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Gaza carnage turns West Bank into tinder box ready to explode

Ben Lynfield
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Gaza carnage turns West Bank into tinder box ready to explode

Published: 10 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

A spike in Palestinian deaths, increased army raids, settler provocation and seething anger at Gaza point to an eruption of violence.

Settler violence that removes villages, increased raids and sweeps by the IDF and outrage at the enormous death toll in Gaza have created a combustible mix in the occupied West Bank.

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fifth week, Retired General Amos Gilad, a former senior Israeli defence ministry policymaker, told The Jewish Independent that security officials are still concerned the West Bank could erupt into a new front of the Gaza war. At the same time, a leading Palestinian analyst told The Jewish Independent that Israeli policies and the Gaza carnage appear to be pushing towards an “explosion” in the West Bank.

“If things continue with escalation in the West Bank and massacres in Gaza, we could go to an explosion, a big explosion,” Jihad Harb, former senior analyst at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said by phone from Ramallah.

“I can’t say when this explosion will be,” he added. The war began on October 7 when members of Hamas armed wing invaded Israel from Gaza and killed about 1400 people in a string of attacks, massacres and atrocities. They also took more than 200 people back to Gaza as hostages on the deadliest and most devastating day ever for Israel.

Its relentless bombardments in Gaza have been accompanied by arrest raids in the West Bank targeting Hamas supporters and others. Harb said that constant army raids, which have fuelled a sharp rise in fatalities, “will lead other youths to join confrontations”.

Before the war, the settlers were gradually trying to make us leave. Now they are trying to do it all at once.

Basil Adra, resident of Tuwani village

Since October 7, 136 Palestinians, including 43 children, have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and eight, including one child, have been killed by settlers, according to the United Nations Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs. Two Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. The tallies run through November 4.

The total represents more than a third of all Palestinian fatalities in 2023. Nearly 50 percent of the fatalities came during search and arrest operations and 35 percent during demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza, OCHA said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian herders continue to be forced to flee from their communities in the south Hebron hills and other parts of the West Bank due to a sharp escalation of settler violence since the start of the war.  At least 15 communities have been erased since the beginning of the war, resulting in the forcible transferring of some 850 Palestinians, with many more expected, according to Palestinian victims, Israeli activists and human rights groups.

“People are afraid and worried,” said Basil Adra, a resident of Tuwani village, whose cousin Zakaria was shot by a settler at point blank range in the stomach on October 13 in an incident filmed by Basil. “The settlers have all the power and can do anything they want. Before the war, they were gradually trying to make us leave. Now they are trying to do it all at once.”

“They are closing entire villages, cutting electricity and preventing people to go to cities to buy food for their sheep,” he said.

In response to a query from The Jewish Independent, local settler council head Yochai Damri denied that settler violence is a problem or had caused the Palestinians to leave. “This is real nonsense,” he said about what is turning into the biggest displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank since the period immediately after the 1967 war. The fear among Palestinians and rights groups is that in the climate of the Gaza war, the idea of larger displacements can gain further traction.

“In the absence of significant international pressure to calm things down, this will just accelerate,” said Yehuda Shaul, co-director of Ofek-the Israeli Center for Public Affairs, a left-wing think-tank.

Meanwhile, the total number of Palestinians detained as security prisoners in the West Bank rose by 1512 over the last month of war, according to the rights group HaMoked.

General Gilad said the arrests were necessary to thwart attacks. Hamas wants to turn the West Bank into another front but that the Shin Bet has thus far been able to prevent this, he said. “There’s a lot of ferment and things have to be checked every day.”

But Harb argues it is the carnage in Gaza that is fuelling tension. “There is shock in the West Bank and extreme anger,” he said. “People feel the international community has abandoned Gaza.

“People see these Israeli attacks, this killing on such a large scale, as genocide,” Harb said, as the fatality toll, according to Hamas health officials, neared 10,000. Though it could not be independently verified, footage indicated entire areas reduced to rubble and a high number of child fatalities amid reports Israel had bombed Palestinians in areas to which it had told them to flee.

The anger is looking for a place to go to, but the enemy is not in a place where people can express their anger.

Ghassan Khatib

Left-wing Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack is among many Israelis to argue that the term genocide is being misused and does not apply to the Gaza bombardment. Israeli officials say the strikes are necessary to destroy Hamas and ensure it can never attack again.

Harb said that the toll was simply enormous - equivalent to 700,000 American fatalities - and predicted it would come back to haunt Israel by inspiring attacks long after the Gaza war is over.

“This will return to Israel in 10 or 20 years,” he said, citing the example of Jenin refugee camp, which spawned a new generation of militants in recent years despite being conquered in a 2003 military operation.

Israeli pundits said during the first few days of the war that Gaza needed to be made unrecognisable so as to restore Israel’s damaged deterrent posture in the Middle East. But in addition to its immorality in the minds of critics, the ferocity makes it more challenging to contain the West Bank.

Menachem Klein, emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, said few people in the West Bank had responded to Hamas calls to protest in solidarity with Gaza. But “things could blow up because the public is not indifferent,” he added.

“The public’s view is that this is genocide, ethnic cleansing and another nakba,” he said, referring to the displacement including by mass expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians during the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war.  

Klein said he believes some of the Palestinians arrested in the West Bank last month were placed in custody to give Israel more leeway in a possible future deal with Hamas to free the hostages.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority labor minister who currently teaches at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, told The Jewish Independent that he does not expect a major eruption in the West Bank. He said the solidarity with Gaza demonstrations are taking place within the cities, removed from points of contact with the army.

“The anger is looking for a place to go to, there is a lot of frustration but the enemy is not in a place where people can express their anger.” Some of the anger would go into “individual military activities” but he expected these to be “isolated incidents”.

“The West Bank is not an active front in this war but it is a victim of increased Israeli pressure,” he said.


Smotrich calls for Palestinian-free buffer zones around West Bank settlements (Times of Israel)

WATCH: 'I'm scared to leave my home': West Bank resident on increasing settler violence (Guardian)

Israeli forces foil 2 stabbing attempts in the West Bank (Times of Israel)

Photo: Palestinian demonstrators rush to hide from the tear gas canisters that Israeli soldiers fired at them while they were marching against Jewish settlers who launched an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf, west of Nablus (Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA/SIPA)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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