As Gaza war rages, West Bank faces violent collective punishment

12:00 Oct 19 2023 Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) الأراضي الفلسطينية West Bank and Jerusalem

With all eyes on Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are beginning to seethe, caught between outrage at the strip's destruction, spiraling Israeli settler and army violence, and silence from their leaders.

By Fatima AbdulKarim for 972Mag
October 19, 2023

On Tuesday night, the initial shock, mourning, and sorrow that has overshadowed the occupied West Bank since Oct. 7 evolved into anger and outrage, predominantly directed at the Palestinian Authority (PA), following the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. Tensions flared as protests against the PA’s stance on Gaza turned violent; PA security forces responded with gunfire and tear gas, prompting militants in Jenin to open fire in turn. A 12-year-old, Razan Nasrallah, was killed in the city in the resulting clashes, and several others were injured.

Although the Al-Ahli Hospital bombing was the immediate catalyst for the protests, it awoke long-running popular discontent and dissatisfaction with the PA’s silence on the ongoing war in Gaza. Protesters shouted slogans calling for the Palestinian regime to be toppled, and for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to step down.

That Abbas walked away from his planned meeting in Jordan with U.S. President Joe Biden, and instead returned immediately from Amman to Ramallah after the hospital explosion, was not enough to placate the popular uproar. Several dozen Palestinians in Nablus continued the protests on Wednesday, and were met by tear gas and gunfire from PA officers, bringing the number of injuries, according to medical sources, to around 40. The PA’s health ministry has not reported the injuries resulting from the protests.

Prior to the hospital bombing, there had been an almost tangible stillness in Palestinian cities in the West Bank. On the heels of the Hamas-led attack against Israel on Oct. 7, and Israel’s devastating response in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army has imposed a stringent lockdown and movement restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied territory.

The lockdown, which is intended to keep the West Bank firmly segregated as Israel carries out its war, has made Palestinians here feel as if they are reliving the days of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s — a glimpse of which was also seen Tuesday night. Back then, as today, the Israeli military imposed a cantonized strategy across the West Bank, closing off roads with makeshift gates and checkpoints to separate rural villages from larger towns and cities, and those cities from one another. The Israeli authorities also banned Palestinians from driving on many roads connecting the northern and southern West Bank, most infamously through what is known locally as the “Container Checkpoint” near Bethlehem, which is still in operation to this day.

As a result, a sense of terror and exhaustion has taken root among many Palestinians in the West Bank these past two weeks, a consequence not only of the lockdown but also of the profound changes that have occurred this month, which seem to have fundamentally altered the political landscape.

Since Hamas’ attack, the number of extrajudicial killings, displacements of local communities, and settler attacks in the West Bank have skyrocketed, and are almost certain to go unpunished. As of Thursday, at least 75 Palestinians have been killed and over 1,300 injured in the West Bank since Oct. 7, according to the PA’s health ministry. Six of the victims were killed by armed settlers in Burqa and At-Tuwani.

he images of victims and mass destruction have left indelible scars on Palestinians’ collective memory. With over 3,500 killed in Gaza and an entire population on the brink of what many fear could become a forced exodus, Palestinians across the region are living in perpetual fear. And the PA’s absence in this crisis raises significant questions about its people’s future.

An even deadlier year
Before Oct. 7, Palestinians in the West Bank were already facing repeated Israeli military raids and punitive measures in the wake of renewed Palestinian resistance from cities like Jenin and Nablus. A proliferation of arms in Palestinian society amid the PA’s weakening control has further fed the collective anxiety.

In addition, Palestinian communities and bypass roads, particularly in Areas C and B, have become increasingly vulnerable to escalating settler violence, often conducted in the presence of soldiers who either fail to intervene or, occasionally, join in. The resulting atmosphere of persistent apprehension is especially palpable under the Israeli army’s current lockdown — a closure which does not apply to Israeli settlers.

“This will lead to isolation of the [Palestinian] villages and towns, and thus free rein for settlers in the area,” said Hani Odeh, the mayor of Qusra, a village outside Nablus. Last week saw the killings of four residents of Qusra, including a child, by armed settlers and soldiers. The next day, at the funeral, settlers killed a father and son.

At the same time, the Israeli military’s long-term open-fire and shoot-to-kill policies in the West Bank have exacerbated what has already been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2006, with at least 255 killed since January. For example, on Oct. 12, just outside the village of Silwad, east of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers at a flying checkpoint opened fire and killed 37-year-old Randa Ajaj and injured her son, Ismail.

The threat of lethal force looms large, turning routine activities into potentially life-threatening encounters. Salam Saadeh, 33, a resident of Ramallah, says she is “afraid to sneeze” near the military checkpoints that she must pass through on her weekly commute to Nablus to visit her elderly parents. “I’m avoiding trips to Nablus now, because I’m afraid it’s becoming more risky,” she said.

Meanwhile, the town of Huwara — which was targeted by a mass settler pogrom in February, and by regular attacks since — has been facing a week-long military closure of its vital commercial and residential street, forcing residents to request permission from the army even for basic tasks. Huwara’s local municipality, including its mayor Mo’een Dmeidi, has had to coordinate with the army to provide for its community.

“After lengthy efforts, we managed to get permission for the families living on the main road to cross the street on foot to throw out their garbage,” Dmeidi said, illustrating how even the simplest things could not be done without the army’s consent. The threat of settlers in the area also still looms, despite the heavy military presence. “It’s an unbelievable situation of collective punishment,” he added.

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