Far-right Jewish protesters pray as they block a road in the West Bank near the Tarqumiyah crossing, where aid trucks headed to Gaza must pass before entering Israel, on May 17. Heidi Levine for The Washington Post

TARQUMIYAH, West Bank — Radical Israeli settlers have expanded their attacks on aid trucks passing through the West Bank this month, blocking food from reaching Gaza as humanitarian groups warn that the enclave is sinking deeper into famine.

Groups of settler youth are tailing relief convoys, setting up checkpoints and interrogating drivers. In some cases, far-right attackers have ransacked and burned trucks and beaten Palestinian drivers, leaving at least two hospitalized.

The assailants use a web of publicly accessible WhatsApp groups to track the trucks and coordinate attacks, providing a window into their activities. Working off what they say are tips from Israeli soldiers and police, in addition to the public, members pore over photos to work out which vehicles might be carrying aid to Gaza and mobilize local supporters to block them.

An attack on Thursday showed the system in action: Users in one WhatsApp group with more than 800 members began posting about a flatbed truck loaded with sugar, sharing photos from the road as they followed it.

“The truck supplying Hamas stopped in front of Evyatar!” said 23-year-old Yosef de Bresser, referring to an Israeli outpost south of the Palestinian city of Nablus.

De Bresser is a leader in the “We Won’t Forget” movement, which set up protest camps at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza earlier this year and runs several of WhatsApp groups targeting aid trucks.

Advertisement

“Come join the blockade!” he wrote. Others answered the call.

The flatbed was ransacked, its load strewn across the road, according to images posted later in the group, one of two sugar trucks vandalized by settlers that day. De Bresser said the waybills – which did not show a destination – prove that the truck was headed to Gaza.

Fahed Arar, who owned the cargo, said the 30-ton load of sugar was actually destined for Salfit, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. The driver escaped unharmed, he said, but the Israeli military wouldn’t let him reload the goods.

Instead, soldiers removed the sacks with a bulldozer and destroyed them, Arar said, putting his losses at $30,000.

Yosef de Bresser, 23, a right-wing protest leader, jumps on the back of a truck he suspected was transporting aid from Jordan to Gaza, through the Tarqumiyah crossing. Heidi Levine for The Washington Post

“The attack happened in front of the army,” Arar said, adding that the driver said soldiers did nothing to stop it.

The Israel Defense Forces did not comment on the incident but sent a more general statement saying that it acts in the West Bank with the “aim of dispersing confrontations between Israeli and Palestinian civilians” and “assists” until the arrival of police. The Israel Police, largely responsible for enforcing the law when crimes are committed by Israeli citizens, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Advertisement

The violence and vandalism, committed with near-total impunity, raise questions about the willingness of Israel’s security forces to restrain extremist settlers and protect Palestinians. It also challenges the Israeli government’s claim that it is doing all it can to ensure that aid flows to Gaza, where the humanitarian situation has deteriorated rapidly since IDF forces moved into the southern city of Rafah.

As bands of teenagers become the arbiters of who can and cannot pass along main roads in the West Bank, any trucks carrying food have become vulnerable to attack.

“The environment around us is fed by hate and revenge,” said Abdo Idrees, chairman of the Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce.

Under pressure from the United States, Israel opened the Tarqumiyah crossing in the West Bank earlier this month for aid trucks traveling to Gaza from Jordan and for Palestinian businesses exporting food. The routes to the crossing take them by Israeli hilltop outposts where settler violence against Palestinians has spiked dramatically in recent months.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has called the targeting of aid trucks “a total outrage,” and the Biden administration is considering imposing sanctions on people involved in the attacks, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Humanitarian groups say Gaza is in its darkest hour after nearly eight months of war. More than a million Palestinians have been displaced this month, the United Nations says, after Israel began its assault on Rafah and sealed the enclave’s most vital land crossing for aid. The northern part of the territory is already in a “full-blown famine,” the World Food Program said recently, and aid officials warn it is spreading south.

Advertisement

Israeli activists, including Yosef de Bresser, center, and 16-year-old Naama Tova, left, wait for food trucks at the Tarqumiyah crossing on May 17. Heidi Levine for The Washington Post

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor said last week that he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, including using “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.” Both men have said the charges are outrageous and politically motivated.

The opening of the Tarqumiyah crossing on May 13 was part of an effort by the IDF to increase the flow of aid to Gaza. But one of the first convoys from Jordan was immediately set upon by Israeli protesters, who tossed boxes of food on the ground and stomped on them. Several trucks were torched.

We “never called on people to take the law into their own hands,” said Rachel Touitou, spokeswoman for Tzav 9, which boasts hundreds of members, including settlers and demobilized reservists, and has been active in blocking aid trucks since January.

The group put its activities on hold after the May 13 incident, but Touitou said the effort would continue because it is in “Tzav 9’s DNA.”

De Bresser denied that his group was responsible for burning trucks but said he could not condemn the violence.

“I’m happy for every truck that doesn’t enter Gaza, and I’m also happy to see it catch fire,” he said.

Advertisement

The We Won’t Forget movement supports “dismantling” trucks and sometimes takes action based on “inside” information, he said, including from transport workers, police officers and soldiers he says are against sending “supplies to Hamas.”

A recent incident illustrated the Israeli authorities’ hands-off approach to enforcement. In the early hours of May 17, about two dozen far-right youths set up a makeshift blockade at Tarqumiyah; soldiers and police officers drove past the group multiple times without stopping them.

At dawn, as the first truck approached, a 12-year-old boy with blond side curls picked up a brick and brandished it above his head, threatening to throw it at the vehicle if it moved any closer. The truck reversed. Other vehicles turned around at the sight of the group.

Police asked the demonstrators to take down the barricade after about an hour, but the demonstrators continued to mill around. A police officer joined them as they prayed on the road.

“It’s not our job to stop them, it’s our job to protect them,” said a female soldier of the young settlers. She declined to give her name.

In recent days, there have been more efforts to protect the trucks. Left-wing counterdemonstrators have created a “humanitarian guard” at the crossing, which has put pressure on the police to ensure it is functioning, said Alon-Lee Green, head of Standing Together, the group behind the campaign.

Advertisement

Some aid convoys from Jordan are now traveling under police escort. But other commercial trucks are afforded no security at all.

Ibrahim al-Razem, 35, was driving a load of Coca-Cola to Kafr Aqab on the outskirts of Jerusalem when he ran into a roadblock on the night of May 16.

“They asked me if I was going to Gaza,” Razem, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, said of the crowd of settlers that stopped him. He provided the group documentation showing the goods were headed somewhere else, he said.

But they weren’t satisfied. “Are you a Jew or Arab?” Razem recalled them asking right before they attacked.

“They really wanted to kill me,” he said, adding that military officers at the scene did little to control the crowd. Razem said he hid under an IDF vehicle to shield himself from the blows.

The IDF said two officers and a soldier were “slightly injured” when they tried to separate the attackers from the driver. “Dozens of Israeli citizens reacted violently towards the force,” the military said in a statement.

“If the army really wanted them to leave, they could have shot in the air,” said Razem, who suffered three fractured vertebrae, broken ribs and a broken nose.

The truck, which he had decorated with keepsakes from his sons, was set on fire after he was taken to the hospital.

“This was my source of income,” he said, estimating his losses at around $200,000. “I was broken.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: