The Occupied West Bank Since October 7: Movement Restrictions and Collective Punishment

In August 2023, Itamar Ben-Gvir—not just any government minister, but Israel’s Minister of National Security—told an interviewer that “my right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.” The statement gained international attention not because many were unaware that this was the reality in the occupied West Bank, but because a government minister so openly admitted that this was the case. Of course, Ben-Gvir’s comments were soon forgotten after Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent destruction of the Gaza Strip, including the murder of more than 25,000 Palestinians, the injury of over 63,00 others, and the displacement of nearly 2 million.

The unprecedented scope and toll of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza understandably has captured much of the attention of the world’s political, humanitarian, and media ecosystems. Yet the ongoing crisis for Palestinians is not limited to those living in the besieged and bombarded Gaza Strip—it also affects those in the occupied West Bank, which has been all but shut down since October 7. Road closures, checkpoints, and the increased risk of military and settler violence have kept most Palestinians in the West Bank restricted to their towns and villages.  Closures and violence are crushing the economy, keeping children out of school, and ensuring that Palestinians are living in a constant cycle of fear and uncertainty. Palestinians in the West Bank, witnessing the horrific treatment and conditions of their brothers and sisters in the Gaza Strip, have started to openly worry that they are next.

Since Oslo, Israel has expanded its control of Palestinian movement, both materially and administratively.

Of course, restriction of movement has long been a feature of life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, ironically solidifying after the 1993 Oslo Accords. Oslo was supposed to be a temporary agreement that would lay the foundation for a sovereign Palestinian state, but instead gave Israel almost complete control of Palestinian borders and of most of the land within the West Bank. Since Oslo, Israel has expanded its control of Palestinian movement, both materially, through the construction of the separation wall and hundreds of temporary and permanent physical barriers, and administratively, by creating complex rules for permits needed for Palestinians to do anything that requires travel, from pray at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, tend to their crops on the other side of the wall, or receive advanced medical care at an Israeli hospital. Now, under the pretext of the October 7 attacks, Israel has further tightened its control of the West Bank.

A Long History of Restriction of Movement in the West Bank

Most Palestinians living in the West Bank today have never known free movement into or out of the territory, or within the West Bank itself. For a period after the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, however, movement was still relatively open, both between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and between the occupied territories and Israel itself, although much of this travel required Israeli-issued permits. Palestinians easily worked in Israel and could travel back and forth between the West Bank and Gaza, with many families split between the two locations. But after the first Intifada (1987-1990), Israel began to require Palestinians to apply for permits for each instance of travel. The process of separation between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the general policies of closure, began to accelerate. By the late 1990s, Israeli policies had disconnected the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.

Despite the so-called peace process of the 1990s, conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories continued to deteriorate as Israel cemented its control of Palestinian life beyond the Green Line (the border separating pre-1967 Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories). At the same time, expansion of settlement infrastructure in the West Bank continued, which further constricted Palestinian movement by limiting the space available for them to live or travel freely. The outbreak of the second Intifada in the early 2000s saw a significant expansion of Israeli control over Palestinian movement, a situation that has largely persisted until today.

In June 2002, the Israeli cabinet approved the construction of the massive separation wall abetting the Green Line. While the wall’s purported aim was security, as with many Israeli policies, the actual aim surpassed mere protection. The route of the wall cut through Palestinian towns and villages, separating children from their schools and farmers from their land. Israel installed gates in the wall for Palestinian access for workers, farmers, and others to pass through, but they are regularly closed without notice. The wall’s route enabled Israel to seize about 10 percent of the land in the West Bank, while solidifying the permanence of the settlements enveloped by it. Just a year after Israel began construction, the International Court of Justice found that the wall was “contrary to the relevant provisions of the Hague Regulations of 1907 and of the Fourth Geneva Convention” because it “impeded the liberty of movement of the inhabitants of the territory.” The court ruled that Israel must cease construction and dismantle the wall, as well as pay reparation for damages. Instead, Israel has continued to build the wall over two decades without repercussions. The wall is now an infamous part of the Palestinian landscape.

But a wall segregating Palestinians in the West Bank from Israel seemingly was not enough. The movement barriers that already existed inside the West Bank itself grew exponentially after the second Intifada. Israel erected a complex system of control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian daily life, especially movement. A 2018 comprehensive study identified some 700 Israeli obstacles to movement throughout the West Bank, a territory about the size of the state of Delaware, including road gates at the entrances of villages, mounds of dirt, roadblocks, checkpoints, and trenches. Israel can erect or close such obstacles with no notice and without making alternate routes available. In 2020, there were an estimated 32 checkpoints within the city of Hebron alone. As the Israel human rights organization B’Tselem stated,

A Palestinian leaving home in the morning cannot know whether he or she is going to make it work – on time or at all – or to keep a medical appointment, visit family or catch a movie. She might make it, or she might be delayed at a checkpoint for hours, detained and humiliated by soldiers. She may have to turn around and go back the way she came. She may get arrested.

Although Israel lifted some of the movement barriers between 2008 and 2010, since 2010 there has been virtually no easing of restrictions, and in recent years, Israel’s restrictions have been more intense, for longer periods. The pre-existing infrastructure has made it easy for Israel to quickly clamp down on Palestinian movement at its discretion. For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Israel effectively closed the West Bank. This left the many Palestinians who work in Israel with two bad choices: staying inside the West Bank and losing their income, or remaining in Israel for months away from their families. Israel also paused the issuance of almost all other permits for Palestinians in the occupied territories, including medical permits needed to access advanced care in Israel or East Jerusalem. Israel’s restrictions on goods entering the West Bank severely limited the import of protective equipment and other vital medical supplies, especially as Israel refused to fulfill its obligations as an occupying power to provide vaccines to Palestinians.

