On sections of Route 90, the Israeli-built road that runs through the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, the west side of the highway is covered in straw-like grass despite the summer heat. East of the road is gone what sheep and goats can eat.
The difference is the only discernible sign of the biggest strategic shift in recent years in the struggle for control of Zone C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control: the emergence of Israeli settlers who use pastoral work as a tool to conquer the territories the most country, with the least effort.
“We used to be able to lead the sheep and goats across the mountains and the valley,” said Mohammed, a 16-year-old who herds a 200-strong herd at the roadside safe for Palestinians. “Now the road is the limit and beyond that it’s forbidden.”
“They come down from the mountain and take the water, take the land but bring goats,” said Abu Fadi, 52, a Bedouin herdsman from Al-Auja, a village north of Jericho. “There is no longer enough space and the feed prices for the animals are rising. We are under pressure from both sides.”
About 450,000 Israelis have settled in what is now Zone C of the West Bank since the occupation of the Palestinian territories began in 1967, some for religious or nationalistic reasons, others for a lower cost of living. Their presence is seen by most members of the international community as a major obstacle to lasting peace.
What was once considered a pioneer lifestyle is now often very comfortable: some early settlements are now well-established and prosperous, with security guards at the entrance and fences topped with cameras and barbed wire. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stand ready to enforce military law for Palestinians and civil law for settlers.
According to Dror Etkes, a leading expert on Israeli land policy above the Green Line and founder of the NGO Kerem Navot, over the past 10 years the right wing of the settler movement has tried something different with great success.
A new investigation by Kerem Navot has found that there are now 77 Israeli farms and pastoral outposts in the West Bank; 66 were founded in the last ten years and 46 in the last five years, part of an explosive settlement growth during the Trump administration. The area now controlled by pastoral settlers is about 60,000 acres – just under 7% of Area C.
As Ze’ev Hever, the general secretary of Amana, a settler organization, put it at an online conference last year: “Building takes up little space due to economic considerations of building development… The herder farms – in the last three years we have evolved into a dared great expanse – now cover an area almost twice the built-up area of the settlements.”
Etkes spent three years interviewing Palestinian herdsmen, observing changes over time in the rangelands visited by Palestinians and settlers, and using aerial photography to map geographic features such as deep valleys and roads, which today often mark the de facto borders of appropriated land settlers form shepherds.
He also found that settler shepherds are often helped with grants and grazing land allocations issued directly by Israeli government agencies and other publicly funded agencies.
“This is the most important change in the West Bank in decades. Settler businesses used to be about building communities, and now often someone comes alone to start a farm and later maybe brings their family with them, who live like they’re in the Wild West,” Etkes said during the Guardian’s visit to several Palestinian and settler communities in the Jordan Valley last week.
“Initially they are very violent when it comes to expelling the Palestinians, but once they have established their dominance they are usually less violent. They feel entitled to claim the land as if they don’t need numbers or the army to protect them.”
Violence related to land control in the West Bank is on the rise, with 450 settler attacks on Palestinians and 160 Palestinian attacks on settlers recorded by the United Nations in 2021.
The Bedouin village of Ras al-Tin in the Jordan Valley is still suffering from a particularly vicious incident over the past week: around 20 pastoral settlers living on a nearby hilltop arrived by car at the village on Tuesday evening, accompanied by 10 IDF workers.
According to other residents, while the IDF looked on, the settlers broke into a house and beat the four family members with batons studded with nails. Mustafa Ka’abanh and his sons Ahmad and Muhammad, around 20, were handcuffed and the young men arrested.
50-year-old Hager, her mother, was beaten so badly that she lay unconscious in a hospital in Ramallah for several days. Mustafa was detained for four days after his release from hospital and her two sons remain in detention at Ofer military prison.
The IDF said soldiers were dispatched to the scene to resolve a physical altercation between Israeli civilians and Palestinians and two villagers threw stones at them.
“Soldiers responded according to operational procedures, including firing warning shots, until all suspects were resolved,” a spokesman said. “Ahmad and Mohammed Ka’abanh have been arrested on suspicion of assaulting a 15-year-old” and their detention has been “extended by the Military Appeals Court for investigative purposes until Monday.”
“I heard that the settlers came because they were angry about an incident involving a cow, and it was revenge, but we had nothing to do with it,” said a close relative of the family, who asked for fear of reprisals. not to be named.
The attack marked the first time settlers who had set up a nearby outpost in recent years set foot on Ras al-Tin itself. Those living there are now deeply concerned that the violence could escalate and they, like many others, could be forced to flee their homes.
“There is no worse oppression in the world than not being safe in your own home,” the relative said. “It’s not about who gets to graze animals where, not really. They want to get rid of us completely.”