The deadliest attack on Israeli territory since 1948 is also reverberating in the West Bank. With more than 2,700 dead in total, the scale of the incursion by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants on Saturday, with murders and kidnappings, and Israel’s subsequent bombings on Gaza, have eclipsed the death of 31 Palestinians, mainly in clashes with soldiers in the landlocked territory. This number — recorded in less than a week — represents one-sixth of all Palestinians who have lost their lives in the West Bank so far this year, which is the bloodiest on record for two decades. No Israeli soldier or civilian has died there.
This surge in violence is happening as Israel’s religious ultranationalist sector (the most radical among the half a million settlers) calls for revenge for Saturday’s attack, and Hamas senior leader Ismail Haniyeh urges the West Bank to join the efforts to annihilate the Jewish state. The Israeli military has firmly restricted movement between cities and also limited protests, in which Palestinian youths have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at soldiers. Hamas posters and flags have been seen in areas where they were previously absent.
In other circumstances, what happened in the last 48 hours in the village of Qusra, near Nablus, would headline the local news. Armed Israeli settlers shot dead three Palestinian civilians on Wednesday, according to the Health Ministry. A video from the scene shows masked men opening fire with automatic weapons. A day later, another settler killed Ibrahim Wadi, 63, and his son Ahmad, 26. The two were shot while driving to the funeral of one of their neighbors. “The [Israeli] army promised me that it would guarantee our safety and ended up pushing us and protecting the settlers. I gave my word to the locals as the one in charge. Suddenly we were met with a huge group of settlers and soldiers behind them,” the mayor of Qusra, Hani Odeh, who attended the funeral, told EL PAÍS by phone.
“The day of revenge”
The day before the funeral, a message was shared in WhatsApp groups, with the time and place of the event. It called on people to prevent the funeral and criticized the Israeli military for being naive for thinking “the Nazis of the West Bank were different from the Nazis of Gaza.” Another message, with the image of nine masked young people with bats, an ax and a can of gasoline, was also shared on WhatsApp. This image was accompanied by a text in Hebrew and Arabic: “To all the rats in the sewers of the town of Qusra: we are waiting for you and we will have no mercy. The day of revenge has arrived.” When consulted about this, Israel’s armed forces said the incidents were being investigated.
Islam Sarafandi, 28, was traveling with his parents on Sunday on the road that connects a checkpoint near the city of Ramallah with the Jalazone refugee camp when, he says, he was attacked near an olive grove. “Suddenly, several settlers hiding behind the trees appeared carrying huge stones in their hands. I hit the accelerator. I almost collided with two other cars that were also trying to avoid them. I was able to avoid the first ones, but two hit the back. I was about to lose control of the car,” he said. The settlers were armed, but none of them opened fire, he added.
Some 600 Palestinians in the West Bank have been injured since Saturday, according to data from the Ministry of Health of the Palestinian National Authority. About 190 have needed hospitalization. In a deserted West Bank — but where incidents are still happening — signs of support for the Hamas attack have appeared. In the median of the road leading from the Qalandiya checkpoint to the town of Al-Bireh, a poster now hangs in tribute to the Islamist movement. It features the silhouette of Mohammed Deif (his current appearance is unknown), the representative of the most violent and unrepentant branch of Hamas, who masterminded the attack that has stirred up the conflict in the Middle East. There is a green Hamas flag at the entrance to the Jalazone refugee camp, north of Ramallah.
“God and stones”
A few miles away, the residents of the town of Beitin, next to the Israeli settlement of Ofra, have been taking turns since Saturday to guard the four entrances. This way, there is always at least three people with stones at the ready. “They sometimes came before, but now there are many more, and they’re more organized,” explained Mohamed Hamed, one of the residents. In the largest shift, there are a dozen of them. “We only have God and stones,” he said. There have been no clashes, he says, because the Israeli armed forces — which the Palestinians usually accuse of passivity and collusion with the settlers — have clearly increased their presence and prevent them from approaching Beitin.
Ayman Al Yamal has also seen the change since Saturday. He runs a gas station in Al Huda, the largest Palestinian network of service stations. It is located on a strategic roundabout in Al-Bireh, which is usually full of young people. They go to shawarma restaurants, hamburger joins or cafés to smoke hookah, especially on Thursday nights (the weekend is Friday and Saturday). But on Thursday there were no young people or lines to refuel, and all stores were closed.
Al Yamal says that, since Saturday, every day, a group of up to 100 settlers has come to the roundabout to throw stones at Palestinian cars. As the checkpoint has been closed in both directions since Saturday, they wait next to an alternative road to the north that the Palestinians are forced to take. “Before, they came to the roundabout once or, at most, twice a week. There were fewer of them, and they stayed for about 30 minutes, with the soldiers at their side, and then they left,” he said from his office, pointing out the gas station.
The usually busy roads are almost empty. Checkpoints — the West Bank has been under military occupation since 1967 — now prevent Palestinians from passing from one city to another. Of the three crossings between Jerusalem and the West Bank, only the one typically used by settlers is open.
With the typical sound of horn honking gone, it’s possible to clearly hear the helicopter that is urgently transporting the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to Amman. It was chartered to Ramallah by the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, to hold an urgent meeting on the situation, before the meeting that Abbas and the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will hold there on Friday.
Another incident on Thursday has also raised alarm about how the violence is spreading, this time in Jerusalem. Two police officers were injured, one of them seriously, in a gun attack against a police station, in front of one of the entrances to the old city. The assailant was shot dead.
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