Palestinian child the latest victim of Israeli crackdown in Beita

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Mohammed Hamayel, 15, was the fourth Palestinian to be killed by Israel during protests against illegal settlers in the past two months

By Akram Al-Waara in Beita, occupied West Bank

When 15-year-old Mohammed Hamayel left the house on Friday afternoon, he kissed his mother goodbye and told her to save him a piece of her homemade knafeh, one of his favourite desserts, for when he returned home from prayers.

But by that evening, a few hours after prayers had finished, Hamayel’s plate of knafeh remained untouched, and his parents were kissing him goodbye as thousands of Beita’s residents carried his body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, to the village’s cemetery.

Hamayel was shot and killed by Israeli forces during protests that took place after Friday prayers on Mount Sabih, or “Jabal Sabih” in Arabic, located on the southern outskirts of the occupied West Bank’s Beita.

It was the fifth consecutive week of protests that residents of the village were staging against the establishment of a new Israeli settler outpost on the mountain. And just like the past few weeks, Hamayel had gone to join the afternoon prayers and subsequent demonstrations along with his friends, neighbours and family.

“We had just started praying when Israeli soldiers started firing tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets at us,” Basman Hamayel, Mohammed Hamayel’s 36-year-old cousin, told Middle East Eye.

“They attacked us even though we were completely peaceful,” Hamayel said, adding that there were hundreds of Palestinian protesters present, including young children.

At around 3:30pm, almost two hours after the protests began, Israeli forces shot Mohammed Hamayel with live ammunition in the chest from what eyewitnesses described as “point-blank range”.

“When we tried to approach Mohammed to evacuate him after he was shot, the Israeli soldiers started firing live ammunition at anyone who tried to get close to him,” Basman recalled.

“By the time we were allowed to reach his body, it had been more than 15 minutes since he was shot. It was too late.”

MEE asked the Israeli military for comment, but had received none by the time of publication.

According to Basman, at least seven other protesters were also shot and wounded with live fire at the protest, while dozens of others were injured by rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas inhalation.

“We were only coming to peacefully protest, and defend our land from the settlers,” Basman said. “But the soldiers were coming to kill.”

‘We have not had a single day of peace’

Mohammed Hamayel was the eighth Palestinian child to be killed by Israeli forces this year, and the fourth Palestinian to be killed by Israeli soldiers during protests in Beita over the past two months alone.

In mid-May, Israeli forces killed three Palestinians during protests on Jabal Sabih, including Beita residents Zakariya Hamayel, a local schoolteacher, and Dr Issa Barham, a law professor. A third young man, identified as Tareq Snowbar from the nearby village of Yatma, was also killed during protests in Beita on 16 May.

Dozens more in the village have been wounded, including many with live ammunition who are still being treated in hospital. The week before Hamayel was killed, Israeli forces shot more than 17 protesters with live ammunition in a single day, according to local residents.

“We have not had a single day of peace since the settlers came and took over the mountaintop on Jabal Sabih 40 days ago,” Basman said. “Every day we have more injuries, and more of our children and brothers are being killed.”

Sitting at his cousin’s wake, Basman pointed to the hundreds of young men around him in Beita’s local community centre.

“If you go around this room and approach any of the guys, you will find that they have all been participating in the protests, and most of them have been injured,” Basman said, as a group of young men sitting around him nodded their heads.

One pointed to a bullet wound in his leg, while another pointed to bruises on his chest left by a rubber-coated steel bullet. Others recounted their experiences of being hit with Israeli fire or choking on tear gas.

“The Israeli soldiers are so violent during these protests,” Basman said, adding that many of the young men who participate in the Friday protests say their goodbyes to their families before setting off to Jabal Sabih in case they are killed.

“No one wants to die, but we know that is the risk we are taking by protesting against the occupation and the theft of our land,” Basman said.

“We do not want to lose any more blood,” he added. “But what can we do? The only choice we have to defend our land is to protest, so that is what we will do.”

A history of resistance

In early May, a group of Israeli settlers set up caravans on Jabal Sabih, and with the help of Israeli forces have since prevented any Palestinian access to the area, which is home to vast olive groves belonging to Beita’s residents.

Since then, the people of Beita have spent every day protesting against the new settler outpost on Jabal Sabih, which lies on the southern outskirts of the village and comprises an estimated 30 per cent of Beita’s entire land area.

“At first it started with just two caravans, then it grew to 20, then 35, and now there are over 65 caravans on the mountain,” Abdul Ghani Dweikat, the local imam in Beita and one of the village’s activists, told MEE.

According to Dweikat and other activists, the Israeli settlers who established the outpost are primarily young men who are part of the ultra-nationalist and right-wing Hilltop Youth movement, and came to Jabal Sabih from the nearby Yitzhar settlement, whose residents are notoriously violent.

At any given time, he said, there are hundreds of soldiers guarding the settlers and preventing Palestinians from accessing their land on the mountain. According to local residents, there are around 17 Palestinian families who own land on Jabal Sabih and rely financially on harvesting their olive trees on the mountain.

“Jabal Sabih is in a very strategic location, which is why the settlers want to take it over,” Dweikat said. “It lies right at the heart of a cluster of some 25 Palestinian villages in the Nablus area, and also right in between a large strip of Israeli settlements and outposts.”

