Ramzi Farrah and his daughter travelled from Gaza to the West Bank for medical treatment for the 7-year-old girl before the war began last month Tom Clarke
Middle East

From the West Bank: 'Settler violence and military restrictions strangle Palestinian life'

In the West Bank, Hannah McCarthy meets Palestinians who say settlers are making life unbearable for their communities.

THE NORMALLY BUSY main road of Huwara, a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank, is deserted but for a few Israeli soldiers stationed at intersections along the road. Children peer down at the road from balconies looking onto the road, unable to play outside.

Ramzi Farrah and his daughter wave down from their apartment balcony and invite me and another journalist into their home for coffee. The two had travelled from Gaza to the West Bank for medical treatment for the 7-year-old girl before the war began last month. Now, they have found themselves in a deserted town and cut off from the rest of their family in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

9F6A1649 Ramzi Farrah and his daughter travelled from Gaza to the West Bank for medical treatment for the 7-year-old girl before the war began last month Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Normally a bustling middle-class Palestinian town of 7,000 people and a commercial centre near Nablus city, Huwara has been a flashpoint for settler violence over the last two years with several hardline illegal settlements based nearby.

Settler violence

At the end of February, after two Israeli brothers were shot driving through Huwara, a mob of over a hundred angry settlers set fire to shops and cars, smashed windows and shot dead one Palestinian man in a night described as a Palestinian Kristallnacht.

After the attack, Israel’s hardline nationalist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich said: “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”

Huwara is now facing a slow economic death. Since 7 October, when Hamas launched its bloody attack that left 1,200 people dead in southern Israel, much of the West Bank has been under lockdown, with the movement of Palestinians living there heavily restricted.

9F6A1644 Huwara's normally busy main street where stores have been closed by the Israeli military for over a month. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

An estimated 24 per cent of jobs have been lost in the West Bank since the war began, according to the UN, and many business owners have been told the restrictions will last as long as the war.

In Huwara, businesses on the main street have been closed for over a month while local residents are not allowed to cross the main road, from one side of the town to another – not even the mayor of Huwara Mo’een Dumaidi can cross without permission.

The drive to the nearby city of Nablus, which took 20 minutes before the war, now takes two hours, as Palestinians are predominantly banned from the roads Israeli settlers use and forced to take long back roads and go through multiple military checkpoints.

Along Huwara’s main street is the rubble where the Eiffel Bakery once operated as a busy pizzeria. On 13 October, the Israeli forces used a bulldozer to demolish the pizzeria after its Facebook account reportedly shared an advert with an image of one of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. 

9F6A9429 Settlers living in H2 in Hebron are protected by the Israeli military. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

The owner published a post on Facebook an hour after the pizzeria was demolished apologising and saying the image had been posted without their consent.

Freedoms lost

Further along Huwara’s main street, a few people are harvesting olives from trees dotting the road. Olives are an important export for the West Bank but the harvesting season has become increasingly dangerous for Palestinians.

9F6A9394 The deserted Arab markets in Hebron on a street that local Palestinian residents are not allowed to travel on. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Some have suffered attacks at the hands of settlers while harvesting olives and a number have been killed. Earlier this month, Smotrich called for a ban on Palestinians harvesting olives close to illegal Israeli settlements and some settlers have damaged or uprooted olive trees owned by Palestinians.

Many families in Huwara have left for cities like Jenin, Nablus and Hebron – although parts of Hebron city are also experiencing a heavy-handed lockdown imposed by the Israeli military.

The house of Palestinian activist Issa Amro lies inside H2, a longstanding militarised zone inside Hebron, the largest city in the occupied West Bank. 1,000 extremist Israeli settlers live alongside the local Palestinian community in H2 who are subject to military law and heavy restrictions on their daily life that are now common across the West Bank since the war began.

9F6A9420 Issa Amro at his home in the H2 militarised zone of Hebron. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Amro regularly hosts visiting groups of journalists and diplomats at his home where he explains the restrictions facing Palestinians living in H2. On 7 October, when the militant group Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel from Gaza, Amro was violently attacked while he was returning home. He says he was surrounded by around a dozen people who were dressed in Israeli military uniforms. “Many of them are settlers in an army uniform,” he says.

Amro says he was then handcuffed with his hands behind his back, blindfolded and gagged for a ten-hour ordeal by the group who assaulted him. “I was beaten, kicked, pushed, threatened to be killed and threatened to be raped,” he says. “They were spitting on me all the time and settlers came and took photo selfies with me in that situation.” Amro showed photos of his hand with a severe indent and said his hands still haven’t recovered from having the blood flow restricted for ten hours.

A new departure

Settlers clad in Israeli military uniforms attacking Palestinians is a relatively new phenomenon, says Ori Givati from Breaking the Silence, an NGO supported by the EU and Trocáire where former members of the Israel Defence Forces campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. “The settlers are doing literally whatever they want… they just terrorise Palestinian communities that are defenceless.”

The heavy restrictions placed on Palestinians in Huwara and H2 in Hebron have forced many to leave. “There is an official displacement policy in Gaza from the Israeli government and there is an unofficial displacement policy in the West Bank as well,” says Amro, who believes that the Israeli government is using the war to hasten settlement expansion and displace more Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank. According to the UN, 1,149 Palestinians have been forced to leave their homes since 7 October, as settler violence and intimation escalates across the West Bank.

A spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces said that in light of “a situational assessment” of the West Bank, “there are barriers as well as the monitoring of movement in various areas in the sector, including in Hebron.”

Since 7 October, Amro says that his house and yard have been raided several times and he was orally told that he should leave Hebron and could not host visitors.

On Friday 20 October, he was violently evicted from his home on the basis that he had two guests. Michael Sfard, Amro’s lawyer, says that under international law a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank is a protected person and cannot be forcibly transferred by the Israeli authorities unless he poses an imminent and grave danger to others or in order to protect him from imminent danger from others – “this is not the case here – it’s a political act that was done to exploit the time of war.”

9F6A1665 Graffiti scrawled on local stores in Huwara. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Sfard believes that the military commander for Hebron likely views the war as a good opportunity to stop Issa from hosting groups and the public recognition that comes with it – “Issa is a recognised human rights defender that is preaching non-violence and that is something that they don’t know how to deal with.”

As well as infringing on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, the lockdowns imposed on Palestinians – but not Israeli settlers – across the West Bank have had a devastating impact on the local economy, where already the average Palestinian earned 8 cents for every dollar earned by an Israeli citizen. During the first month of the war, the gross domestic product shrank by 4% in the West Bank and Gaza, sending over 400,000 people into poverty. The UN said that this is an economic impact unseen in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine or in any previous Israel-Hamas war.

If the war continues for a second month, the UN estimates that the Palestinian GDP, which was $20.4 billion before the war began, will drop by $1.7 billion (8.4%). And if the conflict lasts a third month, Palestinian GDP will drop by 12%, pushing more than 660,000 into poverty.

Hannah McCarthy is a freelance journalist currently reporting from the West Bank.