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The West Bank city of Ramallah, a city of 60,000, feels like a ghost-town. The typical hustle and bustle here has descended into an eerie silence, broken only by the occasional garbage truck or the wailing ambulance sirens. Thuds from Israel’s Iron Dome rocket system puncture the silence at intervals too, when rockets from Gaza fall near Jerusalem or its environs. The uncharacteristically empty streets are reflective of how people in the West Bank feel: Even as the death toll in the West Bank and Gaza rises to more than 3,500 people, they know that the worst is yet to come.
On Oct. 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel from the besieged Gaza Strip, its fighters blowing holes in the fence that separates the two territories, using drones to take out Israeli communication towers, killing soldiers at the Erez border crossing then proceeding mostly by foot to the towns nearby. There they killed close to 1,400 people and took captive some 200 others, while thousands of their rockets rained down on Israel.
Almost immediately, Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade since 2007 and has seen enough wars to last it a lifetime. Entire families have reportedly been killed in airstrikes on apartment towers.
In the West Bank, many people who have families in Gaza mourned. Yara, says she lost her aunt and uncle – a judge and a human rights lawyer – her two cousins, and their wives and children, including an unborn baby, as they sought shelter inside their house. They say the bodies of only 8 out of 20 killed have so far been recovered. There’s also Tahreer who tells me she lost five of her family members – her sister-in-law and cousin’s wife, as well as their five children. Many more are grieving, unable to get to the Gaza Strip with the borders sealed.
Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based political analyst and mother of two boys, who lived in Gaza City for many years, puts it this way: “Palestinians in the West Bank see themselves in the victims in Gaza, and they have loved ones, family, friends and colleagues in Gaza,” she says. “They feel that pain. They feel that aloneness that people in Gaza feel. It’s a very punishing feeling. The helplessness of it all. The fact that there’s nothing they can do. They can’t even collect medicine and food and water and try to send it off to Gaza because the border is sealed.”
Residents of the West Bank are now afraid that with the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s government, the most right-wing in history, the radical Israeli settler movement will use the war as a chance to drive them from their homes and seize more territory. In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem warned that “Israel has also ramped up efforts to drive Palestinian communities and single-family farms out of their homes and land, cynically exploiting the war to promote its political agenda of taking over more land in the West Bank.”
Over the past week, eight communities — home to 87 families numbering 472 people, 136 of them children — were forced to leave their homes because of settler violence, B’Tselem said in a press release.
The risk of violence here is ever present. In the West Bank, at least 75 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7 – nine of them were killed on Oct. 19 alone. In one of the bloodiest periods for the territory since 2005, at least 120 West Bank Palestinians were killed this year, long before the Hamas assault in Israel, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, said in February that out of more than 1,500 investigations of violence, seizure and damage of property, and other crimes that had been perpetrated by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, a little more than 100 resulted in an indictment.
Most of the victims were shot by Israeli soldiers, during raids into refugee camps in places like Tulkarem, Jenin and Nablus, while the rest were shot or stabbed to death by settlers. In one incident, a man, Ibrahim al-Wadi, and his son, Ahmed, were killed by settlers as they attended a funeral for four Palestineans who had been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers a day prior.
Just days before his death, on Oct. 11, I had spoken to Ibrahim, who told me he had been witnessing an uptick in Israeli settler violence in his village of Qusra in the West Bank. The attacks were relentless, he said, and they were concentrated on the southeastern part of the small village, which is encircled by illegal settlements south of the city of Nablus.
That day, four Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers and soldiers. The next day, a funeral procession took place in Qusra for the men who had been killed. Ibrahim and his son, Ahmed, attended as did many others from the village. But the procession came to a halt when settlers arrived and started throwing rocks. An ambulance driver for the Palestinian Red Crescent told Haaretz that “the settlers were waiting there. They blocked the gate, started firing on us and other people who had come for the funeral.” Ibrahim and Ahmed were both shot dead.
Before he was killed, Ibrahim had told me he was worried that the settlers would use the Gaza war as cover to carry out more attacks. Indeed, many in the West Bank feel the same. “The takeover of the West Bank is on steroids because now nobody is looking here,” says Nour Odeh. “Nobody has the time to notice this [Israeli] government’s agenda of dispossessing Palestinians and getting rid of them – and it’s inseparable from what’s happening in Gaza.”
In the West Bank anger has also been aimed at the weakened state of leadership – the Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the ruling Fatah party – all of which are presided over by Mahmoud Abbas. While the PLO is mostly looked upon as the fossilized remains of the past, the PA is very much seen today as a functional subcontractor for Israel, especially its police and security services. While Fatah dominates most of these structures, it is by no means monolithic. The party has been subject to multiple splinter groups of its political party and armed factions, who are still ostensibly Fatah, but do not take orders from its leadership. For example, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, the armed wing of Fatah, has coordinated their operations with other armed factions under an umbrella group. This would be unthinkable in the past; however, the younger generations that comprise the rank and file of these factions see this as pragmatism, and resist being caught up in the internal political strife between parties of the previous generation.
The rhetoric on the Israeli side has become dehumanizing and frightening as a ground war in Gaza grows more and more likely. Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant,announced that the Israeli army were fighting “human animals.” Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former legal counsel to the Palestinian negotiating team, tells me that the labeling of Palestinians as “human animals” or “children of darkness,” provides another layer of impunity with which Israel can continue to kill civilians in the Strip and also in the West Bank.
Chris McGreal, a Guardian correspondent who covered the Rwandan genocide, said the language he sees coming from Israeli politicians is eerily familiar. “For years, Israeli leaders have advocated ethnic cleansing, euphemistically called ‘transfer’, with a discourse that portrays Palestinians as a fake people with no history that matters,” wrote McGreal. “Those who led and carried out the Rwandan genocide often cast it in the language of Tutsis as outsiders and interlopers, and the killing as an act of self-defense,” like in Israel.
When al-Ahli Arab hospital was hit in north Gaza on Tuesday, Palestinians in Ramallah started pouring into the streets. Haunted by images of the dead, many of them children, some aired their grievances the only way they could: by grabbing their flags and marching downtown.
There, they chanted against Abbas, throwing rocks, chairs and whatever else they could get their hands on at Palestinian security forces, who, in turn, hurled flash bombs and teargas at demonstrators.
Abbas was in Amman at the time, meeting with the Jordanian monarch. He was also slated to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden the next day, along with King Abdullah II, and Egyptian President AbdelFattah el-Sisi. The blast at the hospital prompted him to go back to the West Bank, and for the first time since Oct. 7, address people directly. Abbas said that the Palestinians would not accept another Nakba, or Palestinian Catastrophe, in the 21st century and that they will not move, or surrender. “We will not leave our homeland nor allow anyone to expel us from there,” Abbas said.
But it was too little, too late. “Abbas’s reaction has been very weak,” Diana Buttu told me. “We know that he doesn’t have an army, a navy, or an air force, but he does have the ability to speak out and his words have rung hollow. This is because he’s worried about his own position, where he stands with the international community.”
The sentiment permeating in the West Bank is one of loneliness and isolation — and also vulnerability. They know that no one will protect them and see all of the weaknesses in their leadership — aloof, too dependent on major international players. The people here feel they have no one to speak up for their humanity, and their right to security, life, and dignity.