Israel’s War on Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank

Since October 7, 2023, much of the world’s attention has rightly been focused on the Gaza Strip, which had been largely forgotten for many years. The intensity of the Israeli bombardment of the Strip, the massive and repeated forcible transfer of its population, and the unexpected survival of the resistance to Israeli forces for eight months have forced this reality. A recent investigation by the United Nations-supported Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory found “that Israel has committed crimes against humanity, forced starvation, extermination, murder, and inhuman and cruel treatment of Palestinians.” Israel is also being prosecuted for the crime of genocide at the International Court of Justice and its leaders may be called before the International Criminal Court for the crimes its forces are committing in Gaza. What has been almost forgotten, and may have serious repercussions in the future, are conditions in the occupied West Bank where Israeli occupation forces and settlers have killed and arrested hundreds of Palestinians, restricted Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and violated their human rights.

Single Territorial Unit

The Oslo Accords specifically required the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip to be treated as a single territorial unit. This phrase appears again and again in the accords’ documents. Yet Israel has deliberately followed a policy of strict separation between them as a strategic plan aimed at fragmenting Palestinian society. Hamas’s takeover of the Strip after it won the Palestinian elections in 2006 indirectly helped this plan as Israel imposed a punishing siege on Gaza since 2007 that continues today. The international community also had a role to play as it viewed Hamas as an illegitimate terrorist organization and gave Israel moral and material support. Even the Palestinian National Authority (PA)—that views Hamas as a rival—contributed in equal measure to Palestinian disunity and to the isolation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Yet in the minds of the people of Palestine, as well as the Israeli government, both the West Bank and Gaza presented the same challenge with respect to control and denial of Palestinian self-determination and freedom.

Following the shock of October 7, Israel immediately embarked on an intensive policy of revenge, punishment, and forceful imposition of its will, power, and authority over Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and inside Israel. In Gaza, it resorted to all-out war and destruction, forced displacement, and preventing the entry and distribution of aid, which has caused massive starvation. In the West Bank, the same rightwing elements in the government undertook their own campaign against the Palestinians while Jewish settlers took it upon themselves to harass and kill villagers and take over their land. There even were serious fears among the Palestinian population that Israel was going to attempt a population transfer toward Jordan as it attempted to do the same in Gaza but toward Egypt’s Sinai.

Israel’s Campaign in the West Bank

The main features of the ongoing Israeli campaign in the West Bank include the following elements:

Travel Restrictions and Limits on Movement: Within hours of the start of the war in Gaza, Israel blocked entrances to Palestinian cities, towns, and villages in the West Bank with metal gates, boulders, and military checkpoints. Access to and from Jordan and Israel was also blocked. Israel arrested workers already in the country (legally or illegally) or quickly expelled them to their towns and villages. Israel further suspended the movement of goods and services from and into the Palestinian towns and villages and kept open only the roads connecting settlements and settlers to the country.

Arrests and Imprisonment: The Minister of Internal Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, proudly announced new policies relating to prisoners and detainees from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s prison authorities packed cells beyond their capacity and denied all family visits, practices that continue today. Prison authorities also confiscated books, paper and pens, radios, television sets, newspapers, and personal clothes and hygiene items. Most prisoners have not had a change of clothes or undergarments for the past eight months. Prison canteens were closed and no food supplies have been allowed. Most of the clinics in the prisons were closed and permits to transfer sick prisoners to outside hospital facilities for treatment were severely curtailed. Ben-Gvir announced even harsher conditions by drastically reducing the quantity and quality of food served in prisons; indeed, those detainees who have been released since October 7 have shown visible signs of considerable weight loss, beatings, and skin diseases. Drinking water, hot water, and electricity were severely curtailed, and daily exercise and “yard time” was suspended. Beatings and physical abuse have been rampant.

Military Order No. 2141 (Temporary Provisions) announced new emergency regulations suspending the normal procedures for extended detention, judicial reviews, and administrative detention. It also changed the processes of appeals and post-indictment procedures and extended the use of video conferencing so that prisoners do not need to appear in court in person. Human rights organizations attempted to challenge these provisions by appealing to the Israeli High Court, but their petition was denied. The court reasoned that that evaluating human rights conditions during a war cannot be compared to such evaluation during periods of peace, and that since these provisions purported to be temporary provisions, and given the unique state of war and emergency, it saw no reason to interfere.

Last May, CNN reported whistleblowers exposing the existence of a detention facility at Sde Taiman in the Negev for prisoners from Gaza who were shackled, blindfolded, prevented from talking to each other, and frequently beaten. Many prisoners died under torture or had limbs amputated without anesthesia. A “medical facility” was added to Sde Taiman because, according to a military spokesperson, civilian hospitals were refusing to treat “terrorists” for fear of attacks by rightwing Israelis. No Red Cross or other independent body has been allowed to visit Sde Taiman, where reports of outrageous treatment continue to leak out through whistleblowers and released prisoners.

Settler Violence: Even before October 7, Israeli settlers were becoming more violent and intimidating to Palestinians, attacking their villages, sheep, and farms. Shortly after October 7, Ben-Gvir announced a policy of distributing weapons to the settlers in the West Bank and proudly claimed that he had distributed 10,000 additional assault rifles to these settlers. Last May, he celebrated the fact that 100,000 Israelis have obtained gun permits and arms. Settlers found Ben-Gvir’s policy to be a convenient opportunity to increase their attacks on Palestinians and this time they could count on the army for support and protection. Palestinians living near settlements or in villages that were in the periphery, experienced a marked rise in attacks including arson, theft of cattle, forcible evictions, threats, and shootings. The settlers with the help of the army also used the war to deny Palestinians access to their fields to harvest their olive trees. The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops or settlers in the West Bank rose to over 540 by mid-June.

Human rights organizations like B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights issued statements and reports documenting these additional attacks. In some cases, settlers who were previously removed from illegal outposts by court orders now openly returned to these locations and resumed their settlement activities.

Depopulating Area C: Both the army and the settlers used the occasion of the war in Gaza to attack and forcibly remove Palestinian shepherds, farmers, and villagers in Area C, particularly in the Hebron Hills. These pressures had started before October 7, but they accelerated since then, and whole communities have been forcibly removed from their property.

Economic Conditions: Since October 7, Israeli authorities stopped granting permits to Palestinians to work in Israel, and the movement of illegal workers into Israel is almost nonexistent. That means that between 100,000 and 150,000 families that depended on work in Israel are without income, and their savings, if any, have been depleted by the continuing situation. In addition, tourism stopped, and those depending on it also lost their incomes. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority, which employs another 150,000 workers, has increasingly been unable to pay salaries to its employees because Israel has been blocking the funds collected on behalf of the PA. Rightwing Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich has publicly linked payments to the PA to settlement construction. At the same time, travel restrictions, and settler attacks and encroachments made it more difficult for Palestinians to access their agricultural lands, or to export products from the West Bank. The olive harvest was particularly affected as Palestinians could not access their fields and trees to harvest them.

Repression by the Palestinian Authority: Far from protecting protests against the war on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has tried to suppress demonstrations in many cities in the West Bank. Palestinian security forces have also arrested many known members of Hamas or active sympathizers. Indeed, the PA’s popularity had been quite low before October 7, a condition that worsened since then.

The most recent poll, released on June 12 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed that 40 percent of Palestinians support Hamas (an increase from 22 percent before the war), while 20 percent support Fatah (down from 26 percent) which controls the PA, as 33 percent had no preference or did not express their opinion. The same poll indicates that if elections for president were held today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would receive a mere 2 percent of the vote, Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned by Israel, 47 percent, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 23 percent.

The status of the PA and its popularity are of particular interest to the United States, which has publicly advocated for it to play the leading role in the governance of Gaza once the current war ended. Israel has clearly indicated that it sees no role for the PA in Gaza and vowed to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities and governance structure. Rightwing partners in the Israeli government are openly hostile to the PA and do not support even its continued role in the West Bank. At the same time, the United States seems unwilling to pressure Israel in this regard or to take the opinions or interests of the Palestinian people themselves into account.

As Israel announces that the invasion of Rafah is winding down, its restrictions on the population in the West Bank, its military and settlers’ attacks on inhabitants, and overall heightened repression cannot be ignored. In fact, as the Israeli Army reaches the limit of what it can do in Gaza, it is entirely possible that it may turn its attention to the West Bank to a greater extent than today. It is also possible that the population in the West Bank may also reach a boiling point, and provide Israel with the excuse it wants for such further oppression. The fact is that the people in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are one people, and their future is tied together. No solution can be meaningful if it concentrates on one area and ignores the other.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image credit: Wafa