Home / Press Releases / Israeli army and police escalate repression of human rights volunteers following Knesset hearing.

Israeli army and police escalate repression of human rights volunteers following Knesset hearing.

A car that was burned by illegal Israeli settlers on the night of March 17.

In the days since a March 12 Knesset hearing that demonized human rights activists in the West Bank, it appears that Israeli authorities have escalated their repression of volunteers in the Masafer Yatta region of the south Hebron Hills (West Bank).

The aforementioned Knesset hearing, held in the “Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria,” was framed by a claim from Subcommittee Chair MK Tzvi Sukkot (Religious Zionism) that aid workers in the West Bank—Palestinian, Israeli, and international alike—were a key enemy in Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. Sukkot’s words were directly excerpted in Knesset News:

“For the military victory [in Gaza] to arrive, we have to remove everything that interferes with it. We can’t win without fighting against those who are doing everything they can to interfere with our justified war. That is the reason we have convened today, in the middle of the war, to discuss the issue of the anarchists.

“So much unnecessary verbiage has been uttered in the past about ‘settler violence,’ but people have not yet dealt here, in this House, with those who truly create a great deal of severe violence in Judea and Samaria—radical, anarchist left-wing activists who harass the IDF soldiers and heroic settlers. This is a scourge, and we are here to deal with it. I believe that after eradicating this malady, we will be one important step closer to the important victory.”

Remarks from other members of the subcommittee continued to valorize illegal Israeli settlers, and to state broadly that human rights volunteers in the West Bank are “antisemites, for all intents and purposes, and supporters of terrorism.”

Content of the discussions from the first half of the hearings is available to the public; the second half remains classified, but the Knesset suggested that the classified hearings “examined courses of action for expanding the tools for coping with the phenomenon” of activism in the West Bank.

One day following the Subcommittee hearings, on March 13, an Israeli activist was arrested in Masafer Yatta, after being threatened by gunfire from IOF soldiers, beside a Palestinian woman who was picking herbs in an area where they were permitted to do so under Israeli law.

Over the weekend, an international protective presence was detained and questioned by police, who accused them of falsifying their report: they had called the police because a Palestinian-owned car was set on fire in the night, and because the car owners had witnessed two presumed perpetrators escaping into the dark.

On March 20, a group of Israeli human rights volunteers were detained for two hours after reporting illegal settlers who had entered a village near Gwawis in Masafer Yatta. Police arrested one activist and banned them from the area for two weeks; the settlers were left alone.

These arrests follow a pattern that was proposed in the committee hearings: when volunteers call the police to report illegal settler violence, the police claim that their police report was false—and then arrest the volunteer who called the police on accusations of perjury and interfering with police work.

Grounds for this strategy to combat human rights volunteers were provided in the March 12 Knesset hearing by Commander Avishai Mualem of the Judea and Samaria District Police, who reported both that illegal Israeli settler violence has decreased by 50% since October 7, and that 47% of the police reports submitted in the south Hebron Hills (where Masafer Yatta is located) were “false complaints.”

Mualem’s narrative of a decrease in settler violence since October 7 is deeply questionable. The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights reported on March 8 (OHCHR) that 603 illegal Israeli settler attacks had been tracked in the West Bank since October 7; in this violence, nine Palestinians were killed and 592 were displaced. The month of October was particularly brutal: the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tracked an extreme escalation in settler violence in the first month after October 7, reporting that 43% of the almost 2,000 Palestinians displaced by settlers in the West Bank since 2022 were forced out of their homes between October 7 and November 1.

In Masafer Yatta alone, since Commander Mualem issued his report on March 12, various human rights volunteers have witnessed: illegal Israeli settlers raiding the village of Um Al-Khair, intimidating shepherds in Shaab al-Butum, and setting fire to the car of a family living at Um Dhorit. In all instances, the volunteers have called the police; in all instances, police have refused to offer any help to the attacked Masafer Yatta Palestinian residents. And indeed, in some cases, it has ultimately been the volunteer reporting the illegal settler crime who was instead arrested after the police arrived.

It is unclear whether the above interactions from these past days, in which the police were called but willingly chose to not intervene, would be categorized by Commander Mualem alongside the 47% of police reports that he contended were “false complaints.” But UN OHCHR reports that, from November 1, 2022 to October 31, 2023, only 66 out of 190 incidents in which Palestinians filed police complaints on illegal settler violence led to open investigations; of these, only two indictments were filed in response—and as of February 28, 2024, neither of these two open cases had been resolved. Out of the remaining 123 violent incidents in which no report was filed, in 86 cases the harmed Palestinians doubted the police would provide support pursuing the settler who harmed them, and thirteen did not report the violence out of fear that the police would arrest them instead. When called to enforce the law against illegal settler violence in the West Bank, the Israeli police have proven themselves unreliable for Palestinians — and the practice of retaliating against individuals who call for their support is evident.

But now, in the aftermath of the March 12 Knesset hearing, it appears that this risk of retaliation applies to human rights volunteers as well. One human rights volunteer interviewed witnessed this practice on multiple incidents throughout the week: “Historically, international and Israeli volunteers have been able to safely report settler crimes on the behalf of the Palestinians who the settlers attacked,” reported the volunteer, who chose to remain anonymous. “But this week, in the South Hebron Hills alone, I’m personally aware of two separate incidents when someone called in a crime caused by settlers—but it was the volunteer who was taken away by the police.”

When seeking legal enforcement support in the West Bank — where armed settlers disguise themselves as soldiers and seek to make their own laws themselves — both Palestinians and activists are losing one of their last resort options: now, when an nonviolent human rights activist calls the police when Palestinians are under attack, they invoke a high risk that they themselves will be arrested, within a police state that explicitly considers them to be an enemy, aligned with terrorism.