In recent years, Israel again began to restrict movement within the West Bank, in response to the rising settler violence against Palestinians, such as the settlers’ February 2023 terrorist attack on the Palestinian village of Huwara, and to the emergence of Palestinian militant groups like the Lion’s Den. For example, the Israeli military closed Nablus for more than three weeks in October and November 2022 while the Israeli military conducted regular raids of the city looking for members of the group. Students and workers from outside Nablus faced severe delays entering the city, if they were able to enter at all, and those inside the city could not leave easily. The closures deeply harmed the local education, commerce, and health care sectors, but there was no consequence for Israel despite the obvious human rights violations its actions caused. Although Israel eventually reopened Nablus, it did not remove the checkpoints, and movement in the West Bank remained heavily constricted during 2023. Just before October 7, the UN documented more than 600 movement obstacles throughout the West Bank and an increase in the number of checkpoints and gates staffed by Israeli soldiers.

Collective Punishment in the West Bank Since October 7

The entire pretext for Israel’s destruction of much of the Gaza Strip has been to eliminate Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that initiated an incursion into Israel on October 7, killing hundreds of civilians and kidnapping more than 200 others. Israel’s collective punishment of the Gaza Strip, from the siege to the bombing, and the corresponding narrative pushed by Israel’s allies has relied on Israel’s framing of its Gaza objective. Yet Israel’s response has created an unprecedented death toll in such a limited period, with what human rights groups and scholars are calling “damning evidence of war crimes,” and a credible case presented by South Africa to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocidal acts and intent.

Despite the lack of legitimacy to any aspect of Israel’s claim that it is only targeting Hamas, not Palestinian civilians, in the Gaza Strip, no such claim can be made about its actions in the West Bank. Between October 7, 2023, and late January 2024, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed more than 350 Palestinians, among them dozens of children, including a Palestinian-American teenager near Ramallah. In late October 2023, the Israeli army launched a rare airstrike on the Jenin refugee camp. Since October 7, Israel has detained thousands of West Bank Palestinians in mass arrests, placing many in administrative detention without charges. These Israeli actions have not garnered the same international headlines as has the devastation in Gaza. Yet they signal a dangerous escalation, including through explicit statements by Israeli politicians, settlers, and soldiers.  The Palestinian Authority, supposedly meant to govern Palestinians through some future peace agreement, remains weak, unable and unwilling to intervene in any meaningful way.

Since October 7, Israel has detained thousands of West Bank Palestinians in mass arrests, placing many in administrative detention without charges.

Despite the physical threats, for many Palestinians in the West Bank the closures and delays in movement pose the greatest challenge in everyday life. Immediately after October 7, Israel instituted blanket closures of many of the checkpoints it controls—both those allowing access to Israel and those within the West Bank itself. Israel closed the King Hussein crossing to Jordan, the only place for Palestinians to leave or enter the West Bank. Israel even barred Palestinian-Americans from traveling to Israel and from flying out of the airport in Tel Aviv, despite having agreed to do so just months before as a condition of joining the United States visa waiver program.

In a devastating move for the Palestinian economy, Israel also revoked the work permits of nearly 160,000 Palestinians who work in Israel and in Israeli settlements inside the West Bank. Due to the higher salaries offered by such jobs and to the lack of jobs in the West Bank, many families rely on this income, which brings an estimated $370 million into the West Bank economy per month. While some Palestinian workers have been allowed to return to their jobs, the vast majority have not. This is due in large part to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to challenge the policy of his right-wing coalition, including Ben-Gvir, who argued that “the introduction of Palestinian workers from the Palestinian Authority, which supports terrorism, into the State of Israel, endangers the citizens of the country and opens the door to a re-enactment of the events of October 7.”

Between Palestinians’ lack of income from jobs in Israel and the uncertainty of being able to travel to jobs within the West Bank, shopkeepers report an increase in the number of people asking to buy groceries on credit. This indicates an economic precarity that is poised to dip into a crisis. The West Bank was already barely recovering from the economic hit of the pandemic; the current atmosphere of violence and closure is compounding the deterioration of economic conditions, with no end in sight.

Aside from the obvious effects on the economy, the movement restrictions have had a cascading effect on every aspect of life, especially in the areas subject to the tightest control. For example, after October 7 Israel effectively shuttered Huwara by severely restricting travel on the town’s main road and by blocking all side roads. Access from one side of town to the other is very difficult; family members living in Huwara cannot even visit each other. The only cars moving freely through the town are those belonging to Israelis living in nearby settlements. “Huwara was considered the gateway to Nablus. It is an urban commercial center. And now the town has been transformed into a military camp,” one resident told Al Jazeera. Other areas of heightened military and settler action, including around Hebron and Jenin, face similar circumstances.

In November 2023, in response to trendlines that were concerning long before October 7, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned, “I am ringing the loudest possible alarm bell about the occupied West Bank.” The combined toll of economic depression, inability to easily access educational and health facilities, and the daily calculation of deciding which tasks are worth a potentially dangerous or unsuccessful journey and which ones must wait until the situation improves—if it ever does—has worn down life in the West Bank. Even still, much of the global warnings about the West Bank seem primarily concerned about how deterioration would affect Israel’s security—not about the basic right of Palestinians to live in dignity. More than 75 years after the Nakba, and decades of violence and dispossession, Palestinians across the occupied territories are yet again facing unbearable circumstances, watching world powers casually talk about what should be their fate, largely without their input, as Gaza burns and the West Bank simmers. Only through decades of dehumanization of Palestinians, and an assumption that all Palestinians are dangerous and are thus deserving of such trauma and deprivation, could such conditions persist.

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: Shutterstock/Ryan Rodrick Beiler