Forbidden Stories
Gaza Project

“If I see you, I will kill you”: Covering settler violence in the West Bank

Since October 7, journalists in the West Bank have reported an increase in harassment and violence by the Israeli military and settlers. Settlements have continued to expand. Forbidden Stories and its partners pursued the work of journalists attacked while covering West Bank settlement expansion and the forced displacement of Bedouin communities.

(Visual : Mélody Da Fonseca)

Key findings
  • West Bank journalists describe zones that have become increasingly difficult to access due to Israeli military and settler attacks, checkpoints, and threats
  • Since a Bedouin community at Wadi al-Siq was forcibly displaced in October, new settler infrastructure has been built 
  • Israeli settlers have publicized illegal expansion online, listed properties on Airbnb, and claimed Virginia County Sheriff’s Departments sent them equipment

By Phineas Rueckert & Youssr Youssef (FS)

June 25, 2024

With Oren Ziv (+972 Magazine), Jake Godin (Bellingcat), Sofía Álvarez Jurado (FS), Walid Batrawi (FS)

On October 11, 2023, Omri Eran-Vardi arrived at Wadi al-Siq, a desert hillside community in the West Bank, east of Ramallah, nestled among sheep pastures and rolling hills.

Eran-Vardi, an Israeli photojournalist and activist, had learned that Israeli settlers had threatened the roughly 200-person Bedouin community with eviction.

That day, Eran-Vardi – who agreed to publicly share his account for the first time with +972 Magazine, a partner on this project – began to document the eviction and speak with residents. 

Photos shared with Forbidden Stories show the eviction of a Bedouin settlement at Wadi al-Siq. Photos: Omri Eran-Vardi.

The next morning, after spending the night in a nearby Palestinian community, he returned to Wadi al-Siq to continue reporting. Sometime after noon, Israeli settlers and masked soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit, an Israeli military unit known for its violent treatment of Palestinians and comprising mostly conscripted “hilltop” settlers, arrived at Wadi al-Siq. The eviction took on a new tenor: soldiers began using violence against the community, in some cases torturing and imprisoning activists and residents. 

 In another part of the village of Wadi al-Siq, Palestinians were detained by Israeli settlers and soldiers. Image taken from social media. 

The video (screenshot here) and the picture from social media are the little existing documentation of the attacks on that day.

Israeli activist and photojournalist Omri Eran-Vardi recounts being chased by settlers, before managing to evade them a first time on October 12, 2023. Photo: Omri Eran-Vardi.

That afternoon, Israeli soldiers, accompanied by settlers, apprehended a Palestinian family attempting to flee. “They removed the family from the vehicle, laid all the men, about five, including two boys, face down on the gravel,” Eran-Vardi recounted. Eran-Vardi approached them to inquire. One of them responded by punching him in the nose, he said. A settler claimed the villagers supported Hamas. A soldier handcuffed Eran-Vardi and took his camera. 

Later, a group of men took Eran-Vardi and two Israeli activists into one of the residents’ homes and threatened the group before letting them go. “You should say thank you that you are getting out alive and don’t come back here ever again,” he remembered one person – who could have been a soldier or a settler in uniform – telling the group. “If I see you, I will kill you,” the individual allegedly said.

(In a written response to Forbidden Stories and its partners, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that during the Desert Frontier Unit’s activity, “there were a number of sensitive ethical and operational incidents in which the soldiers acted inconsistently with the values of the IDF,” adding that the unit was transferred to the Northern Command, on Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.)

Today, Wadi al-Siq sits empty. Images from B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, shared with Forbidden Stories, show debris scattered across the community, smashed solar panels, and fallen, corrugated tin roofs baking in the hot sun. A European-funded school that once served as many as 120 children from across the region is fenced off; inside, desks are upturned, and tables and chairs are in disarray.

The damage done to the Wadi al-Siq community and school during and after the raid. Photos: Sarit Michaeli/B’Tselem

The photos depict the community’s new reality months after Eran-Vardi captured the eviction. Before soldiers forced him to delete photos from his camera, Eran-Vardi managed to transmit his reporting to activists, later shared with journalists, including at Forbidden Stories. Some of these images are being published today for the first time as part of the Gaza Project. 

