Why rights groups say so many Palestinians in the West Bank are being attacked with impunity

Abdullatif Abu Alia kneels over a pillow soaked with dried blood from where he said   his cousin, 25-year-old Jehad Abu Alia, bled to death after being shot in the head after his property was besieged on April 12 by Israeli settlers in the village of Al Mughayyir in the occupied West Bank. (Lily Martin/CBC - image credit)
Abdullatif Abu Alia kneels over a pillow soaked with dried blood from where he said his cousin, 25-year-old Jehad Abu Alia, bled to death after being shot in the head after his property was besieged on April 12 by Israeli settlers in the village of Al Mughayyir in the occupied West Bank. (Lily Martin/CBC - image credit)

For years, even decades, human rights groups that monitor the occupied West Bank have implored Israel's allies to take steps to punish Jewish settlers and members of Israel's military who attack Palestinians and seem to carry out their actions with impunity.

And so when word came over the weekend that Israel's closest ally, the United States, reportedly plans to hold members of an Israeli military battalion composed of ultra-orthodox and religious nationalist members accountable, they saw it as progress.

Earlier, the United States and Europe had placed economic and travel sanctions on a few key settlers believed to be responsible for instigating attacks, but implementing penalties and putting restrictions on a branch of the Israel Defence Forces is unprecedented.

Israel's government was indignant and rejected the suggestion that the military unit should be singled out.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said imposing sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda battalion while the war against Hamas still rages and the unit is fighting in Gaza "casts a heavy shadow" on other IDF units.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested the potential U.S. measure was "the peak of absurdity and a moral low," as he vowed to fight it.

Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press
Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press

A series of U.S. statutes, known as the Leahy Laws, prohibit U.S. military assistance from being transferred to organizations that the U.S. State Department determines have committed human rights abuses.

And by many accounts, the abuses attributed to Netzah Yehuda during its decades-long time as enforcers of Israel's rules in the West Bank are about as bad as they get.

In one incident in 2022, members of the unit dragged a 78-year-old American Palestinian man, Omar Assad, from his car after being stopped at a checkpoint. He was bound, gagged, blindfolded and beaten. An autopsy concluded he died of a heart attack from the stress of the encounter.

Violent rampages against property, Palestinians say

While the U.S. move is linked to events that happened before Oct. 7, the potential sanctions come at a time when violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has reached new levels in the aftermath of Hamas's attacks on southern Israel.

There have been violent rampages against Palestinian homes, businesses and property almost every day of late, in many cases with Israeli soldiers present, but not intervening to stop the rampages, say Palestinians who witnessed them.

Palestinian officials say more than 486 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since Oct. 7, many in military raids and others from attacks by settlers.

WATCH | Wave of settler violence in occupied West Bank:

The United Nations has recorded 774 attacks by settlers on Palestinians in the past six months, with Israeli soldiers present in nearly half the attacks. Human Rights Watch says the violence has forced Palestinians to flee at least seven communities permanently.

In its most recent report encapsulating the whole of the year — both before and after Oct. 7 — the UN said 2023 was the worst year for settler attacks on Palestinians in any year since tracking started in 2006.

"If you want to solve the problem, you have to go after the government that's responsible for allowing this to happen," said Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch.

"The reason why we're seeing this unprecedented increase in settler violence is because of decades of impunity for settler violence," he told CBC News in an interview in Ramallah.

"They [settlers] are armed by the Israeli government. They are sometimes directly encouraged to carry out attacks, and they're doing so in more and more areas that the Israeli government covets for settlements."

In a What's App message to CBC News, the IDF said its role is to "protect the property and lives of all citizens," and that security forces have "means to disperse demonstrations." 

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

A team from CBC News recently spent time in the village of Al Mughayyir, about 27 kilometres northeast of Ramallah, which was the site of a deadly rampage by hundreds of settlers on April 12.

Over the following two days and nights, other Palestinian villages nearby were also burned, causing damage to 60 properties and more than 100 vehicles, according to Israeli human rights group Yesh Din.

We visited the scene of a deadly shooting at the home of Abdullatif Abu Alia.

A blood-soaked pillow and blanket on the flat roof of his home marked the spot where he said his cousin, Jehad Abu Alia, bled to death.

