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Israeli settlers are guarding the West Bank. Palestinians say it's worsening violence

A member of the Israeli security forces stands guard. An attack against troops was reported near the West Bank city of Hebron on Feb. 1. Many settlers have joined the military's regional defense units since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas-backed militants.
Hazem Bader
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AFP via Getty Images
A member of the Israeli security forces stands guard. An attack against troops was reported near the West Bank city of Hebron on Feb. 1. Many settlers have joined the military's regional defense units since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas-backed militants.

HEBRON, West Bank — It's a chilly winter day in Hebron, and Issa Amro is late.

"He said he was at the checkpoint, so maybe he was held up," says Joel Carmel, an ex-Israeli soldier and peace activist, as he stands with a small group of journalists at the gate to Amro's house.

Amro is a prominent Palestinian in Hebron. For years, he has been trying to preach nonviolence in one of the West Bank's most dangerous cities — a place where, over the years, Palestinian militants and far-right Israeli settlers have frequently attacked each other. He has also led peaceful protests against the Israeli military's restrictions against Palestinians in the city. He is well known by people on both sides of the conflict, which makes him a frequent target of harassment by Israeli forces.

Amro eventually appears, moving slowly up a narrow path between olive trees. He's wearing a green one-piece snowsuit and sporting a thick beard. He apologizes to the waiting group.

Issa Amro stands outside his home in Hebron. Amro says that since Oct. 7, settlers in and out of uniform have been harassing Palestinian civilians.
Geoff Brumfiel / NPR
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Geoff Brumfiel
Issa Amro stands outside his home in Hebron. Amro says that since Oct. 7, settlers in and out of uniform have been harassing Palestinian civilians.

"I was at a checkpoint for 30 minutes," he explains. Today the soldier made him take everything off. "He told me, 'Take the shoes off.' I told him, 'But it's mud[dy].' He said, 'That's not my business,'" Amro recalls.

For decades, far-right Jewish settlers have laid claim to parts of Hebron's center, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. Over the years, settlers have committed many acts of violence against Palestinian residents, and Palestinian militants have sometimes opened fire on settlers.

And although the military's mission is to protect the settlers, it used to be seen as a moderating force. Amro says that Palestinians sometimes even asked for help: "In the past, we could call upon the army to protect us from the settlers," he says.

But as his harassment at the checkpoint shows, that relationship has changed. In 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a far-right politician from Hebron named Itamar Ben-Gvir as the national security minister. Military forces became more aggressive toward Palestinians, Amro says.

And then came the attacks of Oct. 7. Hamas militants burst out of the Gaza Strip and massacred some 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities. The Israeli military mobilized, sending tens of thousands of troops into Gaza to destroy Hamas. Thousands more were sent along the nation's northern border with Lebanon and Syria to guard against attacks by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group.

To maintain the military presence in the West Bank, the military mobilized thousands of reservists as part of newly formed "regional defense" battalions. It also strengthened what the government called "emergency response units" made up of heavily armed civilians. In many cases, according to activists and Palestinians, those ranks have been filled by the very far-right Jewish settlers who have been at the center of much of the violence.

A woman walks by on the Palestinian-designated side as seen from the Israeli settlement enclave side of the Old City of Hebron on Nov. 5.
Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A woman walks by on the Palestinian-designated side as seen from the Israeli settlement enclave side of the Old City of Hebron on Nov. 5.

Israeli peace activists and Palestinian locals both say that the result has been a huge uptick in violence and harassment by "settlers in a green army uniform," as Amro describes it. Often it's unclear whether the settlers are reservists, members of emergency units or freelancers operating on their own.

"What we're seeing is something that looks like joint militias of settlers and soldiers," says Dror Sadot, spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which closely tracks settler violence in the West Bank. "No one knows who's who and who's giving the orders."

Settlers in uniform

The blurring of roles began in the hours after the Oct. 7 attack. The West Bank is not under the control of Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, and there was no mass attack in Hebron on that day. But when Amro tried to get home from work, he found his way blocked — not by soldiers, he says, but by heavily armed settlers with body armor.

Amro shared videos from that day with NPR, which was able to independently verify some details, such as the locations and rough times when they were shot. In one recording, two older men with long beards and assault rifles shout at him to leave. One wearing a white baseball cap pushes another Palestinian man and raises his gun. Amro says he knew them not as soldiers but as right-wing settlers. They seem to know him, shouting his name as he walks away.

A little later, he tried another way to his house and again ran into a mixed group of armed settlers and regular soldiers. This time, he was detained.

"I was kidnapped by the soldiers and the settlers," he recalls. "I was taken to the military base here, handcuffed with plastic cuffs to the point that it went into my skin. It was 10 hours of pain."

Israeli forces drive armored vehicles down a road during a raid in Hebron early on Jan. 21. The Israeli military says violence has surged in the West Bank since Oct. 7.
Mosab Shawer / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli forces drive armored vehicles down a road during a raid in Hebron early on Jan. 21. The Israeli military says violence has surged in the West Bank since Oct. 7.

