In the abandoned sheep pens of Al Baqa, a remote Palestinian hamlet in the West Bank, you can still smell the livestock. But the sheep themselves, as well their shepherds, have vanished.
The 54 Palestinian residents of the hamlet pulled down most of their huts and left with their animals en masse after a group of Israeli herders set up a rival farmstead a few dozen yards away in June. The Palestinians said the Israeli herders, who often carry guns, tried to intimidate them by wandering around the hamlet and sometimes through their homes at night.
On the eerie, arid mountainside, only the Israelis remain.
“Their job was to provoke us,” said Muhammad Mleihat, 59, one of the village leaders, who decamped to a valley five miles away. “They want to empty the area,” he added.
Across remote parts of the West Bank, the mountainous territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinian herding communities are abandoning their homes at a rate that has no recorded precedent, according to the United Nations.
Simultaneously, Israeli settlers are establishing wildcat herding outposts at close to record levels, often near Palestinian villages, according to land assessments by Kerem Navot, an independent Israeli watchdog that monitors settlement activity. The group says that at least 20 new outposts have been established since the beginning of the year, a handful of which were dismantled by the Israeli Army before being reassembled.
The result has been the accelerated expansion of an Israeli civilian presence across large and strategic tracts of the territory — more than 140 square miles, according to Kerem Navot — and the simultaneous retreat of Palestinians from the same rural areas.
The Israeli settlers’ stated intention is to chip away at wide expanses of land that the Palestinian leadership, at the advent of the Oslo peace process 30 years ago, hoped would form the territorial spine of a future Palestinian state.
“It’s not the nicest thing to evacuate a population,” said Ariel Danino, 26, an Israeli settler who lives on an outpost and helps lead efforts to build new ones. “But we’re talking about a war over the land, and this is what is done during times of war.”
The phenomenon is a relatively new approach to the Israeli settlement of the West Bank, according to settler activists, rights campaigners and Palestinian herders.
Since 1967, the Israeli state has entrenched its control of the West Bank by providing land, resources and protection to more than 130 new Israeli settlements in the territory. The majority are small towns surrounded by a fence, guarded by Israeli soldiers and considered illegal by most of the world.
But while Israel is still authorizing new homes within existing settlements, a process that has accelerated under the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the state has only built one new settlement from scratch this century.
To fill that void, settler activists have long built encampments — illegal even under Israeli law — on small pockets of land near existing settlements, hoping to gradually expand the settlements’ boundaries.
Around 2018, they became more ambitious. Small groups of settlers began systematically erecting herding outposts in more remote locations. Roaming the surrounding hillsides with several thousand sheep, and sometimes roughing up Palestinian herders who got in their way, a handful of committed Israeli herders quickly established a civilian presence across a much larger area.
“This is how the state will be enlisted to the task,” Zeev Hever, a settler leader who pioneered the strategy, said in a speech from 2021, a recording of which was obtained by Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
“We will behave as if this land is the last thing we own in this life,” Mr. Hever said, adding, “And that will be the way in which the state will also treat this land.”
By early 2021, Mr. Hever estimated that his strategy had doubled the geographical spread of the settlement enterprise — an increase of nearly 40 square miles in roughly three years.
The farms’ grazing lands now occupy another 100 square miles, bringing the total to roughly 6 percent of the West Bank, according to estimates by Kerem Navot.
“The goal is to strengthen the Jewish presence in key areas in the West Bank in order to prevent the feasibility of the Palestinian state,” said Shaul Arieli, a former colonel in the Israeli Army who was heavily involved in the Oslo process and opposes efforts to block Palestinian sovereignty.
The knock-on effect has been a sharp increase in the displacement of Palestinian herders.
So far this year, three entire Palestinian communities — housing roughly 370 residents — have abandoned their villages, citing growing intimidation by nearby Israeli settlers, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. More than 700 residents from other communities have also fled to safer areas since last year, the office said.
The abandoned Palestinian villages, which were visited by reporters from The New York Times, were simple, impoverished places with no streets or shops. They were small clusters of one-story buildings, shacks made from corrugated iron and tents that were scattered haphazardly across mountainsides, erected without construction permits and disconnected from mains water and electricity.
But like many remote Palestinian communities, they were strategically located. Their residents and wandering herds maintained a sprawling presence across large expanses of the West Bank and made it harder to build Israeli settlements in key places.
Now, only a few buildings remain. The residents took most of the metal walls with them to build new homes closer to Palestinian cities. On recent visits, lizards scuttled through the belongings left behind — a jar of pills, a schoolbook filled with a child’s handwriting, a guide to creating a computer password.
“Imagine what it is to leave a place you’ve lived in for 40 years,” said Mr. Mleihat, the herder who fled Al Baqa.
The reason for their departure is partly economic. The settlers’ herds graze on grass that was previously eaten by only the Palestinians’ sheep, creating a scarcity. They also block access to springs and pools that the Palestinians’ sheep could once easily reach. With less fodder and water, the Palestinians find it harder to subsist.
But mainly, the Palestinians say they are leaving out of fear. In interviews, Palestinians from four hamlets recounted how the settler herders frequently entered their villages, carrying guns, and screaming at and insulting the residents.
After the settlers set up camp near Mr. Mleihat’s village in June, he said, groups of three or four settlers entered his small home, armed with guns, in the small hours of the morning.
“They entered our front door several times, trying to imitate the way the Israeli Army raid homes,” Mr. Mleihat said, adding, “They wanted us to attack them so the security services would have a reason to arrest us.”
In some villages, the settlers smashed windows and stole animals and farming tools, according to the Palestinian herders and Israeli rights activists. In at least two instances this year, the settlers beat the Palestinians, requiring them to be hospitalized.
For some settlers, the Palestinians are exaggerating the situation. They say that any violence against the Palestinian herders pales in comparison to the deadly Arab attacks on Israeli civilians: More than 30 Israelis have been killed this year, the highest toll in nearly two decades. Two Palestinians have been killed during settler attacks; more than 180 others were killed in other episodes across the West Bank, often during clashes between militants and the Israeli Army.
Many of the displaced are from seminomadic Bedouin communities that very rarely own the land they live on, built their homes without planning permits, and sometimes migrate around the territory out of choice.
“No one told them to leave, nobody forced them to leave, and nobody knows why they left,” said Eliana Passentin, a spokeswoman for the Binyamin council, which provides services to the Israeli settlements in the area where most of the Palestinian displacement occurred this year.
But often, the settlers do not need to physically harm the Palestinian herders in order to encourage them to leave, said Arik Ascherman, an Israeli rabbi who runs a support network for several endangered Palestinian villages.
Violence by settlers across the wider West Bank is at an all-time high, according to United Nations data. In more populated Palestinian areas, Israeli arsonists have set fires to hundreds of homes and cars so far this year.
So when the settlers pitch camp near a Palestinian hamlet, said Rabbi Ascherman, “their very presence strikes fear.”