The Gaza Project is a global collaboration between 13 media outlets that investigated the alleged targeting of journalists in Gaza and pursued the work of journalists who have been killed or threatened in Gaza and the West Bank since Hamas’s terror attacks on October 7, 2023. 

In the West Bank, nearly a dozen journalists, including Eran-Vardi, told Forbidden Stories that reporting on Israeli settlement expansion – illegal under international law – the destruction of Bedouin communities, and settler violence has become increasingly dangerous. Wadi al-Siq is one of 18 communities that settlers forcibly evicted since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, according to data from the B’Tselem. Between October 2023 and May 2024, the UN measured 958 incidents of settler violence against Palestinian communities and property in the West Bank – versus 790 during that same time period one year prior, a more than 20 percent increase.

Forbidden Stories and its partners set out to pursue the work of journalists in the West Bank censored from covering the expansion of settlements and violence against Palestinian communities. We used satellite imagery and open-source research to map the expansion of settler infrastructure amidst an uptick in violence against Palestinians that the United Nations has denounced. Our analysis indicates a growth of infrastructure, including in Wadi al-Siq and other areas where settlers and soldiers have allegedly threatened journalists. Our findings also show how settler communities publicized their expansion online, including in Airbnb listings, YouTube videos, and social media posts.

“This can happen these days if you want to report on the sharply increased settler violence in the occupied #WestBank in the shadow of the war in #Gaza. Many of the soldiers there are settlers themselves. Journalists are generally not welcome,” tweeted correspondent  Jan-Christoph Kitzler after he and his team from ARD, German public broadcasting network, was threatened and detained for more than an hour by Israeli soldiers in November 2023, south of the Palestinian city of Hebron.

“Since October 7th, everything changed in the West Bank,” Issam Rimawi, a photojournalist at  Turkish press agency Anadolu, told Forbidden Stories. “There are no longer any red lines, be it from the settlers or the Army,” he said of the violence.

Gravel line in the sand

Abu Bashar, now 48, was born and raised in Wadi al-Siq. His father and grandfather were displaced twice – first in 1948 and again in 1967 – before the family settled in the region. Abu Bashar, a Bedouin farmer, raised a flock of sheep and four children in Wadi al-Siq, where he also served as village head. “It was farmland, pastures and prairies,” Abu Bashar told Forbidden Stories by phone. “There were no problems. We took water from the wells, planted wheat and barley. Things were good.”

Students at the European-financed school at Wadi al-Siq before the eviction. Photos: Oren Ziv/+972 Magazine

Students at the European-financed school at Wadi al-Siq before the eviction. Photos: Oren Ziv/+972 Magazine

But in February 2023, settlers approached the Bedouin community, Abu Bashar explained, in some cases attacking community members and damaging property. After October 7, the same settlers surrounded the community. It was a “hellish situation,” Abu Bashar said. Then, on October 12, as Abu Bashar remembers it, the community was given one hour to vacate. “You are not allowed to go to your house or to take your car, you just take your children and your livestock and go out walking,” Abu Bashar recalled being told. 

In December, after an internal investigation, the Israeli military halted Desert Frontier unit operations and dismissed five soldiers who took part in the violent dismantlement of Wadi al-Siq. “Each incident will be reviewed and significant disciplinary measures will be taken according to the case and commanders’ decisions,” the IDF spokesperson said of the status of the investigation. 

Still, Forbidden Stories found that settlers in this region have since expanded their infrastructure. Jake Godin, a researcher at Bellingcat, an open-source investigative collective, analyzed satellite imagery for Forbidden Stories. The imagery, from Planet Labs, shows that since the eviction of Wadi al-Siq, a long, gravel road was built just north of the town, leading to several structures that appear to be a settler outpost – an unsanctioned or illegal community built without official Israeli government approval. “The outpost continues growing over time and, by comparing April 4 imagery from Sentinel-2 with more recent June 13 imagery, we can see that there appear to be new buildings constructed at the outpost,” Godin said.

