While eyes are on Rafah, violence runs rampant in Masafer Yatta

As the world is focused on the atrocities being enacted in Gaza, activists are blowing the whistle in Masafer Yatta. R.L. Elson shares reports from comrades on the ground.

by R.L. Elson

Ramadan has begun. In Palestine, what should be a joyous and sacred holiday is instead a milestone that compounds the pain of an ongoing genocide, with a current death toll topping 31,000. Many say that they have already been fasting for the past five months due to the tactic of starvation by the Israeli state. For some, even going to a mosque to pray was violently denied. Currently, the popular refrain among concerned humanitarians, allies, activists, and those with a conscience is: ‘All Eyes on Rafah’, where there are estimated to be more than 1.5 million forcibly displaced people. Israel continues to attack, despite yesterday's UN ceasefire resolution. The war crimes and atrocities being committed there and across Gaza are unending.

The Flour massacre, where 112 Palestinians were murdered and 760 were injured while trying to reach the little aid that Israel has let through. Widespread sexual violence, torture, and humiliation by the Israeli military inside and outside of detention centers is common, often being uploaded and circulated by the Israeli Army itself. The severe medical emergency in Palestine is ongoing. This is compounded by the torture and deadly attacks on aid workers and the besieging, invasion and destruction of hospitals. Only 36% of hospitals are estimated to be partially functioning; however, given that this data was from two months ago, the actual functioning percentage is likely much smaller. The impact of this crisis is widespread, and has lead to people of all ages having amputations without any anesthesia.

Collective punishment such as bombing and invading refugee camps as well as attacking the general population under the guise of ‘finding Hamas’1 constitutes a war crime and a violation of the Geneva Convention2. The barring of aid in order to forcibly starve the general population also constitutes a violation. The list of banned items delivered to refugees in Palestine contains menstrual products and water purification tablets, cementing an irony for supposed ‘Feminists’ who stand with Israel while denying people who menstruate in Gaza any supplies. Most recently, the famine and starvation campaign steered by Israel is brutalizing thousands.

All eyes are rightly on Rafah; it contains over half of Gaza's population, as Israel continues to bomb and shell there. However, as the world’s focus is drawn to Rafah, there is an obfuscation of the escalation of intimidation and extreme violence now unfolding in the West Bank. I was put in contact with Yaldi’3, a person working on behalf of the Palestinian people, who reached out in order to try and publicize the extreme escalation of violence in South Hebron.

The West Bank

In order to better understand what is happening in the South Hebron Hills, there must first be understanding of its history. The South Hebron Hills is an extremely contested territory in Area C of the West Bank. It is under full Israeli control, which routinely denies Palestinians building permits and access to the power grids or water pipelines that have been constructed through this region.

At the southern tip of the South Hebron Hills lies Masafer Yatta, an area that was declared a ‘restricted military zone’ in the early 1980s by the Israeli army. This is despite the fact that many Palestinian families were living there prior to 1948. For the Palestinian farmers and shepherds who live in villages or cave dwellings in Masafer Yatta, life continued as usual until 1999, when the Israeli army forcibly expelled all residents. This led to a court case. Amidst the destroyed homes, cisterns (the primary water source for Palestinians), and belongings, the High Court of Justice ruled an interim injunction in 2000 which allowed the families to return to what was left of their homes. While this injunction allowed for return, as it was not a permanent decree, it has left many Palestinians tied up in lengthy legal proceedings for more than 20 years. It also denied any possibility of legal development or construction. In other words, though it allowed the residents of Masafer Yatta to return, they were and are faced with constant threat, harassment, and violence.

Extreme ‘outposts’ began to crop up in the area. These outposts were set up by violent settlers, who would, amongst other things, consistently and violently harass children on their way to school. These attacks got so bad that the army and international volunteers had to begin escorting Palestinian children to school to prevent physical harm. That is not to say the the army has reduced their assaults on Masafer Yatta residents; on the contrary, the army roll in tanks, detonate bombs, and indiscriminately shell, putting the homes of the villagers at extreme risk of collapse and leading to many injured and murdered Palestinians. However, this one instance serves to highlight the awareness of the Israeli state to the extreme violence of settlers.

Given this history, while the global stage is focused on Rafah (and rightly so), the aggressors in Masafer Yatta have recently felt emboldened to escalate their attacks against the Palestinians.

International Solidarity

In response to the aggressors, activist organizations emerged who are working alongside Palestinians in order to document the harassment and violence. One group in particular reached out to me and Interregnum in order to try and bring more attention to this violence. While the work of this organization will be outlined, due to a very real fear of threat of violence to those in the area, doxxing, and the label of a ‘terrorist organization’ by Israel, no real names will be used.

FAFO (pseudonym), is made up of international activists like Yaldi. FAFO is Palestinian-led, operates on a non-hierarchical basis, and is explicitly non-violent.

The group’s main aim is to document the goings-on in Masafer Yatta through film, photo, and written record. FAFO’s central principle is to act as a deterrent to the aggressors in the area and to de-escalate any violence. They collaborate with other Israeli Anti-Zionist organizations, who are literally putting their lives on the line when they physically get in-between violent aggressors and their targets be that crops, land, sheep, or people. While this work is risky, given the hostility and violence of the aggressors, it is consistently safer for non-Palestinians than Palestinians to be there.

We [FAFO activists] are always on the move; from when we wake up and sup with the Palestinian family who hosted us, till sundown. If there’s been settler activity, it is straight to patrol in order to make our presence known. When we are there, the settlers are less bold.”

