Last updated on September 4, 2023
As Israeli settlements grow throughout the West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians has reached an all-time high. Stories of altercations have become ubiquitous as Israeli forces fail to prevent violence—and at times, even enable it. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams continue to witness how this hostile atmosphere impacts the physical and mental health of our patients in the West Bank.
In the city of Hebron, Yasser Abu Markhiyeh’s two-year-old daughter, Jana, was sitting on his lap on the terrace when Israeli settlers began to hurl stones toward the house, striking her face and legs.
MSF psychologists are helping Yasser and Jana cope with recurring attacks following the episode that left the girl injured. Now seven years old, Jana has strabismus (a condition in which both eyes do not look at the same place at the same time) which has required several rounds of surgery and will need at least one more in the coming years.
Yasser and Jana’s neighborhood of Tel Rumeida is located in a part of Hebron known as H2, an enclave under Israeli control where approximately 700 settlers live in close proximity to Palestinian residents.
“We see a huge incidence of settlers attacking people as we provide medical and mental health services in the area, particularly near settlements such as H2,” said Mariam Qabas, MSF health promotion supervisor in Hebron.
As settlements expand in Hebron, settler violence increases
The situation in H2 reflects a broader trend across the West Bank, where the settler population has grown from 183,000 in 1999 to 465,000 today (excluding 220,000 in East Jerusalem), bringing with it the increasing presence of Israeli soldiers and restrictions on Palestinians’ day-to-day lives.
Nearby, in the Old City, Shuhada street—once a vibrant commercial hub—reflects the impact settlements have had on the area as it has slowly become a ghost town. Checkpoints were established on the street, entry permits became mandatory for Palestinians, and shops were closed one by one, including Yasser’s father’s ice cream shop. Now it sits empty, with all of its expensive equipment unused, after Israeli forces sealed it shut and forbade him to return.
The growth of settlements in the West Bank has caused settler violence to steadily increase in recent years, from 195 injuries in 2008, to a record 304 injuries in 2022, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Between checkpoints, verbal and physical harassment, imprisonment, property damage, and movement restrictions, Palestinians face violence not just from settlers, but also from Israeli forces,” said Qabas, who was once targeted by settlers who threw stones at her and another MSF staff member as they waited outside a patient’s door in H2. “How can we support these people when we can’t even protect ourselves from these attacks, even with the MSF vest?”
MSF teams often see patients with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), general anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Today, Jana and her sisters must cross the checkpoint and the soldiers who guard it every day to get to school. The family has effectively become isolated from their community, as friends and relatives fear visiting the neighborhood due to the threat of violence.
Scars of a violent rampage in Huwara
In February, hundreds of settlers, some carrying knives and guns, went on a rampage in the northern West Bank town of Huwara after a Palestinian gunman fatally shot two settlers. The attack led to indiscriminate violence that left one civilian dead, over 100 people injured, and significant damage to Palestinians’ property, ranging from broken windows to burnt cars.
At 15, Hussam Odeh doesn’t remember a time without an established settler presence nearby. He lives just off Huwara’s main street, where traffic has increased significantly in recent months after Israeli forces used large cement blocks to better control access to the town. From the window of his apartment he can see soldiers on the roof of the building across the street, who use it as a vantage point over the town.
“We know them, and we can differentiate them,” he told MSF staff, who visit his building to provide mental health support to his aunt and younger cousins.
Hussam’s high school, Huwara Secondary Boys School, is particularly close to a settlement. One morning, as Hussam and his friends were playing soccer in the courtyard before first period, he began to hear shouting and screaming.
“We were told that settlers were attacking the school. They had guns and Molotov cocktails,” he recalled. The army eventually dispersed the settlers and sent everybody home, but two students were sent to the hospital for injuries from the attack.
Traumas of home demolition in Douma
Not far away, in the village of Douma, home demolitions haunt the family of Mustafa Mlikat, a Bedouin herder who moved to Douma to escape settler harassment near Jericho. "Things were not as bad in the past," he said, recalling a time when settlers from rural areas would give him and other Bedouins rides on their way into town. Then settlers built a house next to his.
“They would harass us all the time,” he said. “They started harassing our sheep, they forbade us to use the land we used to let our sheep graze on.”
As herders, Bedouin communities are particularly vulnerable to settler violence because their land stands in the way of settler farmers in rural areas. “They want all the areas where the Bedouins are to be for the settlers. All the Bedouins are being targeted,” said Mustafa.
After Mustafa built a house in Douma, Israeli soldiers destroyed it in February 2023, citing lack of building permit. Amid the rubble of what was once his house, forced into a tent that will become unlivable in the summer months, he no longer knows what to do.
“The mental health of Palestinians is affected not only by these traumatic events, but also by a constant state of alertness and inability to plan for the future under the occupation,” said Mirella, MSF’s mental health activity manager in Nablus.
She and another MSF mental health worker visited Mustafa’s family on a rainy day in April to help his daughter, Jinan, process the emotional impact of the loss of their home.
Pressed between ever-expanding settlements whose occupants behave unpredictably, Youssef,* a Palestinian from Nablus, feels more comfortable facing soldiers than settlers.
“We feel the Israeli army follows some rules, at least the majority of it,” he said. “Settlers are not bound by such rules, and if they become angry, who knows what they might do.”
At 50, he has seen settlements expand and make his job as a driver harder as the number of roads accessible to Palestinians shrinks. He laments the status quo that prevails in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords of 1993. “The occupation is at the root of everything. Without it there is no violence, no killings.”
About MSF in the West Bank
MSF has been present in the West Bank since 1988. In Nablus, we run a mental health-focused project with outreach in Qalqilya and Tubas. MSF also runs a mental health program in Hebron city, offers medical services in H2, and provides basic health care in nearby Masafer Yatta through mobile clinics. A recently opened project in Jenin provides training for mass casualty plans, emergency response, and patient triage.