"Hundreds of settlers besieged the house," he told CBC News.

Jehad Abu Alia, 25, was visiting his extended family when the home was suddenly surrounded by masked settlers,  many carrying guns, and others throwing rocks.

Abu Alia said his family barricaded themselves inside as windows were smashed and vehicles outside set on fire.

Abu Alia said at one point, someone on the ground fired shots at their position on the top of the building and Jehad was hit in the head.

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

"The army was helping [the settlers] and they stopped all kinds of ambulances and medical people from coming to help the injured," Abu Alia said.

With no way to get his cousin to hospital, Abu Alia said all he could do was to try to stop the blood gushing from the wound himself, in what turned out to be a futile effort to save his life.

The trigger for the Al Mughayyir rampage was the disappearance that morning of a 14-year-old Israeli teenager and sheep herder, Benjamin Achimeir.

Not long after the mob attack began, a police drone spotted his body not far from the outskirts of Al Mughayyir.

Although the circumstances of his death remain unexplained by Israeli authorities, Netanyahu called it a "heinous murder."

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

On Monday morning, the IDF, Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet and Israeli police announced they had arrested a 21-year-old Palestinian. The statement said he had "implicated himself" in the teen's death after an interrogation by Shin Bet.

Since the violence in Al Mughayyir, there have been several attacks by settlers in the West Bank, including one this past weekend that killed a Palestinian ambulance driver who came to help the injured in the town of As-Sawiya, according to the Palestinian Health Authority.

"Since Oct. 7, we have seen an unprecedented integration of violent settlers into the security forces," said Shakir, of Human Rights Watch.

"So whereas before there was a clear differentiation between security forces and settlers, you have increasing situations where settlers are wearing army uniforms."

Settler population increased

Under successive Israeli governments, the settler population has surged, growing 15 per cent in the last five years, according to one study by the pro-settler group WestBankJewishPopulationStats.com.

There are now more 517,000 settlers living in the occupied West Bank, with 200,000 Jewish settlers living in occupied areas of East Jerusalem.

The United Nations considers the Jewish settlements to be illegal, as do Canada and many other Western countries.

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

Shakir said of late, revenge has been another motive for the violence, with many settlers seeking retribution on Palestinians in the West Bank for Hamas's massacre of Israelis on Oct. 7.

The Hamas militants who streamed across the Gaza border and into Israel on Oct. 7 killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped 253 people, according to Israeli government tallies.

Palestinian officials say more than 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, with Israel's military flattening vast parts of the territory in an effort to destroy Hamas.

WATCH | Israeli settlers and U.S. blamed for West Bank violence:

During the CBC News visit to Al Mughayyir, our team also met with Palestinian shepherd Imad Abu Alia.

He said in the months leading up to the attack on the village, settlers from several nearby communities had been using drones to watch his property and track his herd of sheep while they grazed.

During the mayhem in Al Mughayyir, he said a group came onto his farm and burned his barn, killing some of his sheep and stealing the rest of the 120 animals in his herd.

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

When he tried to save his flock, he said the mob attacked him, leaving him with a neck brace and immobilized in bed.

"They beat me so much to the point that I saw death with my own eyes," he told CBC News.

Without his sheep to support his family, Abu Alia said he does not know what he will do.

"These sheep are like my children," he said. "I just want them back."

Lily Martin/CBC
Lily Martin/CBC

Rights groups say seizing the livestock of Palestinians and constructing grazing outposts has become a new tactic of the settlers, as it deprives Palestinians of an income and often forces them to abandon their properties.

CBC News asked Israel's military for more details on the death of Benjamin Achimeir.

In a WhatsApp message, the IDF said that there were "signs of violence" but did not provide further details.

With regards to Palestinian allegations about the conduct of Israeli soldiers in Al Mughayyir, the IDF said complaints "about soldiers' behaviour that is not in accordance with orders will be examined."

Regarding the allegations that security forces held up ambulances and prevented the wounded from reaching hospital, the IDF said that was necessary for a "security check" before the ambulances were given the authorization to continue.

Israeli human rights group Yesh Din says between 2005 and 2022, 93 per cent of investigations against settlers who attacked Palestinians were closed without any charges.