On stretches of Route 90, the Israeli-built road running down the length of the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, the west side of the highway is full of straw-like grass despite the summer heat. To the east of the road, what can be eaten by sheep and goats is gone.
The difference is the only perceptible sign of the biggest strategic shift in the battle for control of Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control, in recent years: the emergence of Israeli settlers using shepherding as a tool for seizing the most land, with the least effort.
“We used to be able to take the sheep and goats all over the mountains and the valley,” said Mohammed, a 16-year-old herding a flock of 200 on the side of the road that is safe for Palestinians. “Now the road is the border and beyond that is forbidden.”
“They come down from the mountain and take the water, take the land, but bring goats,” said Abu Fadi, 52, a Bedouin shepherd from Al-Auja, a village north of Jericho. “There’s not enough space any more and the price of food for the animals is going up. We are being pressured on both sides.”
About 450,000 Israelis have settled in what is now Area C of the West Bank since the occupation of the Palestinian territories began in 1967, some motivated by religious or nationalistic reasons, and others by the cheaper cost of living. Their presence is viewed by most of the international community as a major obstacle to lasting peace.
What was once seen as a pioneer lifestyle is now often very comfortable: some early settlements are now well established and wealthy, with security guards at the entrance and fences topped with cameras and barbed wire. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are on hand to enforce military law for Palestinians, and civilian law for settlers.
According to Dror Etkes, a leading expert on Israeli land policy over the Green Line and founder of the NGO Kerem Navot, during the last 10 years, the rightwing of the settler movement has been trying out something different, with great success.
A new Kerem Navot investigation has found that there are now 77 Israeli farms and shepherding outposts across the West Bank; 66 were established over the last decade, and 46 in the last five years, part of an explosion in settlement growth during the Trump administration. The area now controlled by shepherd settlers is around 60,000 acres – just under 7% of Area C.
As Ze’ev Hever, the secretary general of Amana, a settler organisation, put it at an online conference last year: “Construction takes up little ground, due to economic considerations of building development … The shepherd farms – over the last three years we have ventured into a large expanse – now cover an area almost twice as large as the built area of the settlements.”
Etkes spent three years interviewing Palestinian herders, observing changes over time in the grazing areas visited by Palestinians and settlers, and using aerial photographs to map out geographical features such as deep valleys and roads, which now often form the de facto boundaries of land appropriated by settler shepherds.
He also found that the settler herders are often helped with grants and allocations of pastureland issued directly by Israeli government offices and other publicly funded bodies.
“This is the most important change in the West Bank in decades. The settler enterprise used to be about building communities, and now often someone comes alone to start a farm, and maybe later brings his family, living like he’s in the Wild West,” Etkes said during the Guardian’s visit to several Palestinian and settler communities in the Jordan Valley last week.
“They are initially very violent in pushing the Palestinians out, but once they’ve established dominance, they are usually less violent. They feel entitled to the land, like they don’t need numbers or the army to keep them safe.”
Violence related to control of land in the West Bank is on the rise, with 450 attacks by settlers against Palestinians, and 160 attacks by Palestinians against settlers, recorded by the UN in 2021.
The Bedouin hamlet of Ras al-Tin in the Jordan Valley is still reeling from a particularly vicious incident last week: around 20 shepherd settlers living on a nearby hilltop arrived in the village by car on Tuesday evening, accompanied by 10 IDF personnel.
According to other residents, the settlers entered a home and proceeded to beat the four members of a family with batons spiked with nails, while the IDF watched. Mustafa Ka’abanh and his sons Ahmad and Muhammad, in their 20s, were beaten while handcuffed, and the young men arrested.
50-year-old Hager, their mother, was so badly beaten, she was unconscious in hospital in Ramallah for several days. Mustafa was detained for four days after his release from hospital, and their two sons remain in custody at Ofer military prison.
The IDF said that it did not recognise the locals’ version of events, and that soldiers had been dispatched to the scene to separate a physical altercation between Israeli civilians and Palestinians and had stones thrown at them by two villagers.
“The soldiers responded according to operational procedures, including firing warning shots until all of the suspects dispersed,” a spokesperson said. “Ahmad and Mohammed Ka’abanh were arrested under suspicion of assault of a 15 year old” and their detention was “extended by the military court of appeals for investigative purposes until Monday.”
“I heard the settlers came because they were angry about an incident involving a cow and this was revenge, but we had nothing to do with it,” said a close relative of the family, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
The attack marked the first time that settlers who established a nearby outpost over the last few years have entered Ras al-Tin itself. People living there are now deeply worried that the violence could escalate and that, like many others, they could be forced to leave their homes.
“There is no worse oppression in the world than not being safe in your own house,” the relative said. “It’s not about who can graze animals and where, not really. They want to get rid of us completely.”