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In the West Bank, U.S. sanctions on Israeli settlers are having an impact

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.S., the U.K. and France recently put sanctions and travel bans on Israeli settlers committing violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to visit one of the areas where settlers have been most active.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hello, Nadav.

NADAV WEIMAN: Hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

BEARDSLEY: We're on our way to the South Hebron Hills with our guide, Nadav Weiman. Once an Israeli army special forces sniper, today, Weiman is part of an organization called Breaking the Silence, made up of former soldiers speaking out against their country's occupation of the West Bank, home to 3 million Palestinians.

WEIMAN: The area of the South Hebron Hills, where we are going to be today, is full with unauthorized outposts. Actually, three of them were built since the 7 of October.

BEARDSLEY: That's when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and triggering the war. Weiman says the smaller unauthorized outposts are sprouting from more established settlements.

WEIMAN: Settlers are building new unauthorized outposts everywhere, and they are not being stopped.

BEARDSLEY: That's because Israel has the most right-wing government it's ever had, says Weiman. The country's finance and security ministers are actually from the settler movement. Weiman says the settlers from unauthorized outposts are even more hard-line.

WEIMAN: Since October 7, we saw an increase in settler violence and 16, 16 Palestinian communities of sheepherders fled. Sixteen - it's a number that I never thought I'm going to say.

BEARDSLEY: We pull up at the recently deserted sheepherding community of Zanuta. Weiman regularly checks on it because the villagers are hoping to come back after the war, but something is wrong.

WEIMAN: Oh, my God. They closed it. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. (Inaudible).

BEARDSLEY: Who is that?

The 250 villagers and their sheep were chased away by settlers at the end of November.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

BEARDSLEY: So whose sheep are grazing in the schoolyard?

WEIMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Weiman yells that question to the shepherdess guarding them, who doesn't answer but quickly gets on her phone. The school was also recently bulldozed.

Here's a door in the middle of the rubble. There's children's drawings still on the wall. The tin roof is mangled and twisted.

Weiman says settler violence is aimed at forcing Palestinians out of strategic areas. The settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers.

WEIMAN: Why? To demolish the school. Why? Because you want families to feel they are not safe over here, and the kids cannot go back because if you don't have kids, you don't have life, right? It's not only stealing away their livestock or - it's - you know, it's destroying their sense of being safe, of living, going to school. (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "You're bullying the weakest population," he says to the shepherdess. "Are these the values you were raised on?" Weiman says one settler is responsible for chasing away this community - Yinon Levi, whose recently built unauthorized outpost is visible on the opposite hillside. Levi heads the list of several settlers recently sanctioned by the Biden administration. Soon, a young guy arrives in a truck. He's wearing a sweat jacket with a settler extremist symbol on it, says Weiman, who shows me a video on his phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

WEIMAN: This is Yinon Levi with the same truck attacking other communities in the area with his truck.

BEARDSLEY: Settlers like this man and Levi have stepped up their activity while the world is focused on the war in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANES FLYING)

BEARDSLEY: Not far from Zanuta, 63-year-old Palestinian farmer Azzam Nawaz (ph) walks through his olive groves. Israeli warplanes streak past overhead. His village of Susya is surrounded by a large settlement and several unauthorized outposts.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

BEARDSLEY: Nawaz pulls back the metal he's using to cover his cistern since its concrete top was bulldozed off and rocks and gravel dumped into it a few days ago. Cisterns are the only source of water for Palestinian communities here. They aren't allowed to connect to settlement water pipes even though those pipes often run through their land. Nawaz says everyone knows who did this.

AZZAM NAWAZ: (Through interpreter) In the days after October 7, two, three days later, bulldozers and vehicles started arriving around the village, and they were recognizable bulldozers. We knew that they belonged to Yinon Levi.

BEARDSLEY: Nawaz says they've always been under pressure here, but since the war, it's become much worse. To top it off, many of the settlers are now in the Israeli army reserves, he says.

NAWAZ: (Through interpreter) Some of the settlers, in army uniforms, armed, started to come into the village during the day, during the night, enter into people's houses to scare and intimidate the children and the women. It's like being surrounded by crime families. How is it possible that this is the reality? - that we're afraid to leave our houses because here there's 15; here there's 10, like mafia?

BEARDSLEY: When Biden announced the sanctions, Israel's settler finance minister said it wasn't possible for an Israeli citizen to be deprived of rights due to an American order. But within a day, Levi's personal and business accounts were frozen. The Bank of Israel issued a statement saying it would comply because evading sanctions would expose Israeli banks to significant risk. Weiman says the sanctions are a big deal.

WEIMAN: Since the sanctions that were imposed by the U.S., England and now France, everybody's talking about settler violence, right? Israelis understood. We stopped living in a bubble because now everybody understands that there's a price.

BEARDSLEY: But Nawaz doesn't think sanctioning a few individuals will change things.

NAWAZ: (Through interpreter) There are so many larger, more destructive elements than one settler who lives here compared to what's going on with the support of the American and the European governments who know and who see what's going on and who don't do anything about it.

BEARDSLEY: He says what's needed is real peace and equal rights for everyone. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, in the West Bank, South Hebron Hills. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.