MIKHMAS, West Bank (AP) — Shepherds from this Palestinian village say they think twice before taking their herds to graze near Jewish settlement outposts in the area, fearing attacks by militant settlers.
Six villagers have been beaten during such forays over the past three years, according to residents, most recently on Sunday when assailants hit Najeh Abu Ali on the head and hands with metal pipes as he led sheep and goats to the grazing area.
Abu Ali, 47, was recovering Monday at a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, his upper head and two fingers on each hand bandaged.
He and another shepherd who witnessed the attack, his relative Najati Abu Ali, said they believe the assailants were settlers, based on their appearance. They see the attacks as part of an attempt to scare the villagers away from the land.
"They (settlers) think that if they attack someone, then others will be afraid to come, and eventually they will take over the land," said Najati Abu Ali, 40, who says he suffered a similar beating in the same area in 2011.
Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri would only say that an investigation has been opened, and that all possibilities concerning suspects and motives are being considered.
U.N. figures show a rise in settler attacks on Palestinians and their property in recent years, particularly since the more militant among the settlers adopted the so-called "price tag" tactic in 2008.
As part of the tactic, settlers have been targeting Palestinians in retaliation for attempts by Israel's military to remove any of dozens of rogue settlements that have been established alongside dozens of government-sanctioned settlements.
In all, more than half a million Israelis live in settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, lands captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for their state, along with the Gaza Strip. Last month, Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks on drawing a border between them, ending a five-year freeze on negotiations.
The U.N. says the number of settler attacks that caused either injury or property damage rose from 116 in 2006 to a high of 411 in 2011, with a slight drop to 366 in 2012. So far this year, there have been 199 attacks linked to settlers, including 55 that injured Palestinians and 144 that damaged their property.
Friction is high in areas around settlements and outposts seen as particularly militant, such as the settlement of Yitzhar in the northern West Bank, and 110 Palestinian villages with more than 315,000 people, or more than 10 percent of the West Bank population, are especially vulnerable, according to the U.N. figures.
The settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Council, said it opposes attacks on Palestinians, but that it's up to the police to take action against what it described as a few dozen troublemakers among the settlers.
"We have a natural and historic right to Judea and Samaria (biblical names of the West Bank), and we don't need violence to prove our right," said Yesha Council spokesman Yigal Dilmoni.
Dilmoni said Palestinian leaders need to do more to discourage violence against Israelis. The Palestinians rose up twice against Israeli occupation since 1987, and more than 1,000 Israelis and more than 4,000 Palestinians were killed in the two bouts of conflict. The second uprising ended around 2006, and since then there have mostly be isolated Palestinian stone-throwing attacks on Israeli drivers.
In 2012, 49 settlers were injured by Palestinians, the U.N. said.
However, settler violence against Palestinians is rarely random, Israeli human rights activists said. They either come in the context of "price tag" or to deter Palestinians from getting to their lands, said Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer who has represented Palestinians.
"The attacks are done in areas of friction, and today's areas of friction are tomorrow's lands (being) taken over," said Sfard.
Mikhmas, home to about 1,600 Palestinians, is located in one of those areas. The village lies on the eastern side of Route 60, the main highway used by settlers driving between Jerusalem and settlements in the northern part of the West Bank.
On a hill on the western side of the highway, roughly opposite Mikhmas, lies Migron, one of the largest unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. Most of the about 50 families living there left Migron nearly a year ago, complying after years of legal wrangling with a Supreme Court decision that ordered their evacuation because they had settled on private Palestinian land.
The Migron settlers moved into nearby trailers along Route 60, as part of a deal with the government. At the same time, other settlers attempt from time to time to set up another outpost in the area, called Ramat Migron, but Israeli authorities periodically remove it, according to Sfard.
Residents of Mikhmas say they own several dozen acres of agricultural and grazing land near the outposts, but in the past three years rarely went there for fear of attack.
Najati Abu Ali said he and a fellow shepherd, Ahmed Abu Ali — along with Najeh all members of the same large clan in the village — were beaten by settlers with metal pipes two years ago while herding their sheep. Najati suffered gashes and a broken left arm, while Ahmed's skull was fractured.
In all, six villagers have been attacked in the past three years, said Najati and Iyad Haddad, a researcher for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
About a month ago, the shepherds decided to try again to take their herds for grazing near the outposts. They hadn't seen many settlers around and felt that they would be safe, as long as they stuck together, said Najati Abu Ali.
The father of nine said he saves 200 shekels ($56) in animal feed every day he takes his animals to the richer pastures across the highway.
For the past month, the shepherds went almost daily, driving their herds through an underpass below the highway. At about 6 a.m. Sunday, Najeh Abu Ali's flock headed through the narrow tunnel first.
Najeh said that as he emerged on the other side he was attacked by six men with metal pipes. He said he fell to the ground and was beaten again when he tried to get up, and that the attackers, some with T-shirts wrapped around their heads, followed him into the tunnel. He said they fled when other shepherds arrived.
Najati said despite the fear among the shepherds, he'll consider going back if he can organize a large group.
Fellow shepherd Ahmed said he'd rather lose money than take another risk.
"I am not going back there," he said. "I cannot afford to go and spend more time in the hospital."