New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. World
  2. Middle East
13 March 2024

War and the West Bank

Settler violence in the occupied territory is intensifying, and Palestinian deaths are mounting.

By Megan Gibson

 When motorists travelling on the Begin Boulevard, the roughly ten-mile stretch of highway that runs north of Jerusalem to the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, see an opening in the oppressive gridlock, they take it with urgency. In a region where roadblocks and military checkpoints bring traffic to a grinding standstill, the opportunity to move forward must be taken. 

Yet for Palestinians, moving around the West Bank has become even more difficult since Hamas’s brutal attack on 7 October, as the Israeli military tightens its control over the occupied territory. “The use of main roads throughout the entire West Bank is probably 15 per cent of what it used to be [before the war],” Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, said quietly as we sat at a table in his office in central Ramallah one recent morning. “The West Bank is at boiling point. The conditions for a third intifada are being created.”

While most attention has been on Israel’s ferocious offensive in Gaza, over the past five months Israeli security forces have also been extending their presence here in the West Bank. The authorities have increased the number of roadblocks for Palestinians, in many cases barring them completely from accessing main roads. In addition to the 600 security checkpoints that already existed in the West Bank, 100 new barriers – so-called iron gates – have been erected. These have not only further limited the movement of Palestinians, but have damaged the West Bank’s economy, hindering trade and production, while also preventing many Palestinians from going to work; 170,000 labourers have been barred from entering Israel.

By the end of 2023, unemployment in the West Bank had hit 29 per cent, according to the World Bank. Just a drive through Ramallah, in heavy traffic, reveals the scale of the crisis. Shop after shop is shuttered as midday approaches. Men idly stand on pavements, smoking cigarettes. “What the army is doing, in seeking to prevent an explosion, is basically creating economic conditions that are very suitable to explosion,” said Shikaki.

At the same time, Israeli settlers have seized the opportunity, under the cover of war, to establish more illegal outposts throughout the West Bank, building new roads to connect them to existing settlements. The expansion of outposts has been accompanied by a rise in “settler violence”, which encapsulates everything from torching cars and houses to beatings and driving people out of their homes at gunpoint. Settler violence had already increased in the nine months preceding Hamas’s attack, while in the same time period 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces – already the highest number since the UN began keeping records in 2005.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The violence has only escalated: according to the UN, in the five months since 7 October, 413 Palestinians have been killed by security forces in the territory, including 107 children. Reports of settler attacks on Palestinians have also increased. In one incident, in the days after Hamas’s terror attack, Israeli settlers and soldiers reportedly detained and tortured three Palestinian activists. Israel’s government has also issued 10,000 rifles to civilians, many of them in settlements.

At the age of 70, Shikaki is one of the leading scholars on Palestinian state-building and public opinion. He has conducted more than 200 polls among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank over the past 30 years. When he describes the West Bank as “boiling”, one should take notice. Ramadan, which began on 10 March, is invariably a period of unrest and volatility in the region, even in times of so-called peace. As the Israel Defense Forces prepare to launch a ground incursion into Rafah, where as many as 1.4 million displaced people are gathered along the Egyptian border in Gaza, there are fears that Palestinians are reaching a breaking point. As Shikaki put it, “Since the end of the Second Intifada, the West Bank has never seen the kind of destruction, the kind of violence that we see now.”

Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, after it seized the territory as well as the old city of Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War. After the military victory, Jewish settlements were established throughout the region, some with financial backing from the Israeli government. International law deems these settlements illegal, which Israel disputes; settlers and some Israeli government officials believe that Jews have a historical right to the land. The Oslo Accords, agreed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993, divided the West Bank into three distinct areas, which were to fall under Israeli control, Palestinian control or joint control, and banned the construction of new settlements. But the number of settlements continued to grow. As outposts have hardened into permanent settlements, Palestinians have found themselves increasingly restricted, confined to ever smaller pockets of land, shrinking glaciers in an expanding sea of Israeli control.

