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It Started With a Drone. It Ended With a Deadly Raid by a Gang of Armed Settlers

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No sooner had we parked our car and started walking down the dirt road that leads through olive groves into the valley – along with the head of the local council and the field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi, of the B’Tselem Israeli human rights organization – when a settler-launched drone loomed in the sky. Buzzing, brazen and bothersome, the device hovered over us, swooping down, hurtling upward and wheeling about high above us, threatening our very presence.

Big Brother sees all here, and here, Big Brother is especially nasty. Palestinians go down to tend their olive trees and immediately settlers dispatch their remotely piloted weapon of intimidation. It terrorizes the inhabitants and is even more frightening when we visit, just two days after the incident last Saturday. The events of that fateful day also started with a drone – and ended with a body.

Qarawat Bani Hassan is a relatively affluent town of about 6,000 residents, some of whom have had extensive business ties with Israelis. The town is located in the center of the West Bank, opposite the settlements of Yakir and Havot Yair, the now-formalized, bourgeois community that was once an illegal outpost. From the groves owned by families who live in Qarawat Bani Hassan, the houses of Yakir can be seen rising on the hill across the way, uniform structures with red-tiled roofs. Below, in the valley, lie the spacious homes of Havot Yair, with a winding promenade the settlers built for themselves. Between Yakir and Havot Yair a tent compound has sprung up in recent months, Havat Shuvi Eretz. A gray car was parked there when we visited early this week, next to the animal pen. Bulldozers were meanwhile preparing the ground for more construction nearby, in Havot Yair.

Last Sukkot, the young outpost offered visitors pita baked in a tabun, along with activities for children, and popcorn and cotton candy machines. So sweet. But since the tents appeared there, less than a year ago, the quiet that once reigned in the valley has been violated, and attacks on Palestinian shepherds and farmers have multiplied, along with sheep rustling and destruction of olive trees, spiraling finally to the murder on Saturday.

Local residents say they know exactly who killed 27-year-old Methkal Rayyan, but this week the Israel Police had not yet gathered testimony from even one of the many eyewitnesses who had been on hand. The results of the investigation will probably end up being permanently buried, along with Rayyan’s body. It’s not difficult, of course, to imagine what would have happened if the roles were reversed – if a Palestinian shepherd had shot a settler dead.

A circle of stones, some bearing not-yet-dry bloodstains, marks the spot where Rayyan fell. From a poor family, he worked at a marble mill in town; he and his wife Anuar, 26, have three children: Jod, 5; Jena, 3; and 1-month-old Suleiman. A settler who’s now walking free and will probably never get the punishment he deserves has taken away their father forever. The man probably never tormented himself for even a moment over his deed. And maybe it won’t be his last act of violence. The villagers say the same settler continues to threaten and intimidate them, and also tries to steal their sheep.

Last Saturday, 3:30 P.M. Three construction workers were building Mustafa Mari’s new house on the outskirts of Qarawat Bani Hassan, amid some olive trees. The land here is privately owned, but because this is Area C of the West Bank (that is, under full Israeli control), the Palestinians are denied building permits. So they build without a permit, just like their neighbors in Havot Yair do. But unlike the settlers, they build not on land that has been stolen, but that belongs to them.

Suddenly the trio of builders heard a drone chirping above them, and shortly afterward were shocked by the sight of some 30 armed settlers, some with machine guns, others with pistols, striding rapidly toward the skeleton of the structure they were working on. The workers were on the second floor. One of them managed to flee quickly, the other two – Mohammed, 23, and his brother A., 38, who did not want his name used – stayed where they were. About a dozen settlers climbed up to them and started cursing, shoving, beating and threatening the two.

“Why are you building here?” demanded the members of the armed militia, self-styled enforcers of local building regulations. “You’re not allowed to build here.” The frightened men replied that they were only laborers, that the house belonged to someone else, who had hired them. “What do you want from us?” they asked helplessly.

When Mohammed and his brother started to phone for help, the settlers told them to stop. The two did manage, however, to send a hasty voice message to the head of the local council, Ibrahim Asi. Asi was in Jericho, but sent an urgent message of distress to the town’s WhatsApp groups. Meanwhile, the settlers pushed A. from where he’d been standing, and he suffered bruises. Mohammed got away. The settlers fired a few rounds into the air in order to heighten the terror; a few bullet holes were visible this week in the unfinished structure.

