
The notion of a Yeshiva a ‘religious seminary’ is a peaceful one, but the malevolent nature of some of the Yeshiva students is known to Palestinians of the West Bank, particularly those of the Homesh settlement. On August 21, 2021, Yeshiva students from Homesh abducted and tortured Tareq Zbeidi (15) a Palestinian teenager from the nearby village of Silat a-Daher. Zbeidi was having a picnic with friends at the time. According to Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP) an NGO working in the West Bank, ‘the settlers pursued and struck Tareq with their car, tied him to the vehicle’s hood, hung him by his arms from a tree, and beat him until he lost consciousness.’ Miraculously Zbeidi survived, injured and traumatised.
Less than two months later, December 17, enraged Palestinians shot at a car containing the settler Yehuda Dimentman, an active member of the Homesh Yeshiva whose members assaulted Zbeidi. Dimentman was, according to the Jerusalem Post, a very active member of the Nahala movement ‘which seeks to create outposts and strengthen Israel’s hold on Judea and Samaria,’ (an Israeli designation for the West Bank).
Whereas Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians and soldiers is documented meticulously by the Israeli army and police, Israeli authorities do not consistently publish data on settler violence against Palestinians. Further, there are often discrepancies between the data published by the military and the police, leading some to question the reliability of their data. When Palestinians do lodge complaints to Israeli authorities, very few cases are investigated.
Palestinians and the international community have been forced to rely on NGOs on the ground to document incidences of settler violence. The reported numbers are likely to be far lower than real incidences, due to the restricted capacities of NGOs, compared to state institutions, to capture all the data. There are still, however, high amounts of cases being reported. Between 2017 and 2021, Yesh Din documented 27 settler attacks on Palestinians in the Homesh area alone.
The numbers are also clearly increasing. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented 410 attacks by settlers against Palestinians and their property in 10 months of 2021, a marked increase from the 358 recorded attacks in 2020 and the 335 attacks in 2019. The numbers alone, do not, however, give an accurate sense of the brutal nature of these attacks and the fear that they spread. The veteran journalist, Gideon Levy, communicated the fear felt by Palestinians living close to Homesh.
Moreover, Yesh Din’s April 2021 report monitoring the outcomes of police investigation found that of the 1,291 investigation files opened by the Israeli Police between 2005 and 2019 into offences committed by Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank, 91% of investigation files were closed without an indictment. Of these files, ‘82% were closed in circumstances attesting to police failure to investigate and solve the crime’ (2021).
The systematic failure to investigate or prosecute assailants is true not only of settler attacks on Palestinians, but of Israeli army attacks as well. According to a May 2016 B’Tselem report, of the 739 complaints lodged by the NGO since 2000, ‘in a quarter (182) no investigation was ever launched, in nearly half (343), the investigation was closed with no further action, and only in very rare instances (25), were charges brought against the implicated soldiers.’
Though settler violence has always been a feature of the Israeli occupation, an October 2021 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the territories occupied since 1967 reported that ‘we are witnessing the highest recorded levels of violence in recent years and more severe incidents.’
In a response to recent violence, particularly the killing of Dimentman, there has been a push by Jewish far-right activists and Members of the Knesset (MKs) to legalise the Homesh outpost, including far-right lawmakers Avi Maoz, Orit Strock and Simcha Rothman, as well as Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich and MK Moshe Arbel from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. This campaign culminated in a pro-settler march on the outpost of some 10,000 people on 23 December, which saw the aforementioned lawmakers and MKs in attendance. In effect, the parliamentary members were marching with the settlers, against their own High Court ruling.
Though the entry into the area is illegal for Israelis pursuant to the 2005 Disengagement Law, the march was approved by Israeli military command, and state security apparatus was stationed in the area ostensibly to ensure the safety of the settlers and right-wing activists. The Israeli army further restricted Palestinian movement in the area in turn, ‘entrances to Burqa had been shut down with earth mounds by the Israeli forces to allow settlers to access Homesh,’ Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett reported. Of even greater concern, Israeli soldiers took part in the attacks against local Palestinians by the settlers, according to local Palestinians. These were indiscriminate and involved raids on Palestinian homes in Burqa, according to the same Al Jazeera report.
Seldom does the highest court in the land – the Israeli HCJ – rule in favour of the Palestinians. After a legal challenge, in the instance of Burqa, they did. Furthermore, for a while, the judgment was implemented on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The settler movement and the far-right political elements that support it, have made a show of undermining the decision and with it, the rule of law. It is not a coincidence that settler movements, such as the one in Homesh, are supported by the most zealously religious elements of the political establishment. Many of the Members of the Knesset, such as those that participated in the march on Homesh late last month – have also called for the establishment of a Halachic – that is, a Jewish theocratic – state. The desire to erode the democracy that for a long time has been hailed as part of Israel’s raison d’être is now being attacked from within, taking the rule of law down with it.