Protect your stories

Are you a journalist under threat because of your reporting? Secure your information with Forbidden Stories.

Satellite images show the expansion of the outpost north of Wadi al-Siq from October 7, 2023 (left) to June 13, 2024 (right). Photos: Jake Godin/Planet

According to multiple Israeli media outlets, this outpost – called Havat HaMachoch – belongs to Neria Ben Pazi, a settler under US sanctions since March. As Haaretz reported in June, Ben Pazi received roughly $3,200 from Israel’s Agriculture Ministry to fund agricultural projects. Residents of Wadi al-Siq who spoke to +972 Magazine said that the community was attacked by settlers coming from the direction of Ben Pazi’s farm. (Ben Pazi did not respond to requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, displaced Bedouins fear their living conditions will deteriorate in the coming months. Since the eviction, Abu Bashar has bounced from place to place near the town of Rammun, north of Wadi al-Siq. Two of Abu Bashar’s four children have been forced to quit school. He also lost about 50 of his sheep, which he said settlers took. 

“The life we lived in Wadi Al-Siq, we can’t live it today,” Abu Bashar said. 

Children at Wadi al-Siq before the evacuation. Photo: Oren Ziv/+972 Magazine

“We constantly feel targeted”

On February 19, 2024, Omar Abu Awad, journalist and director of the Jericho office of Palestine TV, the official channel of the Palestinian Authority, and his crew – cameraman Mohammed Zghb, journalist Elham Hadeeb, and driver Samer Abu Salman – piled in a car and drove to the region of Wadi al-Qelt, a popular, touristic zone of bluffs and rolling hills just outside the city of Jericho, to document settler activities

After scouting out a first location, a group of men intercepted their car. They carried weapons and protective gear, but the Palestine TV crew was unable to identify if they were settlers or soldiers. Though the crew’s car was marked “Palestine TV,” the men called the Israeli military, who arrived soon after.

Anatomy of a Shooting: How the Israeli Forces Targeted an Al Araby TV Crew in the West Bank
On May 4, 2024, two journalists from Al Araby TV came under Israeli military fire while covering a raid...

Awad and his colleagues told Forbidden Stories that after confiscating their phones, soldiers brought three of them to an interrogation center, where they were held for nine hours with no food or water and allegedly subjected to torture. According to Awad, soldiers forced him to walk blindfolded so he rammed his head against a wall, and pushed him down a flight of stairs.

The Israeli military eventually released the journalists, but the incident shook Awad. “We constantly feel targeted,” Awad said. “I remember one day saying goodbye to my children and wife when I left for work because we face daily incidents of being stopped, shot at, and attacked by settlers.”

In a written response, an IDF spokesperson said: “As for the claims of violence in the Wadi al Quilt area last February, the claims have been checked and the IDF is not familiar with such incidents.” 

Continuing Palestine TV’s work, Forbidden Stories investigated settler activities in the Wadi al-Qelt area, which Awad fears has become more dangerous for Palestinian journalists. Through open-source research, Forbidden Stories focused on two settlements near where the journalists were stopped: Mitzpe Yeriho and Vered Yeriho. In the larger of these two settlements, Mitzpe Yeriho, satellite imagery shows that 19 structures have been built since 2018, according to Godin, the researcher at Bellingcat.”

Satellite imagery showing the expansion of the settlement Mitzpe Jeriho in the West Bank. Photo: Governmental maps of Israel

Under international law, settlements – Israeli-government-approved communities built on occupied Palestinian land since the 1967 Six-Day War – are illegal. “Every single settlement, every single construction of a settlement, every single facilitation and ongoing maintenance of the settlement is a war crime,” Tara Van Ho, a senior lecturer at Essex Law School and former co-president of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association, said.

