Israel’s Silent War on the Palestinians

Since October 7, Israel has declared war on Gaza, killing more than 15,000 Palestinians, including more than 6,150 children, and destroying civilian infrastructure that could sustain life in the future. However, Israel has also been mounting a silent war on Palestinians in the West Bank and within the 1948 borders, to repress and contain them, quell any expressions of collective Palestinian identity, and make the occupied Palestinian territories unlivable for Palestinians.

The first pillar of Israel’s war against the Palestinians has been its heightened use of lethal force in the West Bank, in the form of military incursions (for example in Jenin and Tulkarm), night raids, mass arbitrary detentions, and the killing of Palestinians. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 238 Palestinians, including 63 children, were killed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, between October 7 and November 29. These figures are added to the more than 200 Palestinians killed between January and September 2023, making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since OCHA began recording killings in 2005.

Israeli settlers, emboldened by the language of vengeance promoted by the Israeli military and political establishment, have also increased their attacks against Palestinians. Since October 7, there has been an average of more than five settler attacks against Palestinians, their homes, vehicles, or agricultural land daily—a figure that is likely to increase after the Israeli far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called for the purchase of 10,000 rifles for settlers. Abetted by Israeli soldiers, settlers have burned homes, stolen livestock, and imposed roadblocks, forcing a number of Palestinian communities in Area C in the West Bank—in other words, areas that are fully controlled by Israel—to flee their homes, which the settlers then seized.

With much of the attention on Gaza, settlers have been trying to seize the opportunity to move forward with their plans to displace Palestinian communities, following in the footsteps of Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s “Decisive Plan” for the West Bank. The plan stipulates that Palestinians must decide between abandoning their political aspirations and settling for an inferior status on their land, or “emigrating” abroad. If they choose to engage in an armed struggle against Israel, then these Palestinians should be killed.

Besides its mounting use of lethal force, the Israeli authorities have also resorted to other forms of collective punishment against Palestinians. For instance, Israel has imposed additional and more severe restrictions on movement across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, by closing roads, installing concrete roadblocks and earth mounds, and setting up mobile checkpoints at road junctions. This has severely restricted the ability of Palestinians to move from one city in the West Bank to another and has made a one-hour journey take up to three or four hours.

Mass arbitrary detention has also been at the core of Israel’s punitive measures. Since October 7, more than 3,325 Palestinians in the West Bank have been arrested, most of whom have been detained without trial and placed under administrative detention. Even during the truce between Hamas and Israel, while the Israelis released 150 Palestinians, in the first four days they also detained 133 Palestinians.

Palestinian prisoners have also been a key target of Israel’s policy of collective punishment since October 7, as Israel withdrew all the benefits or rights that Palestinian prisoners had gained since 1967. A lawyer who was able to visit Palestinian prisoners told me that the prisoners have been prevented from contacting their families, denied visits from family members or their attorneys, and deprived of using prison canteens or prison yards. Their electrical appliances have been confiscated, together with their clothing, shoes, and other personal belongings, such as pillows and cleaning equipment. The Israeli prison authority has also removed shower curtains, forcing prisoners who don’t want to be seen naked to use water bottles to bathe. Israel has also enacted emergency regulations that extend the period during which Palestinian prisoners can be held without access to a lawyer for up to 90 days. Accounts by recently released prisoners also highlight the humiliations and physical abuse to which prisoners have been subjected.

A third cornerstone of Israel’s war against Palestinians has involved heightened surveillance, intimidation, rising criminalization of Palestinian content on social media, and a severe crackdown on freedom of speech. Indeed, there has been a systematic campaign by the Israeli political and security establishment to politically suppress and persecute Palestinian citizens of Israel, delegitimize them, and deter them from criticizing Israel’s war on Gaza or expressing any form of collective Palestinian identity. Such measures have been directed against those voicing support for the population in Gaza, declaring their opposition to Israel’s war, or even sharing Quranic verses. They have included mass detentions, dismissal of students from Israeli academic institutions, job layoffs or the demotion of employees, prohibiting protests in solidarity with Gaza, and inciting against parliamentarians who represent Palestinian political parties in the Israeli Knesset.

Moreover, as part of its campaign to create an atmosphere of fear to suppress any form of political expression or dissent, the Knesset has even criminalized the passive use of social media, by amending the Counter-Terrorism Law and making the “consumption of terrorist publications” a criminal offence that might lead to one year of imprisonment. Palestinians can thus be arrested for merely following a Telegram or Instagram page that is deemed to be supporting “terrorism.”

Israel might go a step further if it officially enacts a new law that authorizes the revocation of citizenship for Palestinian citizens of Israel or of permanent residency status for Palestinians in East Jerusalem if a person is convicted of identifying with “a terrorist organization” or incitement of “terrorism.” The law would, therefore, render the status and rights of Palestinians in the 1948 territories and East Jerusalem conditional on not dissenting with the dominant Israeli narrative.

This campaign of political persecution against Palestinians has deepened the general atmosphere of terror in which they are silenced and have to self-censor to protect themselves. Some Palestinians have thus resorted to using old cell phones when they leave their homes, since Israeli soldiers or policemen have checked smartphones and arrested people for having messages or photos with which the Israelis were unhappy, even if these were sent by someone else.

All these Israeli measures are not new but are, rather, a continuation of Israeli efforts since at least 1967 to suppress Palestinians and their political aspirations, albeit in an intensified and accelerated fashion. They should be understood as part and parcel of Israel’s larger Zionist project to make life more and more difficult for Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories, including Gaza, in such a way that it will compel Palestinians to leave, whether voluntarily or not.

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