He says he was beaten and abused during his time in custody until a senior army officer who recognized him told the others to let him go.

The Israeli military did not comment directly on Amro's account but told NPR it "has acted and continues to act to identify unusual cases that deviate from what is expected of [Israeli military] soldiers."

Since then, Amro says, things have only gotten worse. Amro says Palestinians in central Hebron have been forced to stay inside for days at a time, by settlers equipped with weapons, radios and uniforms. Those reports have been corroborated by B'Tselem, whichdocumented the curfew.

"There is no distinction anymore between the soldiers and the violent settlers, either in their army uniform or in their civilian uniform," Amro says.

Below Amro's house, in the streets of central Hebron, the mixing of settlers and soldiers is on display. Nadav Weiman is deputy director of Breaking the Silence, the group that organized the day's visit and that is made up of ex-Israeli soldiers who oppose the occupation of the West Bank.

Weiman points to a group of young men in uniform wearing yarmulkes and payot, the long, curly locks of hair worn by some Orthodox Jewish men and boys.

"You see on their patch — it says, 'Ha Gamar Unit of Hebron,'" he says. That's a recently mobilized reserve unit here that Weiman says is drawing from the local settler population.

The young men look well equipped, with rifles, new helmets and body armor. But they're not the only ones here. An older settler walks down the road in green fatigues, equipped with an assault rifle, sidearm and small walkie-talkie. Unlike the reservists, he doesn't have body armor, a helmet or any identifying insignia on his uniform.

He scowls at the group as he passes, and Weiman recognizes him instantly: "He's a settler here from Hebron that I know for a lot of years."

It's unclear in what capacity the man is operating.

And farther into the Old City, someone in a personal vehicle begins honking and shouting at the group. He swings his car aggressively in front of the journalists, blocking their path. This man, too, is a settler, Weiman explains. He's not with the military but with the local emergency response unit.

"He's a settler from the first response team, he has an M16 with him, and he's a violent settler," he says.

A group of Jewish settlers stands near Israeli soldiers in Hebron on May 27, 2023.
Amer Shallodi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A group of Jewish settlers stands near Israeli soldiers in Hebron on May 27, 2023.

A need for security

The settlers say this new arrangement is necessary in the post-Oct. 7 world. One named Shai Coen, 23, comes to speak to the journalists. It's true, he says, that many have joined the reserve forces in the West Bank.

"I don't do army, but I have two brothers and my father are reserve now in the army," he says. "Everybody is now in the army."

Coen says that there's good reason to put settlers into these military roles: The risks of Palestinian violence are higher than ever, and the settlers need to be defended.

"Jewish people are living also here in this country," he says. "We have terror attack. A lot of terror attack."

In its statement to NPR, the Israeli military said that it had seen a "significant increase in terrorist attacks" in the West Bank, with over 700 attempted attacks since the start of the war. It said it conducts operations to apprehend suspects and sets up "dynamic checkpoints" as part of its security operations.

But it also appears that newly empowered settler groups are attacking and detaining innocent Palestinians. B'Tselem has documented several other detentions that have occurred after Oct. 7 in areas near Hebron, and its researchers have also seen evidence of stepped-up aggression.

Basel Adra is a Palestinian who works with B'Tselem and lives in Masafer Yatta, a group of Palestinian villages south of Hebron. Immediately after Oct. 7, he says, heavily armed settlers began showing up in his community. "They were going around with uniforms in white cars, not military jeeps," he says.

They've destroyed Palestinian property and harassed locals, often wearing green fatigues and masks to hide their identities. "They threaten people — if they don't leave the land, they're going to be killed," he says.

B'Tselem says that it has documented 16 communities in the West Bank where Palestinians have fled their homes following Oct. 7.

The Israeli military did not comment directly on the role of settlers in its security operations but said that in cases where its troops are seen misbehaving: "Those cases will be arbitrated, and significant command measures will be taken against the soldiers involved."

A Palestinian man walks past an Israeli checkpoint in Hebron on Dec. 24.
Mosab Shawer / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Palestinian man walks past an Israeli checkpoint in Hebron on Dec. 24.

Back at his home in the hills above central Hebron, Palestinian activist Amro says his settler neighbors have long wanted him and other Palestinians out of their homes. Since Oct. 7, they've relentlessly harassed civilians.

"It's a policy to make our lives harder and harder, to make us leave certain areas," he says.

Amro estimates 20% to 30% of Palestinian families living nearby have already left. Amro is staying put for now, but he's more frightened than ever.

Nobody has given him a vest or helmet to protect himself. Instead, he has bricked up his windows with cinder blocks.

"I think they may come and shoot me in my room, in my bedroom," he says.

NPR's Eve Guterman and Alon Avital contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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