What’s Behind Israel’s Crackdown in the West Bank?

Last week, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on the “rapid deterioration” of conditions in the West Bank following Hamas’s October 7th attack. Israeli security forces have killed nearly three hundred Palestinians, sometimes using “unnecessary or disproportionate force”; thousands of Palestinians have been arrested for minor incidents; and Israeli settlers have forced more than a thousand Palestinians from their land. The report called for the Israeli government to hold settlers and security forces accountable for violations of human rights. (As the report notes, settlers have only rarely been charged with crimes for attacks on Palestinians.)

To understand how the current situation in the West Bank will shape the future of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, I recently spoke by phone with Ibrahim Dalalsha, the director at the Horizon Center for Political Studies and Media Outreach, a think tank in Ramallah. He previously worked as an adviser at the United States consulate in Jerusalem for two decades before it closed, in 2019. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Palestinians viewed the attacks of October 7th, whether Israel has a real plan for either the West Bank or Gaza, and how the violence visited upon Palestinians manifests itself in Palestinian politics.

What does the current state of the West Bank tell us about the Israeli government’s understanding of the conflict with Palestinians right now?

If you go back to 2021 and 2022, for the past two and a half years in the West Bank, things were not calm. In fact, there was a lot of concern about the security situation in the area. There were intensive Israeli military operations with a lot of focus on local militant groups. There was an Israeli narrative that Gaza had been contained, but the West Bank had not. So the West Bank, as such, was never calm before October 7th.

Now, after October 7th, obviously the scale of what has happened both in Israel and subsequently in Gaza has eclipsed the level of deterioration that we have seen in the West Bank. But there is something that we feel as Palestinians, and I’m not sure that it’s actually felt elsewhere: If you don’t have really big numbers or spikes in Israeli fatalities, the situation is considered to be calm.

As you say, there has been a lot of violence in the West Bank for the past two and a half years. What has happened since October 7th? And what is the political impetus behind it?

I want to tell you one personal note. I’m a guy in my mid-fifties. I have two granddaughters in Jerusalem because my daughter lives in Jerusalem. I’ve had entry permits to Israel for about twenty years. I used to work for the U.S. government. I had never been cut off from entering Jerusalem. And, on October 7th, there was a total closure imposed on the West Bank, in which two hundred thousand workers have been denied access. All Palestinian West Bank I.D. holders like myself, including those with permits and special permits, have been denied access, and I have not really been able to visit my family and my granddaughters in Jerusalem since then.

Am I Hamas? No. This is just a collective measure that has been applied to all Palestinians. That’s one of the things that the U.N. report was talking about, but it’s not really highlighted enough, because the level of frustration that comes out of that goes way beyond what’s described. In the West Bank, we feel that Israel is punishing the entire Palestinian people. Before October 7th, they would check you and, if you had no security background, they would give you a permit, and you would enter. But, after October 7th, it doesn’t really matter.

Now, a smart Israeli might tell you, “Well, we’re doing that because we want to minimize friction between Palestinians and Israelis.” And of course the answer to that is: If that were the case, they would actually stop settlers from entering the West Bank to minimize friction. The West Bank has been under a series of Israeli restrictions since before October 7th. Attributing everything to October 7th is not really accurate, because we had settlement expansion before then. We had settler violence before then. We had I.D.F. raids, and detentions, and arrests throughout and across the West Bank. Life was not great on October 5th and 6th. There wasn’t a different Israeli strategy that was seeking to hold agreements and take measures to actually alleviate the suffering of people in the West Bank and trying to get them on some sort of political path.

So there was frustration, helplessness, hopelessness, and an Israeli strategy that was meant to capture as much West Bank land as possible, with total disregard to any political path. If you take October 7th and beyond as an isolated period, then you would lose the big picture.

Let me try and rephrase my question: I wasn’t trying to say that the fundamental reality for Palestinians in the West Bank had changed because of October 7th. What I was trying to understand is whether looking at how bad the West Bank situation has become can help us understand what the Israeli government is thinking and what it intends going forward.

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