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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War
The fate of the West Bank is inevitably linked to the conflict in Gaza; and indeed Israeli crackdowns and settler expansion and violence in the West Bank is a sign of an explicit strategy.
Riham Al Maqdama
November 25, 2023
CAIRO — Since “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” began on October 7, the question has been asked: What will happen in the West Bank?
A review of Israel’s positions and rhetoric since 1967 has always referred to the Gaza Strip as a “problem,” while the West Bank was the “opportunity,” so that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005 was even referred to as an attempt to invest state resources in Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.
This separation between Gaza and the West Bank in the military and political doctrine of the occupation creates major challenges, repercussions of which have intensified over the last three years.
Settlement expansion in the West Bank and the continued restrictions of the occupation there constitute the “land” and Gaza is the “siege” of the challenge Palestinians face. The opposition to the West Bank expansion is inseparable from the resistance in Gaza, including those who are in Israeli prisons, and some who have turned to take up arms through new resistance groups.
“What happened in Gaza is never separated from the West Bank, but is related to it in cause and effect,” said Ahmed Azem, professor of international relations at Qatar University. “The name of the October 7 operation is the Al-Aqsa Flood, referring to what is happening in Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank.”
The West Bank constitutes 21% of the area of historic Palestine, with a population of approximately 3.25 million people, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Settlers, gates and sand barriers
The Oslo Accords between Palestinians and Israelis represented the starting point for the formation of the Palestinian Authority as an administrative entity governing the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo also divided the West Bank land into areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, areas shared between Israeli and Palestinian control, and areas fully under Israeli sovereignty, which in turn included Israeli settlements.
According to the Colonization and War Resistance Commission, the number of settlers in the West Bank is estimated at 726,000 in 2022. Checkpoints and barriers are spread throughout the West Bank, with 593 barriers according to the Colonization and War Resistance Commission in 2022, between permanent and temporary, whether in the form of gates or military and sand barriers.
Everything could explode at any moment.
Last June, in a new development of settlement policy, the right-wing Israeli government delegated its Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to facilitate and accelerate settlement operations. Commenting on the plan, Smotrich, who lives near a settlement in the northern West Bank, said: “The construction boom in the West Bank and across our country continues. As promised, today we are progressing with the construction of thousands of new units in Judea and Samaria… We will continue to develop settlements and strengthen Israel’s control over the region.”
Back in 2017, Smotrich also presented the “ Decisiveness Plan”, which is based on the belief that historic Palestine is a land for Israelis, and various tools are available to resolve this conflict, even if it is ultimately focused on the displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank.
A child raises the Palestinian flag in the West Bank.
Sheikh Jarrah turning point
The world turned to the settlement policy in May 2021 when the occupation forces tried to evacuate more than 20 Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, east of Jerusalem, to house a number of settlers there. Protests in support of the people of Sheikh Jarrah erupted in all areas of historic Palestine, the most prominent of which were the demonstrations of residents of the occupied territories in 1948, which were concluded with Israel’s renewed 11-day assault on Gaza.
The events of Sheikh Jarrah are still on Israel’s mind today, which led National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, at a press conference on October 11, to state that he directed the police chief to prepare for the scenario of a Guardian of the Walls 2 operation, referring to the name Israel gave to the 2021 Gaza war. Ben Gvir also stated the next day on X (formerly Twitter) that the first 4,000 of 20,000 weapons were purchased out of about 20 thousand pieces that will be purchased in the coming days, which were distributed to the settlers under the pretext of defending themselves in case of war.
Ziad Hasiba, a researcher on the Arab-Israeli conflict from the West Bank, told Mada Masr, commenting on the arming of settlers: "Since the beginning of the events, more than 1,000 weapons have been distributed to the settlers, and this is like giving the settlers an excuse to do 'what you can to protect yourselves."" Even the shooting instructions in the West Bank differed, and they tended to kill anything that moved. All this means that everything could explode at any moment.
What happened a few days ago in the village of Qusra is a vivid example, where three Palestinians resident were killed during confrontations with Jewish settlers — then two days later during the funeral, two mourners were killed.
“I think the seeds of the West Bank’s conflagration will be through confrontations with the settlers,” Hasiba said.
So far, 218 people have been killed in the West Bank since October 7, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Settler terrorism is part of this ongoing killing, for example, on October 28, settlers killed 40-year-old Palestinian citizen Bilal Saleh, while harvesting his olives.
This is not the first time that Israeli settlers have killed Palestinians, but the overall situation and the message of impunity coming from the Israeli government for this type of violence is likely to increase the number of killings.
With this violence, the Israeli settlers achieve another goal beyond the simple expansion of control over the land, explains Ibrahim Rabaia, a political science researcher at Birzeit University in Ramallah: “This is the Ethnic cleansing of areas in the wider range and form, and thus emptying them to the maximum degree of Palestinian presence in order to prepare for their annexation.”
The Israeli forces see the current war as a chance to try to eliminate the rising resistance in the West Bank.
The latest attacks by the occupation forces in the village of Zanuta, south of Hebron, which is under full Israeli security and administrative supervision, caused the displacement of dozens of citizens, after the settlers demolished their tents and houses, and uprooted their trees.
Ziad Hasiba explains the connection between events and places, the siege of Gaza and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank over the past three years. “The last war in a comprehensive sense on the Gaza Strip was during Sheikh Jarrah’s 11-day eruption. In the last battle we did not have this number of armed groups in the West Bank. Now these armed groups in the West Bank are available, and we are talking about approximately 253 shootings within the first week of the Al-Aqsa Flood. This number has been considered relatively high in the past,” he said. “It is true that until now it does not constitute a milestone, but it could explode at any moment. Any simple event could turn the table.”
Palestinians inspect the site where the Israeli military struck what it said was a hideout for militants, in the Balata refugee camp, West Bank.
Speaking about the West Bank resistance, Azem says that October 7 represented the defeat of the Israeli fortifications, as well as the escape of the prisoners: “The West Bank has formed brigades and resistance groups, which have developed qualitatively and quantitatively over the past two years.”
Political analyst Hani Al-Masri explained that the issue of prisoners was central to the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, noting that a large number of Hamas leaders who launched the attack “were released in the recent prisoner exchange deal, and they are the ones who pledged and committed themselves to the liberation of the prisoners.”
Armed actions in the West Bank began in 2021 on an almost regular basis, with seeds originating from the northern West Bank in the form of groups such as Areen al-Ousoud, the Jenin Brigade, the Jericho experience in Aqbat Jabr camp, and the Tulkarem Brigade in Nur Shams camp.
Rabaia, the Birzeit University political science researcher, said that the Israeli forces see the current war as a chance to try to eliminate the rising resistance in the West Bank. “This means that any attempt at military action in the West Bank can be easily targeted because movements are exposed on the streets,” he said. “And what’s also important is that one of the main actors in these operations is the Hamas movement, whose forces in the West Bank are largely imprisoned. And of course its focus now is on fighting its main battle in Gaza.”
As the Al-Aqsa Flood began, arrests in the West Bank increased significantly, with more than 2,150 (to be updated to 3000 now according to her source) Palestinian men and women arrested by Israeli occupation, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, dozens of whom are cadres from Hamas. Among the detainees was Sheikh Omar Daraghmeh, who was killed in the occupation prisons about two weeks after his arrest, despite testimony from his relatives that he was in good health. Prisoner Arafat Hamdan was also killed two days after his arrest.
According to human rights organizations, detainees are subjected to many violations, including beatings and abuse, cutting off electricity from cells, preventing visits from lawyers and families, providing poor meals, and closing clinics in prisons.
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