In the meantime, villagers who had received Asi’s message came to the rescue. One of the first on the scene was a 53-year-old merchant, who was wearing a checked suit and had a keffiyeh draped around his neck when we met him this week in the office of the council head. He received the cry for help at 4:20 P.M., and immediately drove to the site with a friend. He recalled seeing a large number of armed settlers standing a few dozen meters from the house, and the two brothers trying to escape.

For his part, Mohammed told us he had fled in a panic. The settlers broke part of a window that was under construction and tore out some iron rods and threw them to the ground. When Mohammed stood with us next to the house and the settlers’ all-seeing drone appeared once again in the sky – the terror returned and he wanted only to flee. He was fearful the settlers would show up again, in the wake of the drone. He hadn’t returned to the building site since the incident.

“Anyone who wants to come to work here is invited,” he said with a sad smile. “I’m done with this job.”

Last Friday, a shepherd who was tending his flock of about 70 sheep, was attacked in the valley by a settler. According to council head Asi, the man managed to steal seven sheep and began to herd them toward his home in the new outpost. The settlers alleged afterward that the shepherd had later tried to attack the settler’s wife (there was no information about what happened to the sheep). Maybe the settlers returned the next day to mete out punishment for that, too.

Asi, at 35, one of the youngest council heads in the West Bank, whose attractive, renovated council building was dedicated only two weeks ago, told us that settler violence has been escalating, along with the frequency of visits by inspectors from the Israeli military government’s Civil Administration. He didn’t think this situation was due to the advent of the new, hard-line Israeli government or to changes in the administration – the deterioration began last October, but he had no idea why.

The council head’s two cellphones didn’t stop ringing for a minute during our conversation. He said the townspeople know who is terrorizing the farmers and also know the father of the violent settler from the outpost. The father lives in Yakir and is very nice, they say. In a video clip after the incident with the sheep, in which villagers and settlers can be seen arguing, separated by soldiers who were summoned to the site – the man who would die the next day can be seen. Not far away is the person the Palestinians think is the killer: Haro’eh, they call the violent settler, “the shepherd.”

When the confrontation that afternoon grew more intense, several dozen meters from the unfinished house, with stones being thrown by the Palestinians and shots being fired in the air – the settlers claimed that firecrackers were also thrown by the Palestinians, which they deny – a villager named Shaher Mari, a merchant of 50 who speaks Hebrew, tried to calm the situation down.

Eyewitnesses told us that Rayyan was standing next to Mari, with stones in his hands. One of the settlers ordered him to drop them; he did and moved away, about 30 meters. A moment later, a settler fired a bullet directly into Rayyan’s head, they said. He fell, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, and probably died instantly. One eyewitness related that he rushed to his side but Rayyan wasn’t responding. Young people carried him to a private car, which was met en route by a Palestinian ambulance that took the mortally wounded man to Yasser Arafat Hospital in the town of Salfit, where he was pronounced dead.

Havot Yair issued an official statement Saturday night, claiming that a group of “residents” had gone on a hike in the area; they had been attacked by hundreds of Palestinians and one person in their group had been wounded in the face by a stone.

The Spokesperson’s Unit of the Israel Defense Forces stated, in response to a query from Haaretz, that soldiers arrived only after Rayyan had been evacuated and that no soldiers had been at the scene when he was shot.

For its part, the Israel Police stated: “Upon receiving the report about the case, an investigation was launched that is still underway. Naturally, we do not provide details about an ongoing investigation; however, we will note that we shall continue to investigate with the aim of arriving at the truth.”

 

In the photo on the mourning poster hanging in the street, Methkal Rayyan is seen wearing a red shirt and a blue tie – his wedding picture. Suleiman Rayyan, his bereaved father, entered the office of the council head with faltering steps, still visibly stunned. In a blue jacket and keffiyeh, he told us that two days before losing his son he had undergone a cardiac catheterization in Nablus. He had had a bypass procedure a few years ago and hasn’t worked since. Suleiman is 54, the father of eight other children.

Methkal used to visit his parents every evening after work, and did so on the last evening of his life as well. What happened when you heard your son had been killed, we ask. I passed out, Suleiman admitted, with a wan smile. “Only the next day did I understand that he was really dead.”

Article link: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/twilight-zone/2023-02-18/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/it-started-with-a-drone-it-ended-with-a-deadly-raid-by-a-gang-of-armed-settlers/00000186-615a-d22b-ad9e-777a32c80000
Article source: Haaretz | Gideon Levy and Alex Levac | Feb 18, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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