Nablus, occupied West Bank – On the morning of October 4, dozens of Israeli settlers raided the Huwwara Secondary Boys School, south of Nablus city in the occupied West Bank, beating staff members and students and smashing cars and class windows before retreating.
School principal Abdulhameed Shehadeh said the sense of safety and security he tried to ensure for his 350 students was shattered in the wake of the violent attack, during which one of the settlers pulled out a gun and pointed it at the teachers and students.
“I fear for the lives of my students,” the 53-year-old principal, who confronted the settlers during the attack, told Al Jazeera.
Two students, a 16 and a 17-year-old, were treated in hospital for cuts and injuries from rocks, while others suffered tear gas inhalation when the Israeli army fired tear gas bombs into the school field following the attack.
Sitting in his office at the school, with scabs from the rocks still visible on his wrist, Shehadeh said the settlers “were throwing rocks at me, at the cars, at everything. It was raining rocks. I was hit on my arms, legs, and chest.”
The assault on the high school came as part of a sharp increase in coordinated and armed settler attacks, under Israeli army protection, during the past month in the town of Huwwara and other parts of Nablus, where organised Palestinian armed resistance against Israeli occupation has intensified in recent months.
Dozens of Palestinians have been injured and their properties destroyed in settler attacks in Huwwara on September 19 and 28, as well as October 4, and for three days in a row last week.
More than 400 Palestinian properties were damaged in more than 500 attacks this year until October 10, according to United Nations monitoring. Two Palestinians were killed, including a teenager, in those attacks.
While settler violence is a daily reality for millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the recent spike has come against the backdrop of several factors: More organised Palestinian armed operations against Israeli soldiers and settlers in Nablus and other cities, as well as nearing Israeli elections, and the arrival of the annual olive harvest season – the last two are consistently accompanied with more violence against Palestinians.
Most recently, on October 11, an Israeli soldier was killed in a Palestinian drive-by shooting operation near the settlement of Shavei Shomron, northwest of Nablus. The attack was claimed by the recently formed Lion’s Den armed group based in the Old City, and the man who carried it out remains on the run.
Since the attack, Israeli forces have imposed a continuing blockade on the area around Nablus, restricting the movement of about 420,000 Palestinians, including patients, elderly people and children, who must wait for hours before being able to cross.
Days prior, a four-day siege was imposed on 130,000 Palestinians in the Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem in search of the alleged suspect in a similar shooting that led to the killing of one Israeli soldier.
Tensions on the ground had been boiling up in the occupied West Bank since last year, with increasing shootings at Israeli military checkpoints and soldiers. During the past month alone, three Israeli soldiers have been killed in separate attacks.
Meanwhile, Israel has been intensifying raids, killings and arrests of Palestinians in Jenin and Nablus since March when it launched a military operation it calls “Breaking the Wave” in an attempt to crush the phenomenon of growing armed resistance, which now appears to be spreading to Jerusalem.
Series of attacks
In a series of settler rallies between late September and October, dozens of settlers closed off entrances to Nablus causing severe traffic jams, launched attacks on Palestinians, and demanded that the Israeli government order a military crackdown in the occupied West Bank.
Many of the attacks, which included the use of live ammunition, rock-throwing, beating and smashing with pipes and other damaging objects, have taken place under the protection or in coordination with the Israeli army.
— Oren Ziv (@OrenZiv_) October 13, 2022
“There is an evident great increase in the attacks, which have become more organised, and the settlers more audacious. What’s happening is very dangerous,” Ghassan Daghlas, who monitors settlers in the northern occupied West Bank for the Palestinian Authority (PA), told Al Jazeera.
“The settlers also exploit the checkpoints. Cars are forced to stop at them. You find that the settlers suddenly come, smash the windows and pepper spray and assault the people inside,” Daghlas said.
“They are carrying out attacks with a goal – including emptying the streets from Palestinians, and carrying out attacks in order to demand from the army to enforce an iron hand on the Palestinian people,” he continued.
Wajeeh Odeh, a member of the Huwwara local council, said another factor is Israeli elections, which are set to take place in November, and which “never happen without violence against Palestinians”.
“This is known along Israel’s history, that whoever kills the most Palestinians will win in elections, because this state is criminal,” he told Al Jazeera in Huwarra.
Huwwara: a besieged Palestinian town
The town of Huwwara is considered a flashpoint site between Israeli settlers, the occupation army, and Palestinians.
It lies on either side of the main road to Nablus city from the south – known as Route 60 – which constitutes the main artery between the central and northern occupied West Bank, and is used by both Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
Home to 9,000 Palestinians, Huwwara is surrounded by four illegal Israeli settlements. The largest of which, Yitzhar, is home to at least 1,100 settlers and was built on part of Huwwara’s lands. Yitzhar is known to house some of the most violent settlers in the West Bank and carry out what they call “price-tag” attacks.
While the town stretches over only six kilometres of Route 60, it is besieged by three Israeli military checkpoints: in the south, centre, and north, due to the heavy Israeli settler presence in the area.
On September 19, settlers descended onto the main road and attacked Palestinian stores and residents under army protection.
When 39-year-old man Ahmad Shaaweet tried to push away a settler who was beating another Palestinian, a group of Israeli soldiers and police took him to the side and heavily beat him, breaking his arm.
“The army and the police jumped on me and took me to the side away from people. While they were arresting me, the soldiers and police beat me with their rifles on my head, on my sides, on my legs. They broke my arm from the beating,” he told Al Jazeera in Huwarra.
Shaaweet spent the day detained in an Israeli police station, with a broken arm and no medical attention, under charges of “assaulting a police officer and soldiers”, before being released on bail.
“The settlers plan and organise what they are going to do – they have government, security and military support. Everything is made available for them,” said Shaaweet.
“There is no law to bind them or power to prevent them,” he continued. “They want to expel Palestinians, that’s their goal. Look at Khan al-Ahmar, look at Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and everywhere else,” he continued, in reference to various Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods facing forced displacement by Israeli authorities.
While settler attacks peaked in Nablus during the past two months, they have been intensifying since the beginning of the year.
On January 21, Israeli settlers smashed the car and storefront of a ceramic and porcelain shop in Huwwara belonging to 41-year-old Kayed Amer, while he was inside, before they attacked other Palestinian businesses.
He told Al Jazeera that it was the first time settlers attacked his shop, which lies on the main road, and that he lost between 45-50,000 Israeli shekels ($14,150) between damages to his car and his shop and merchandise.
“They are cowards, they can only do this with the protection of the army, who were standing and watching – they did not move an inch,” Amer told Al Jazeera in his store, explaining that the settlers used rocks and metal pipes.
“If I tried to even lift an arm towards one of them, they would arrest me. If the settlers beat you, it doesn’t matter, but you can’t dare lift your arm. We live in oppression,” he continued.
Al Jazeera reached out to Israeli military, but did not receive any comment by the time of publication.
Back at the Huwwara boys’ high school, the principal, Shehadeh, said his students “remain in a constant state of suspense” due to the attack and continuing uncertainty.
“Students are always asking teachers and me, ‘is something going on? Is the army here? Is there danger?” said Shehadeh, whose 21-year-old brother was killed by a settler in 2002.
“The attacks have heavily increased in the last period. The army gives them support and protection to do whatever they want without any accountability,” he continued.
“Meanwhile, if a Palestinian looks at them in the wrong way – they punish them. This is the reality.”