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West Bank: Israeli settlers were hit with sanctions which left them unfazed and emboldened

Elisha Yered, an Israeli settler and leading figure with the Hilltop Youth, near the settlement of Maskiot in the northern West Bank, on May 12, 2024.   -  
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Maya Alleruzzo/Copyright 2024 The AP All rights reserved

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

As the war rages in Gaza, a less publicized conflict broils in the West Bank.

Israeli settlers continue to colonize Palestinian hilltops. Some have been hit with international sanctions over accusations of attacks and harassment against Palestinians.

23 year-old Elisha Yered is one of them. Like other targeted by the sanctions, he says the measures are at most, an annoyance. "Anyone who thinks this will break us is mistaken. We’ve survived harder things than this.”

In a makeshift clubhouse on a hilltop near the settlement of Maskiot in the northern West Bank, Yered said he's established five outposts since 2021. The most recent was built about a month before he was sanctioned by the European Union in April.

He's a leading figure for Hilltop Youth — a group of Jewish teenagers who colonize West Bank hilltops and have been accused of attacking Palestinians and their property. Hilltop Youth was also sanctioned by the UK and the EU.

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The EU order said Yered was involved in deadly attacks on Palestinians. He was accused of involvement a 19-year-old Palestinian's death last year.

Yered is also sanctioned by the UK, which said he incited religious hatred and violence and called for Palestinian displacement.

Yered said that while the sanctions initially posed challenges accessing money, friends and family supported him. His credit card remains blocked, he said, but his bank lets him withdraw with permission.

He said nothing has halted his expansion goals.

“We’re getting much more support from enormous parts of the public who have understood what we’ve been saying for years, that we’re dealing with a murderous enemy that is fighting against us, that only settling the land will bring security, that if we allow Hamas, allow a Palestinian state then the same kind of terrorism and murder that happened in Gaza could happen here in Judea and Samaria," he added.

Impunity and defiance

Israel seized the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.

Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank; most of the international community considers their presence illegal.

But under Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition — the most right-wing in Israeli history, with settlers themselves in key positions — expansion has been turbocharged.

For weeks after being sanctioned by the United States, Yinon Levi struggled to pay bills, living at his farm atop a hill in the West Bank.

But the Israeli settler's problems didn’t last.

When the banks froze his accounts, his community raised thousands of dollars for him, and an Israeli official vowed to intervene on sanctioned settlers' behalf.

Two months after sanctions were issued, Levi was granted access to his money.

“America thought it would weaken us, and in the end, they made us stronger,” Levi, 31, told The Associated Press from his farm — unauthorized by the Israeli government and in violation of international law — in the South Hebron Hills.

A far-right Israeli official — Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who lives on a West Bank settlement — said he'd “take care of the issue” for those sanctioned, Levi's father-in-law, Noam Federman, said.

Injustice and fear

Palestinians say expanding Israeli outposts are shrinking their access to land, and settler violence against them has soared since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war with Israel.

Land seized through illegal outposts has more than doubled since the war started, according to settlement watchdog Kerem Navot.

Palestinians living in small hamlets ringed by hilltop outposts say they fear it’s just a matter of time until they’re forced to leave their homes.

"Yinon and Alyasheeved destroyed our farms and our lands and cultivation, and sheep breeding has been badly impacted. These sanctions are not enough, we demand more and more to deter them and return them to the right path."

Hicham [Editor's note: First name change for security reasons] and other Palestinians told the AP they experience verbal and physical harassment, can't move freely, and face intimidation by settlers circling their properties on motorbikes, cars or horses and spying via drones.

Hicham said that in February, while out with his sheep, Levi held him at gunpoint, recounted all the places he’d forced people away, and threatened to kill him if he returned.

“He told me, 'I displaced people from Zanuta to ad-Dhahiriya ... I am from the family of the farm of mad people.”

Levi told AP the incident never happened.

A drone hovered overhead while AP was on the land, and Palestinians say the buzzing sound is used to send sheep fleeing.

The few Palestinians who've refused to leave the area around Levi's farm say their land has shrunk by 95% since he established Meitarim, crippling them economically.

In recent years, settlers have changed land-grabbing tactics, anti-occupation researcher Dror Etkes said: Rather than establishing residential settlements, they've turned to farming outposts, which use more land for grazing animals and spark more violence because they're spread out, with high visibility.

Etkes said there’s been a total collapse of rule of law in the territory, with the Israeli government defending settlers.

Etkes said land Levi controls has nearly doubled since the war, from about 1,000 (400 hectares) to 2,000 acres (800 hectares).

And settlers say they'll keep expanding.