Still, settlements continue to grow and several outposts, illegal even under Israeli law, have been constructed since October. Al Jazeera counted 15 new outposts in the first few months of Israel’s war on Gaza. Working with Bellingcat’s Global Authentication Project, Scripps News and Bellingcat also identified dozens of sites throughout the West Bank, with new roads, buildings, or cleared lands near settlements or outposts.”

Other Israeli settlements and outposts in the region, with their growing infrastructure from October 7, 2023 (left) to June 13, 2024 (right).   Data: Peace Now. Photos: Jake Godin/Planet

Settlement expansion seems to be part of Mitzpe Yeriho’s long-term plans. In an October 8, 2023 interview, the mayor Aliza Pilichowski vaunted the settlement’s “tremendous growth,” including the construction of an indoor sports complex, a swimming pool, and 365 new homes to be inhabited in the next three to five years. (Pilichowski did not respond to requests for comment, nor requests sent through her husband.)

Mayor of Mitzpe Yeriho, Aliza Pilichowski, sits on a tractor. Photo: Mizrachi

Since October 7, Mitzpe Yeriho has also sought to bolster its semi-professional security team. Run by Yehoshua Strauss, a Mitzpe Yeriho settler, the unit claimed in a Facebook video to have bought uniforms on Amazon. “Yes, we’re building an army here to keep ourselves safe,” he then said. (Contacted via Facebook, Strauss did not respond. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the company complies with “all the laws and regulations in all jurisdictions where we operate,” including export laws. “This video suggests these individuals have not purchased anything other than some clothing,” the spokesperson added.) 

Mitzpe Yeriho settler Yehoshua Strauss claims to have bought military uniforms on Amazon. Facebook video.

In another video, settlers celebrated police equipment received from the US state of Virginia. This came after Virginia’s Attorney General Jason Miyares asked County Sheriff’s Offices to donate equipment to Israel in October 2023.  “Equipment donations went to civilian first responders (for example, civilian paramedics) and did not include armaments or artillery,” a spokesperson from the Virginia Attorney General’s office wrote in an email. “Examples of donated equipment include protective supplies such as bulletproof vests, helmets, K9 protective vets, and elbow/knee guards.”

Mitzpe Yeriho settlers in a video thanking Virginia law enforcement. YouTube video.

Joel Carmel, a member of the NGO Breaking the Silence, made up of former Israeli military soldiers, explained that settlements often have teams of volunteers with access to weapons and minimal training that act as a “rapid response team in case the settlement comes under attack.” For Palestinian residents, that has meant that “the line that divides between settlers and soldiers has been blurred for a long time now,” he said. During the war, he added, it has been “erased completely.”

(The Israeli military is in “constant contact with all of the civil defense squads and the completion components subordinate to it,” according to an IDF spokesperson who did not respond to questions about Mitzpe Yeriho.)

Business as usual

For settlers, however, it’s business as usual. Forbidden Stories found at least four current Airbnb listings in what appears to be a newly built subdivision of Mitzpe Yericho. All of them are connected to employees of EroRentals, a Florida-based vacation home rental agency, and their relatives. One claims to offer guests an “escape to tranquility.” “I highly recommend anyone who wants a great experience and phenomenal host in a beautiful place with breathtaking views of the mountains and the dead sea,” an Airbnb guest wrote in a review posted in November 2023. (Airbnb and EroRentals did not respond to requests for comment.)

One of the Airbnb listings in the Mitzpe Yeriho settlement. Photo: Airbnb

In May 2024, a collective of NGOs made public their legal complaint against for renting houses in the settlements. One of them, located in the settlement of Vered Yericho, states “there is no entry [allowed] to a Palestinian ID card[holder],” in accordance with “security directives.”  (In a statement, a spokesperson said the listing in question was “actively being assessed in line with our policies,” adding that: “Any potential necessary actions will be taken as a result of that process, which is still ongoing.”)

Both Airbnb and are named in a list of companies that have “directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the settlements,” according to the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission

To Van Ho, such settlements and the companies that legitimize them represent a long-term challenge for peace in the region. “Until we force Israel to dismantle the settlements and to withdraw to its own borders, we cannot have peace in this area,” she said.

See also