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21 December 2023

“They want monsters” 

This has been the most violent year on record for Palestinians in the West Bank.

By Alona Ferber

Tareq Ghazzawi was trying to get to his home in Khirbet Qalqas, near Hebron in the West Bank, when he was shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers.   

The tense moments before the soldiers shot him on 5 December were captured on a bystander’s phone. Ghazzawi, a Palestinian man who reportedly has a disability and doesn’t pose any clear danger, is seen merely attempting to walk past the soldiers, before one of them shoots and he falls to the ground. There are children in the crowd watching. According to the Palestinian Wafa news agency, Ghazzawi was hospitalised.  

Such scenes are only becoming more commonplace. As the war in Gaza drags on, more than 18,000 Palestinians civilians have been killed in the Strip so far, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. This year has also been the most violent for West Bank Palestinians in 18 years. From the beginning of the year to 6 October, 192 Palestinians, including 40 children, were killed by Israeli forces – already more than any other year since 2005 (which is when the UN began to record such deaths, according to Human Rights Watch). Since 7 October, Israeli forces have killed 260 Palestinians and wounded 3,200, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.  (The number of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the West Bank is at a 15-year high, too, with a reported 24 civilians and four security forces personnel killed.) 

Empowered by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, settler violence and harassment of Palestinians has also dramatically increased. In 2023, there were an average of three incidents of violence or harassment recorded per day, compared to two in 2022. In one incident in February this year, Israeli settlers rampaged through the village of Huwara, in a “revenge attack” after Palestinian gunmen killed two settlers. Hundreds were wounded and one man was killed in what was described by the IDF’s West Bank commander as a “pogrom”.  After 7 October, it emerged that IDF troops had previously been redeployed from the Gaza envelope area of southern Israel to the West Bank because of tensions there.  

Since Hamas’s attack on Israel, settler violence in the West Bank has more than doubled, according to UN figures, reaching the highest rate since 2005. Settlers have killed eight Palestinians in recent months, including a child. The spiking violence has prompted the US to take the unprecedented step of imposing actual sanctions, rather than condemnations, on settlers. After Joe Biden’s warning in a Washington Post op-ed in November that the US would act against “extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank”, on 5 December the US banned settlers implicated in attacks against Palestinians, forbidding them from entering the country. The UK has followed suit.

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The war in Gaza has “intensified and escalated” a longer-term trend of violence, explains Hagar Shezaf, the West Bank correspondent for Haaretz. More guns have been distributed to settlers by the state in recent weeks, partly because some settlers are army reservists who have been called up to serve and are positioned in the West Bank, and partly because IDF weapons are distributed to those in West Bank areas that are deemed dangerous. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister and one of the cabinet’s most extreme members, has also relaxed restrictions on accessing guns. On 4 December Ben-Gvir said that there have been more than 260,000 new applications for a firearm since 7 October. This policy has been controversial even amongst Israeli authorities. The director of the firearms department in the defence ministry resigned over the loosening of restrictions this month. 

The increased availability of guns, says Shezaf, has resulted in more frightening and explicit attacks. While Israeli authorities did little to stop settler violence earlier this year, “more than ever [after 7 October] they are not focused or willing to put their foot down,” she adds. “I have published recordings of someone who pretended to be from the Shin Bet [security services] telling the Palestinians, ‘you have to leave your house’. We’ve seen a lot of reports of Palestinians saying a group of armed men came in the middle of the night and told them you have 24 hours to leave [their homes].”  

In November a settler campaign tried to block Palestinians from harvesting olives, a seasonal tradition central to the livelihood of many in the West Bank.  In one incident in a northern West Bank village in early November, an armed settler threatened Palestinians harvesting olives, saying he would shoot them. Later that day, villagers found flyers posted warning residents of a “Nakba”, the Arabic term for catastrophe, which Palestinians use to refer to establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians that came with it. Such harassment has forced Palestinian herding communities from their homes. According to the most recent UN figures, since 7 October roughly 1,014 people, including 388 children have been displaced by settler violence and restricted access to land.  

Watch: The New Statesman podcast discusses the potential political implications of Keir Starmers defence of Israel.

Issa Amro is a prominent activist from the city of Hebron, a strange place divided by military occupation; it is part city, part ghost town. Amro and the other 35,000 Palestinians living in H2, the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron – H1 is under control of the Palestinian Authority – must pass through military checkpoints simply to go to the shops. Under the 1995 Oslo II Accord, the West Bank was divided into three areas: A is under full Palestinian control, B is under joint Israeli and Palestinian control, and C – around 73 per cent of the territory – is under Israeli control. Amro lives in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood of Hebron, under military presence which is there to protect around 700 Israeli settlers.  

A decades-long advocate for non-violent resistance – his house, he tells me, is known as “beit ha smolan” or “the house of the leftist” because he often meets with Israeli anti-occupation and peace activists – Amro has been targeted on numerous occasions by both settlers and soldiers.  On 7 October Amro was tortured and beaten for ten hours “by soldiers and settlers in an army uniform” in the Tel Rumeida military base. Later that month, he received an eviction order for his Hebron home from the army after hosting an Israeli peace activist and a foreign journalist, which he appealed. “Now I live in my house with fear, with violence,” he says. He has taken precautions, putting bricks in his windows, and adding a two-meter-high fence around his garden to protect himself from attacks.    

He is being targeted, he says, because Israel wants “to shut off all voices of Palestinians who are doing outreach to the international community”, telling a story that contradicts the official Israeli narrative, which he believes paints Palestinians as a danger. “The majority of Palestinians are not violent,” he says. “The majority of Palestinians are not supporting any party. The majority of Palestinians are neutral. The majority of Palestinians want to live in peace, in justice and freedom and equality.”   

Amro says that the threat is now much worse. “The soldiers themselves are very, very violent and they are acting with supremacy to us. They don’t deal with us as humans.” He adds that now the settlers are using the “opportunity of the war in Gaza to act politically in the West Bank”.  

After the 7 October attack, the military imposed a curfew on some Palestinian neighbourhoods in Hebron, ostensibly as part of its counter-terror operations, which was reportedly partially lifted after two weeks.  Israeli rights groups have called on the army to lift the curfew, which forbids Palestinian families from leaving their homes except on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and then for just one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening – a total of six hours a week. In November the Association for Civil Rights in Israel released a statement stating that, “Individuals from the Jewish settlements [in H2] take advantage of the forced absence of Palestinians from public spaces to seize control, damage property, break into and harm homes and shops.” The IDF has said its measures are justified as terror attacks have increased in the West Bank since 7 October, and that the military is conducting counter-terror operations there. 

With the war ongoing, and violence surging in the West Bank, “there is a huge amount of fear,” says Amro. Palestinians are worried that they will be driven out of their homes, transferred to Jordan or killed. “And on the other hand,” he adds, “people are crying with what is going on in Gaza. They hear the airplanes; they hear the jets bombing Gaza.”   

Some have claimed that Hamas’ 7 October attack has set the Palestinian cause back. Amro disagrees. The violence against Palestinians began long before then. “I see occupation and apartheid as the main problem and the main cause of violence,” he says. “They are creating monsters, and they want monsters.”  

[See also: What the left gets wrong about Gaza and “decolonisation”]

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