The frequency of attacks by settlers in the West Bank has increased since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in November 2022, in coalition with far-right parties. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish National Front party and national security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist leader of the Religious Zionist Party, whom Netanyahu named finance minister, have both stoked tensions with inflammatory statements and policies. Smotrich, who once declared that the Palestinian village of Huwara on the West Bank “needs to be erased” by Israel, was granted authority over land purchases in the occupied territory in February 2023, after which he approved the building of thousands of new settler homes. In the days following 7 October, it was Ben-Gvir who announced that the government was purchasing rifles for civilians. (Ben-Gvir and Smotrich both live in settlements in the West Bank.)

Yet few believe that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich act without Netanyahu’s support. Over lunch in central Ramallah, in an elegant but empty restaurant with sweeping views across the city, Elias Zananiri, a former adviser to Fatah, the secular nationalist rival to Hamas, denounced “stupid” Ben-Gvir. But, he added, it is the Israeli prime minister who bears most responsibility for raising tensions. “I blame Netanyahu, because the best thing for him to do when he formed this government was to bring in people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Because he will always have the pretext that he can’t do anything [to help Palestinians] because of these two guys.”

Zananiri is not alone in this belief. Where settler violence was once blamed on lone-wolf-style attacks, many Palestinians believe that settlers work in tandem with the Israeli authorities. “The link is between the formation of Israel’s most right-wing government, the empowerment of the settlers and the rise in settler violence,” said Shikaki. “It seems that the army and the police and the settlers are acting in unison. For Palestinians, [it seems] the army is either complicit or is actually using the settlers in order to evict Palestinians in certain parts.”

It’s not just the Israeli leadership that is betraying ordinary Palestinians. Increasingly, many regard Palestinian leadership – namely, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, and its president, Mahmoud Abbas – as having failed. Abbas, who is 88, is considered by many to be an ineffective, corrupt leader. A stark “92 per cent of West Bankers now demand the resignation of our boss”, said Shikaki. “If elections were held today, Abbas does not have a chance of winning.”

Support for Hamas has increased in the West Bank since 7 October, according to Shikaki’s polling, even among secular nationalists. Many Palestinians get their news from media sources that, he said, haven’t reported on the rape of civilians and the other atrocities committed during the 7 October attack. “[There is] no doubt people supported what Hamas did,” said Shikaki, because “most Palestinians say they have not seen videos of atrocities. But they see other Palestinians suffering and see Hamas defending Palestinians.” (In Gaza, more have seen videos of the atrocities – according to Shikaki’s research, support for Hamas is lower there than in the West Bank.)

The tensions in the West Bank have not yet ignited. But, as the holy month of Ramadan continues, security forces and citizens in East Jerusalem were braced for an outbreak of violence, especially if harsh restrictions were to be imposed on Muslim holy sites, such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Over breakfast in Jerusalem, the city’s deputy mayor, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, said that the mood in the city leading up to Ramadan was “tense but calm”, though police were still weighing up what security measures they would impose on Jerusalem’s Old City, which typically attracts hundreds of thousands of Muslims during the holy month. Though Hassan-Nahoum said that Ramadan always draws a certain number of “hooligans” to the city, support for Hamas among Arabs in Israel and East Jerusalem was low; after 7 October, she said, “they stood up and said, ‘not in my name’”.

Senior officials in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government believe that the war will open an opportunity to pursue the deradicalisation of Palestinians – in Gaza, once Hamas has been “militarily destroyed”, and the West Bank. But there is no partner for peace, as they see it. Nor is there debate in the government about the need to deradicalise extremist settlers or, for that matter, to improve the everyday lives of West Bankers. Without that discussion, the prospect of moving towards a peaceful settlement seems impossible. Seen from the West Bank, a two-state solution remains a chimera.

A portion of the travel costs for this trip was paid by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout

[See also: What’s stopping a two-state solution?]

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article : , , , ,

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul