Under Cover of Gaza War, Assault on West Bank Accelerates

Header Image: A family walks to a checkpoint to enter Israel at the Qalandia checkpoint outside of the city of Ramallah on December 10, 2023 in Ramallah, Palestine. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This commentary is part of a Century International series exploring a shared future for Palestine and Israel that guarantees the fundamental rights of both communities. The Gaza war has exposed the bankruptcy of the existing policy frameworks. Our “Shared Future” series intends to spur conversation and promote new, better options for security, rights, and governance—for Palestinians and Israelis.

While Israel lays waste to Gaza, it has placed the West Bank under a different kind of siege. But this siege didn’t begin on October 7. The Israeli government and settlers have been pressuring the Palestinians of the West Bank for years, making their lives ever more impossible, and an independent Palestinian state ever more unlikely.

Settlers and soldiers displaced some 4,000 West Bank Palestinians in 2023, the highest number ever recorded. Families’ daily lives are choked by a maze of checkpoints, constant discrimination, raids, and arrests. They spend nights in fear of settlers, who have attacked isolated Palestinian homes, destroyed trees, stolen farms, and even killed.

Settler violence in the West Bank spiked after October 7, and has fluctuated in the early months of 2024. Many West Bankers say their situation is more dire than ever, and fear another wave of forced displacement.

The Biden administration has the ability to push Israel to ease its West Bank chokehold—and it must act now, or face a future of deferred peace, impossible politics, and more refugees. Biden’s recent executive order sanctioning settler groups offers a welcome glimpse of what the United States government could do if it decided to invoke existing U.S. law to protect Palestinians and their rights in the West Bank, and restrain the Israeli government and settler organizations.

Unfortunately, there is little indication that the Biden administration as yet understands the gravity of the situation in the West Bank, or that it cares to take assertive measures to give Palestinians relief. But the world is watching, and inaction would be a historic mistake.

Systematic Assault on the West Bank

Since October 7, the Israeli army has locked down the occupied West Bank. The Israeli military has erected checkpoints in and between major cities, such as Jericho, cutting off the northern West Bank from the south, and strangling movement on highways, including the main artery for Palestinians traveling back and forth from Jordan—their only departure point to the rest of the world. Other checkpoints have encircled Palestinian areas close to illegal Israeli settlements.

Take Huwara, for example, a once-bustling town of a few thousand near Nablus, the commercial hub of the upper West Bank. Huwara has become a ghost town since the Israeli army imposed a closure and a curfew, in early October, on its typically bustling thoroughfare. Residents say they are unable to leave their houses, buy groceries, or send their children to school. The economy there has come to a nearly complete halt.

All around the West Bank, there are other, similar examples of how life has deteriorated since the Israeli onslaught on Gaza began. For the past five months, Palestinian lives in the West Bank have been dramatically altered for the worse, their movements nearly paralyzed. Outside Nablus, queues of cars three blocks long wait hours to enter the city and its surrounding villages.

As movement is restricted, livelihoods have dried up, and life has gotten significantly more difficult. Entire streets have been sealed and the shops effectively closed, leaving many families without a source of income, further plunging them into poverty and instability.

Israeli settlers, under the fog of war, are attacking Palestinian villages in what one independent Israeli publication calls “settler pogroms.”

Human rights violations are piling up. Evidence is growing of systemic abuse and torture of Palestinian detainees in the West Bank, all while Israeli settlers, under the fog of war, are attacking Palestinian villages in what one independent Israeli publication calls “settler pogroms.” Since October 7, Israeli settlers and soldiers have killed 418 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 100 children, and injured 4,690 more, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Before October 7, settler attacks had already been on the rise—but their ferocity, frequency, and accompanying fatalities surged as all eyes understandably turned to the onslaught on Gaza. Yet overt settler violence only tells part of the story. Settler threats, property damage, and grazing area takeovers are rampant. All of this will likely worsen as the Israeli army and government continue to embolden and support settlers.

More than 800,000 registered refugees reside in the West Bank, and they are under particular pressure. Israel has made refugee camps, which it deems to be a hub for small resistance groups, one of the main targets of military wrath. For months now, Israel has conducted nearly daily raids in the camps and cities of Tulkarem, Jenin, and Nablus. The raids inflict serious damage to infrastructure, destroying everything from roads and pavement to water and electricity networks.

The Israeli military campaign in the camps appears aimed at deterring Palestinians from further embracing the militant groups that have a support network in their decrepit alleyways. The Israeli government has supported systematic efforts to punish those who have stood up to the occupation as well as those civilians accused of aiding them. The strategy is not only cruel but also ineffective—camp residents have not changed their political allegiances in response to the attacks.

Broken Governance

West Bank Palestinians suffer not only from the increasing attacks by the army and settlers, but also from the absence of a political solution—a problem that has been made worse by a bankrupt and paralyzed Palestinian political leadership. With no means to head off the spiraling unrest—or perhaps no desire to do so—the Palestinian Authority has stood idly by, doing what it does best during crises: play the waiting game. This includes participating in futile political summits (the most recent of which took place on February 26 in Jordan’s port city of Aqaba), holding meetings with dignitaries, and issuing pro forma statements.

However, the Palestinian Authority’s dysfunction is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. The body certainly bears responsibility for its problems, but Israeli policy effectively encourages that dysfunction, and makes it almost impossible to recover from missteps. Sanctioning the Palestinian Authority by withholding most of the taxes Israel collects on its behalf has already crippled Palestinian institutions and left those on the Palestinian Authority’s payroll barely managing to keep food on the table or pay off loans. The Palestinian Authority, which runs schools, police, hospitals, and many other sectors in the West Bank, and still has employees in Gaza, has not been able to pay full salaries to its employees for the past eighteen months.

On a political level, the Palestinian Authority’s public standing and legitimacy have been greatly harmed by the dramatic increase in settler violence and military raids. The attacks on livelihoods and sieges on cities, in addition to the confiscation of Palestinian land and expansion of illegal Jewish settlements, have stripped away the Palestinian Authority’s governance functions and left it with one apparent justification for existing—to keep Palestinians under control. And with the political steps that Israel has taken to ensure that Palestinian statehood is an unattainable goal, especially with Israel’s rejection of a two-state solution, the Palestinian Authority has been rendered largely impotent in the eyes of most Palestinians.

A Strategy of Displacement

For Palestinians living in the West Bank, settler violence and military raids appear to have a clear goal: to remove them from their land and homes.

Displacement isn’t always the result of direct expulsion. In what activists have called the Hebron model, Israel appears to use segregation, settler violence, and other means—like high-tech surveillance—to induce Palestinians to leave their homes and land. Israel is propagating this model all over the West Bank.

Similarly to Hebron, some neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, have sizable settler populations in their midst. And Israeli authorities have been on an accelerating spree of home demolition in East Jerusalem. The latest crackdown has focused on Ras al-Amud and the al-Bustan community in Silwan. On February 14, Israeli forces demolished the home of community leader and activist Fakhri Abu Diab, despite ongoing negotiations with the Jerusalem municipality and international denunciations and outrage. According to Israeli nongovernmental organizations Ir Amim and Bimkom, some 100 homes in al-Bustan are at risk of mass demolition, with more than 1,500 Palestinians under threat of displacement due to Israeli plans to establish a tourist and archaeological park in the area. Since October 7 alone, there have been 94 demolitions in East Jerusalem, 63 of which were home demolitions. According to Ir Amim and Bimkom, these figures mark a nearly 70 percent increase in demolitions compared to the preceding months.

Again, a similar pattern has repeated throughout the West Bank since October 7. During raids, the Israeli army has destroyed some 131 homes throughout the West Bank, displacing 830 Palestinians, including 337 children. About 95 percent of those displaced were in the refugee camps of Jenin, Nur Shams, and Tulkarem.

Palestinians in the West Bank fear the escalation will peak with a Gaza-like Israeli military campaign. The Israeli military’s scorched earth strategy is making large swathes of the Gaza Strip uninhabitable, to facilitate displacement or—many Palestinians expect—the eventual forced expulsion to a neighboring country.

As the displacement escalates, and as more than a million Palestinians in Gaza seem on the precipice of being pushed into Egypt’s Sinai by Israel, Jordan watches the West Bank with trepidation. Might Israel eventually try to expel West Bankers to Jordan en masse? With Egypt preparing displaced persons camps in the Sinai as a contingency, many Palestinians take the threat of expulsion seriously.

America Can Act

The U.S. reaction to the events in the West Bank cannot be decoupled from the war raging in Gaza. In the eyes of Palestinians, the Biden administration is an active participant in what the International Court of Justice has deemed to be a plausible genocide in Gaza. U.S. support for the Israeli war comes in various shapes, ranging from exercising its veto at the UN Security Council on resolutions demanding a ceasefire, to sending weapons as well as financial and logistical support to Israel to continue its onslaught on Gaza.

In an ideal world, the United States would exercise its leverage over Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, and influence it to choose a different course. Attempts to sway Israel have, so far, been feeble and ineffective. Leaking reports from the White House that Joe Biden is privately frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu—or that he calls Netanyahu an “asshole”—have done nothing to change policy.

The United States should make good on its anti-settlement position, which has so far taken the form of tepid rhetoric and half measures.

But the Biden administration is far from powerless. After all, the United States is supporting Israel’s military campaign—by supplying it with equipment, drones, and other weapons. It could slow down and put conditions on this aid. In fact, Biden already did so when he insisted on Israel allowing some humanitarian aid into Gaza toward the end of October 2023.

The United States also continues to have a profound impact on the issue of governance in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Biden administration was the first to suggest that the Palestinian Authority should have a role in Gaza once the war is over. But this suggestion was linked to a need for reforming the Palestinian Authority, without offering any realistic process to do so. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, even if they’re frustrated by their governing institutions, say that, under the current circumstances, they don’t see a path to reform for the Palestinian Authority, which has neither financial autonomy nor the power to rule.

Self-Determination and Democracy

Rather than forcing a discredited body on an occupied population, a better American strategy for improving Palestinian governance would be to put Palestinians on the track of self-determination and democratic choice. This is not to absolve the Palestinian Authority of the urgent need to reform itself. (A forthcoming commentary in the “Shared Future” series explores the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy crisis in depth and proposes some remedies.) But to have a chance at succeeding, reform needs to happen under circumstances that allow change—namely, by enabling financial, economic, and political empowerment, which would involve, among other steps, free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, Israel has had no incentive or desire to reverse its extensive military campaign throughout the West Bank. The raids have rendered sections of some of the refugee camps uninhabitable and raise the specter of further displacement within the West Bank, or even expulsion. The Biden administration should oppose these actions on principle and also as a practical matter. Further displacement and instability make it all the more unrealistic that a body like the Palestinian Authority, or any democratically selected leadership that is palatable to Washington, will ever be able to govern.

Finally, the United States should make good on its anti-settlement position, which has so far taken the form of tepid rhetoric and half measures. The Israeli government’s support for settlers is wreaking havoc in the West Bank, causing the displacement of livestock herders, farmers, Bedouin, and others—and, most importantly, instilling fear into the hearts of families in an effort to drive them from their homes. The Biden administration should follow through on its executive order targeting Israeli settlers who have attacked Palestinians, by compelling Israel to implement a legal mechanism that identifies these individuals in both U.S. and Israeli courts. The February 1 executive order made headlines because it was a rare example of U.S. criticism of Israel. But so far, only four settlers have been sanctioned under the order. Some of the named settlers have already found ways to circumvent existing financial sanctions. It is worth noting that some of Israel’s most notorious cabinet members are reported to be on a list of people who could be targeted by sanctions, including Bezalel Smotrich (the minister of finance) and Itamar Ben Gvir (the minister of national security).

A further problem is that the existing order leaves important loopholes—it does not apply to U.S. citizens, even though Americans make up 15 percent of the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and play an instrumental part in the settler expansion movement and violence it wreaks.

The Biden administration could also sanction Israeli officials, who are just as culpable. It could ban U.S. nonprofits from being able to collect and donate to settlements. It could speak about the illegality of settlements.

None of these proposed actions are far-fetched. In fact, they are so mild that they’d hardly make a dent in the larger scheme of Israeli policy. But they would be a start. And precisely because they would have a modest impact, these measures underline the truth that the Biden administration can do something—though it has so far chosen not to. Meanwhile, Palestinians pay the cost, as settlers roam free in the West Bank, burning, stealing, shooting, and looting—all under the watchful eye of Israeli forces carrying American-bought weapons.

Dalia Hatuqa, Contributor

Dalia Hatuqa is an independent journalist specializing in Palestinian–Israeli affairs, who regularly reports from the West Bank