If the settlers are successful in taking the mountain, Dweikat said, they will be able to connect dozens of settlements running from the east to the west, and will effectively split up the northern districts in the West Bank, separating dozens of Palestinian towns and villages from each other.

The resistance against the new settlement outpost on Jabal Sabih is not Beita’s first experience with an attempted settler takeover of their land.

According to the residents, they have been battling settler attempts to take over two of Beita’s largest land masses, Jabal Sabih and another mountain, Jabal al-Urmah, since 1988. Together, the two mountains make up around 80 per cent of Beita’s entire land area, Dweikat said.

“It is a source of pride for us in Beita that we are one of the only remaining Palestinian villages in the entire West Bank that doesn’t have a single settlement on its land,” said Ibrahim Dawoud, a 27-year-old resident who has been active in the protests.

“And this was only achieved by the steadfast resistance of the people in Beita,” he said. Dawoud noted that despite three attempts by settlers to take over Jabal al-Urmah in the past, the villagers were able to push the settlers out of the area through relentless protests, and the mountain remains a settler-free haven for Beita until this day.

“Since 1967 we have had 77 martyrs in Beita,” Dawoud said. “Everyone you meet in Beita has either been injured, arrested, had their house demolished, or has a family member who has been killed by the occupation”

“We do not want any more of our people to be killed, but we will not stop resisting against the crimes of the Israeli occupation on our land,” he added.

Land theft

Unlike government-approved settlements, hundreds of which exist in the West Bank in contravention of international law, settlement outposts like the one on Jabal Sabih are also illegal under Israeli law.

Despite this, the Israeli government rarely takes action against settlers who erect such outposts, and practises a policy of “retroactive legalisation”, in which such outposts are later “regularised” by the government after they are built.

Between 2012 and 2019, settlement watchdog Peace Now documented the establishment of 32 new illegal outposts, all but one of which were built “deep inside the West Bank” with the coordination and assistance of Israeli authorities. As of 2019, Israel had “regularised” 15 outposts, while 35 additional outposts were undergoing the process of legalisation.

Peace Now says that settlers who erect such outposts do so “with the direct assistance of the authorities” and that the outposts are often financed by public funds.

“The government, for its part, encourages such construction by promising support and working to legalise these outposts, while refraining from enforcing the law against them,” Peace Now said in a 2019 report.

In the case of the outpost on Jabal Sabih, which Israeli settlers have reportedly named the “Eviatar” settlement, soldiers were reported as physically helping the settlers establish the outpost, and were photographed there carrying prefabricated homes, Haaretz reported.

“On every level, the Israeli state is assisting these settlers in the takeover of our land, even though their outpost is illegal under Israel’s own laws,” Dawoud told MEE.

“Within 40 days of establishing their outpost, the Israeli government has given these settlers running water, electricity, and have paved a settler-only road for them straight up the mountain,” he added, pointing to the caravans on the mountain in the distance.

Dawoud and the other young men around him lamented the fact that while the settlers have had the full support of the state to take over Palestinian land, the residents of Beita have been prevented for decades from fully accessing their land on the mountain, which is part of Area C, the territory in the West Bank fully controlled by Israel.

“For years the soldiers have prevented people from accessing their land on the mountain, and it is ours,” he said adamantly. “We have the papers to prove ownership, they do not. They have no right to this land.”

“If someone from Beita even tried to erect a tent on the mountain, just a small tent, the soldiers would be there within seconds, shooting at them and kicking them off their own land,” Dawoud added.

“And this is not just in Beita, it’s happening all over Palestine. Israeli settlers are allowed to steal our land freely, but when we try to defend it, we are killed.”

‘We want a safe future for our children’

As the afternoon rolled on, and hundreds of Beita’s residents continued pouring into the local community centre to pay respects to Hamayel’s family, Abdul Ghani Dweikat sat quietly in the back of the room, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Yesterday was very difficult. Very difficult,” he said, speaking of the moment on Friday when he saw his fellow villagers carrying Hamayel’s lifeless body to the village cemetery.

Just a year ago, Dweikat watched his own son, 22-year-old Islam Dweikat, being carried off in a massive funeral procession to the same cemetery. Islam was shot by Israeli soldiers on 11 March 2020, and succumbed to his wounds a few weeks later.

On the same day that Israeli soldiers shot Islam, they shot and killed another teenager from the village, 15-year-old Mohammed Hamayel – Hamayel’s cousin of the same name.

Both Dweikat and Hamayel were shot and killed while protesting against the establishment of a settler outpost on another one of Beita’s mountaintops, Jabal al-Urmah. Another teenager from the Dweikat family, Imam Dweikat, 15, was also killed by Israeli soldiers during protests on Jabal al-Urmah in 2015.

“Our kids are not safe,” Dweikat said, wiping the tears streaming down his face. “All we are trying to do is protect our children’s future. But the settlers are preventing our kids from having their freedom.”

“These settlers come and steal our land, they burn and cut down our olive trees, they harass us, attack our homes, and will do anything to take more land. And the soldiers come to protect the settlers and kill our children in the process,” he added. “If the settlers didn’t come here, we wouldn’t have any of these problems.”

Dweikat urged the world to take notice of what is happening in Beita, and in Palestinian villages all across the West Bank.

“The world needs to open its eyes. Our children are being killed, and for what? We just want to live in peace and safety, and to have freedom for our children. That is all we want.”

Middle East Eye

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