By Jamil Dababat
NABLUS, Monday, February 27, 2023 – Huwara, a town in the north of the occupied West Bank, was almost entirely set ablaze last night. Its existence depended on the extent of the fires that engulfed large portions of its neighborhoods.
Located to the south of the occupied West Bank city of Nablus and surrounded by lush green slopes, the small town suffered an unprecedented disaster the whole night.
The town made headlines and became the talk of the Palestinian people everywhere as its residents, who described last night as the most challenging time in their lives, battled the raging fires.
When morning came and people went out of their homes to check on their town, they were shocked and in disbelief at what they saw had become of their town.
Dozens of armed Israeli settlers, protected by soldiers, descended on Hawara town and set ablaze homes, shops, cars and other property. The whole town was consumed in flames in a short period of time.
Scenes of the raging fires were broadcast live via mobile phones.
“They were moving from one vehicle to another,” said Hassan Odeh, whose house was attacked by the settlers and who saw with his own eyes the settlers torching some 15 vehicles parked there. The video footage showing the fierce fires that consumed the vehicles and were about to catch hold of the house was live-streamed and shared on TikTok and other social media platforms.
Odeh and his sons attempted to fend off the attack, but the fires quickly spread to the area. “We had to choose between two unavoidable painful choices. We had to choose between putting off the fires raging in the vehicles and preventing the fire from reaching the house,” said the man, who was defending his 15-member family who took shelter in a room whose windows were smashed.
People watched as their houses were set ablaze without being able to do anything. The Palestinian Civil Defense vehicles and crews attempting to reach the disaster scene were attacked.
Director of the Civil Defense’s Public Relations Department Nael Azzeh said the Civil Defense crews in the southern Nablus villages and towns extinguished settler fires in two houses, including one inhabited, stores, a vehicle and an electrical appliance store.
When the settlers commenced the fires, several firefighter vehicles responded to the fires but were intercepted and vandalized by the settlers.
Large throngs of settlers gathered on the outskirts of the town, heeding a call to attack the town before they barged into it and started to torch dozens of cars and homes in it.
The town residents were heard screaming for help through social media platforms, but any action or move to help them was precarious. Not only was the town swarming with armed settlers, but large Israeli army reinforcements were deployed throughout it.
A person who was streaming live scenes of the town set ablaze summed up the scene in two words: “Huwara is ablaze.”
All the roads leading to the town were sealed off. Even as a few people managed to make their way to their villages and houses through dusty and rough mountain roads, they took the risk of being killed or detained for long periods of time just like what happened with residents of the cluster of towns and villages, east of Nablus.
The fires continued to rage for hours in the town as people feared a pogrom was about to happen in their town.
Throughout the previous years, torching Palestinian property was the fastest type of weapon settlers used to attack the cluster of villages, south of Nablus.
The Huwara fires marked the fiercest fires set to Palestinian property by Israeli settlers in past years. The town had its largest share of fires started by settlers this night.
Within the first few hours after the fires were started, Ilham Salameh, 22, was watching first-hand the scores of burning houses in her town. As time passed, large clouds of smoke billowed into the sky.
“I saw them setting fire to trees. It is true that we got used to their attacks, but this is the first time that I see such large-scale fires,” she said.
Salameh, a media student, had to start collecting information about what happened in the town in the early morning hours and wanted to practice her profession from inside the houses of her neighbors.
An hour before nightfall, settlers stormed the town and controlled the main roads. They started to torch inhabited and uninhabited houses on the outskirts of the town.
When darkness fell, hundreds of settlers descended upon the town as the roads were empty from residents and passers-by and set fire to more than one location.
The paramedics operated beyond endurance as there was a huge number of casualties. For Ahmad Jibril, Director of Red Crescent’s Ambulance Department, who witnessed the pogrom, “that was a very difficult night.”
In the morning, the town residents looked weary, but not broken. Some stood in front of their burned property looking to the horizon and unable to describe what befell them.
Attempting to sum up what happened, Odeh said: “There were four children in the house and the youngest was only 4 months old. We tried the whole night to prevent the fires from reaching them. They beat me on the back and attacked my son as we both tried to prevent them from approaching the children, fracturing his arm.”
The wave of solidarity with the town residents provided them with optimism and reinforced their resilience that night. Nevertheless, accessing the damage was seemingly an impossible task as the roads were closed and under the settlers and army’s full control.
Incitement against the town reached its peak this night. Once deputy head of the so-called Shomron Regional Council David Ben Zion tweeted in support of wiping Huwara from the face of the earth, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich liked the tweet.
For Palestinians, this is certainly an official Israeli call to literally eliminate Huwara, a call that is reminiscent of what happened during the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages at the hands of Jewish gangs in 1948.
When children were rushed by their parents to a safe room away from danger, it marked the first time they faced disasters in real life.
“We moved our children from the burning houses to safer areas. We evacuated at least three houses,” Jibril said. “The fires posed an imminent threat to the lives of the children and the elderly who could not move. The rescue and evacuation operation lasted until 1:30 AM,” he added.
Some of the town residents say that the worst scenario of settler attacks awaits them, referring to the future waves of settler attacks involving the torching of property.
Several hours after sunrise, the large clouds of smoke were still rising in columns from the burning houses into the sky.
Referring to repeated attempts by settlers to torch his house after they set fire to his car repair workshop, Odeh, who was about to go to the hospital, said: “They were trying to jump over walls to burn us.”
The name of the town, Huwara, is associated with the nearby Israeli army checkpoint, named after the town.
Throughout the previous 20 years, the Israeli army has never once left the checkpoint. The southern entrance of the town is also flanked by another checkpoint, known as Za‘tara checkpoint, named after the nearby village, which has been a frequent target of settler attacks and where they last night killed Sameh Hamdallah Mahmoud Aqtash, 37.
Za‘tara and the surrounding villages mourned Aqtash, describing him as one who loved life, helped others and organized car rallies. He was in Turkey two weeks ago, volunteering with a rescue team to save lives after the earthquake, and returned home only several days ago to be killed by the settlers.