In contrast to the pervasive ‘savior complex’ that has saturated the Left, this organization explicitly defers to the community and makes it clear that they work, live, sleep, eat, and resist alongside Palestinians. In other words, FAFO are accomplices rather than allies, and their consistent non-violence avoids any further harm to the community.

Who are the aggressors?

These aggressors can be broadly split up into three groups: Extreme religious settlers, settler ‘soldiers’, and the tools of the Israeli state (police, army, etc.). The extreme religious settlers have M16s and zeal, but seem to lack the central organizing structures seen in the two other groups.

However, not all extremists are ill-organized. Within this group is a notorious gang known as the Hilltop Youth. They are extremely violent, extremely organized, extremely religious and extremely young. The Israeli army are known for working with and recruiting these extremists.

Then there are the settler ‘soldiers’, who don the uniform of the police or army. Whilst not on actual active duty, they are typically reservists or have procured a uniform.

Lastly is the actual army. None of the violence is new; what is novel is the triangular collaboration between these groups, alongside a severe escalation in the violence. The UN estimates that the rate of these violent incidents has more than doubled.

FAFO routinely record the actions of these extremists. Yet this is not risk free.

“They [the aggressors] hate it when we film them. They will attack us and try to smash up our cameras, or physically try to stop us. That is of course, nothing compared to what the Palestinians are subject to.”

Settler-soldiers harassing members of FAFO because they are filming. The settler-soldier said that they are not allowed to film and then tries to steal the camera. However, it is legal to film. This is an extremely common tactic used to try to prevent any documentation.

So what is actually happening in Masafer Yatta?

There is the destruction of homes. Bulldozers are commonly used and the Palestinian residents are not allowed to rebuild their homes.

One of the people [in Masafer Yatta] has had his house demoed five times. The people here have had their lives on hold for years because they aren’t allowed to build [homes] anymore while a court case has been going through, so many of them live in caves.”

Although both destruction and construction of homes is not permitted, only the Palestinians are punitively punished and subjected to an uneven and biased application of the law.

The use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) is common. The intimidation of volunteers and Palestinians is normal. Personal possessions like shoes and clothes are routinely stolen. Ongoing surveillance and physical violence against those who resist is pervasive. Given that this land is protected by international treaties, the very act of setting up outposts and settling in this valley is a violation.

The physical violence includes beatings, abductions, sexual assault, and threats of murder. While all of this is illegal, the military and police are allowing it to happen. Indeed, there is a high likelihood that they are actively contributing to the violence in their free time.

The police routinely and deliberately fail the Palestinians here. On one occasion, Jafer (pseudonym) was grazing his sheep, when a settler came and started shooting at him. When Jafer called the police, they did not come. While this indifference is common, he called the police again the next time he was being shot at. This time, they did arrive, but did nothing except further harass him. His story is the norm. While it is not always explicitly the police or the army who are enacting the violence in this instance, they are happy to let the these settlers do their dirty work for them without any consequences.

The police are useless. They aren't there to protect the Palestinians, only settlers, even when the settlers are very clearly in the wrong... The Palestinians and us activists really don't want to call or involve the police because it puts all of us at risk, but sometimes there is really nothing else to do.”

There is also the destruction of farmland: olive trees set alight, crops destroyed. Violence is threatened if people try to protect their food sources. One Palestinian has been shot at several times, simply for trying to stop settlers from destroying his crops.

Then there is the routine intimidation and harassment of livestock. The Palestinians who live in this area are shepherds and farmers. Sheep are their livelihood.

Sometimes people request our presence when they go to graze the sheep due to the repeated harassment of sheep. Sometimes we go help rebuild the olive groves that have been destroyed. Sometimes we help out the kids with their chores. As soon as we leave an area, settlers will come to harass Palestinians, so people usually don’t want us to leave.”

In this video, you can see the stressing of the sheep through the use of ATVs. This is particularly salient as it is Ewing season. This type of animal abuse has led to sheep miscarrying; thinning the herd is a tactic towards starvation, also employed in Gaza by the Israeli State.

There is a deep fear when we leave… yet the nature of the work we are doing is incredible invasive. We are essentially strangers that families are ushering into their lives…”

This organization, along with others in the area, have been described as ‘terrorists’ by the Israeli state. Yet who is committing acts of terror against the people of South Hebron?

This is colonialism and state-endorsed violence. All possible action must be taken against these violent settlers. FAFO's interventions, although they may seem ‘small,’ are of huge importance. It is through self-directed, self-organized actions that changes are made. It is clear that the tools of the state the police, the army, and the legal system have no interest in resolution nor peace. It is our moral responsibility to oppose the ongoing violence in Gaza and the West bank. Whether that opposition is through boycotts, protests, donations, bearing witness, drawing attention, or other actions, all are valid. All must continue. The fight for justice continues, and resistance is made every single day.

There is a sweetness that comes from getting to know the [Palestinian] families here; playing with the kids adds another layer of rage at the occupation and a layer of awe at the resilience of life. It is hard to fathom how to live when you are subject to just waiting for the next way the State and settlers will destroy your life.”

Donations can be made here.


Due to the ongoing severity of the crisis, this organization is going public with the hopes that from this article, donations and volunteers will emerge. An additional article around this decision is forthcoming. Until then, please visit International Solidarity Movement to learn more and donate.

1 A word that has taken on a mythical meaning, justifying all manner of atrocities (similar to Weapons of Mass Destruction in the early 2000s).

2 This, alongside everything else mentioned constitutes a war crime and makes up the basis of genocide.

3 Pseudonym

We would like to thank Irene Varela for her work on editing the videos, ensuring anonymity and safety.