KUSRA, West Bank — The men of this hilltop town who gather at night with clubs and flashlights stress they are not afraid. But they say something changed after the recent arson attack that left a toddler dead in a village just a few miles away.
“You don’t sleep so well,” said Ibrahim Wadi, 54, a chemical engineer who was out on the town’s southern perimeter at midnight this week, carrying a rusty steel bar and scanning the horizon.
Wadi and 30 to 40 other men, farmers and shopkeepers and construction workers, were fanned out across a rocky ridge, their flashlights winking on and off in the open fields. Some of the men carried shepherd’s clubs, others pickaxes, hoes and canes.
“Of course not, no guns,” Wadi said. The Jewish settlers have the guns, he said. Palestinians here are not allowed to possess weapons; the Israeli military forbids it.
In the isolated Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank, residents are especially watchful these days; some villages are operating informal checkpoints, stopping cars to make sure they recognize the faces of the drivers at night.
Three weeks ago, unknown assailants threw gasoline bombs through the windows of the Dawabsha home in the nearby Palestinian village of Duma. An 18-month-old boy named Ali was burned alive; his father lingered a week and then died of his wounds; the mother and a 4-year-old son remain in critical condition in an Israeli hospital.
The arsonists signed their work with a spray-painted message that read “Revenge!” in Hebrew, next to the scrawled image of a Star of David. Police suspect Jewish extremists. There have been several arrests of radical settlers suspected of violence and vandalism but no charges in the Duma case.
It is not just the Palestinians who are wary. There were three knife attacks in three days by Palestinian assailants against three groups of Israeli soldiers this week.
The men in Kusra — located in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under full civil and security control by the Israeli military — organized their Night Guard Committee in 2011 after someone tried to burn their mosque. The intensity of the patrols has waxed and waned over the years. They are on full-alert again.
It doesn’t take much, they said: some batteries for the flashlights, a couple of clubs and their mobile phones. If someone sees settlers approach the town, day or night, soon the loudspeakers at the mosque are blaring the warning and everyone comes out. Palestinian Authority officials said they were considering sponsoring similar home guards throughout the area.
It is an exclusively defensive operation, the men insist. One night this week, they mostly smoked, talked and drank tea. It was quiet enough to hear dogs barking a long way off; in the distance, across the river valley, you could see the lights of Jordan. The men stayed out until 3 or 4 in the morning, went home for a short nap and then to work.
“We’re not attacking anybody,” said Akram Odeh, who showed off an arm he said was broken by a Jewish settler. “We don’t go to the settlements — they come to us.”
The men said the problem is not just the Jewish settlers but also the 48-year occupation. They stressed that they had mostly good relations with the settlers from the nearby town of Migdalim, who bought goods in the Kusra stores on credit. It was the young men from Esh Kodesh they frequently clash with.
“We throw stones. They throw stones. Then the army comes out and fires flares and tells us to go home,” said Mohammad Hassan, a young farmer.
“Our problem is the army,” Hassan said. “Without the army, we wouldn’t have settlers coming here. They wouldn’t dare.”
One of the Kusra elders out on patrol kept a list of alleged violations against his village in his head. A thousand olive trees (mostly saplings) destroyed since 2011, six vehicles burned, one mosque vandalized, several beatings, three small farm buildings knocked down, two wells dynamited, a tractor shot at, 17 sheep killed and two donkeys captured.
“They’re still over there,” Wadi said, pointing toward Esh Kodesh. “We hear them. They want to come home.”
The men smiled but said it was no joke.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.