Is the West Bank heading for war?

Driving from Israel to the West Bank is like stepping through the looking glass. The world is almost identical, but subtly altered. Scenery deceives; palm trees line the centre of a boulevard, but they are short and stubby. The same off-white buildings that populate Jerusalem dominate Ramallah, but they are faded and dappled with wear. Everything here seems somehow diminished.

Beyond the trauma of the war in Gaza, there is another trauma in the West Bank: Israeli settlers. There are more than 450,000 Israeli settlers (and more than 100 Israeli illegal outposts) in the West Bank, with an additional 220,000 living in East Jerusalem. Since October 7, their thieving and violence has gone into overdrive. The UN humanitarian office has recorded more than 250 settler attacks, which resulted in the murder of eight Palestinians, including a child, and injuries to more than 70 others. Since late October, more than 1,000 Palestinian residents have fled several West Bank villages, claiming that Israeli settler violence and threats had driven them out.

I enter the West Bank from Israel through the Rantis checkpoint, a stark monolith etched in concrete and steel. Usually there would be a queue of cars here, but now the road is clear. Since October 7, the region has been in lockdown.

Central Ramallah is a thicket of modern bustle interspersed with building sites and the odd patch of rubble. School children — mainly girls in striped, blue uniforms — scamper across the pavement. If violence comes, it will be Palestinian youth largely battling Israeli forces in the streets. In Cafe Vanilla, a spacious bistro with an “I love Palestine” sign outside, I meet 33-year-old Gaza-born Fathi Aljhoul, a handsome man with a shaved head. On his right arm he has a tattoo of a leaf; a band encircles his left bicep. The owner of a marketing company, he looks just like a hipster in London or Brooklyn. Since the war began, he has lost 70 members of his family in Gaza — 45 cousins in one attack.

“We are very angry,” he tells me. “All of my friends are angry — and we are not afraid of anything. Every day, I watch Al-Jazeera from when I wake up until one or two in the morning. We have stopped our lives. We watch Gaza — it’s a mini-massacre every day. We watch our own cousins being killed every day.” He describes how the West Bank is spiralling. “Since the war began, the Israelis are killing three to four people here every day. An Israeli settler shot a Palestinian harvesting his olives in the heart.”

Since the war began, Israel claims it has arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives in the West Bank. The IDF carries out raids every morning and night. Aljhoul can’t even get to villages 10 minutes away in the Ramallah outskirts because the city is surrounded by Israeli Army checkpoints. “Since 7 October they have sealed off the West Bank,” he tells me. “In Ramallah things are probably easiest because you still have access from Jerusalem. But in Jenin and Hebron and across the West Bank it is harder. And this is in Area A, which is supposed to be under Palestinian control.”

He adds that the IDF is not just arresting Hamas operatives but anyone they want. “My friend has a brother who supports the Hamas party in college,” he tells me. “My friend does not. But every three or four days the occupation army goes to his home and ransacks his house. The last time, they took away his father for a night and flushed his Palestinian flags down the toilet. They want to take revenge on anything, including the flag. They have totally lost it since 7 October.” He continues: “Since the war began, we have lost everything: our family, our lives, our sanity. It’s very difficult to think about hope or peace now.”

I ask if we might see another intifada. “Anything is possible,” he replies. “It looks like we are getting there… I always spoke about a two-state solution, but over the past few years, new settlements have been built near Ramallah, Jerusalem, Nablus and Bethlehem. I believe the only thing left is to take all of Palestine again — from the river to the sea.”

After this, I wind through Ramallah’s narrow streets on my way to meet with an official from Fatah, the political party that governs the West Bank. My appointment is with Dr Sabri Saidam, Deputy Secretary General of Fatah’s Central Committee. Outside his office is a large poster of several Israeli soldiers surrounding a blindfolded Palestinian youth they have arrested. “I Can’t Breathe,” reads the caption underneath, the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. As ever, Palestinian nationalism mixes easily with the ideological and linguistic tropes of the Western Left.

Saidam, a large man dressed in black, speaks impeccable English and has a PhD in physics from Imperial College London. “The West Bank and Gaza are one people,” he tells me, “and they are charged with emotion. The increasing attacks by settlers on innocent farmers is adding to the psychological pressure everyone is feeling due to the war on Gaza. People are bitter at losing loved ones. I have lost 44 members of my family in Gaza since the war began.”

Then there is the burgeoning economic crisis. 220,000 West Bank residents rely on daily wages from working in Israel. Without this income, society is in danger of collapsing. “This crisis is affecting the income coming into the treasury,” Saidam says. He is right to be concerned. The intense stress of war combined with sustained economic hardship could be the toxic mix that blows the West Bank apart. 220,000 people here rely on daily wages from working in Israel; without this money, society is in danger of collapsing. “We have tried wars, they achieved nothing. Neither side can solve this matter by throwing each other into the sea.”

On the coffee table in front of me lies a Quran, a model of the Dome of the Rock, and two tiny London black cabs, one of which has a Union Jack on its roof. It’s a reminder of the role of the British empire in the current Middle East Crisis. “Britain cannot be neutral,” Saidam says. “It has a legal and historical responsibility that gives it a special prominence on this issue.”

Once again, I ask if an intifada is coming. “I cannot tell you what will happen tomorrow,” he replies. “Wars are never endless, but they are senseless. Once they start, they can go in any direction.”

I later meet Mustafa Barghouti, who leads the Palestinian opposition party, Palestinian National Initiative. We gather in a boardroom in his office nearby (most things are nearby in Ramallah) where a large photo of the Dome of the Rock stretches across a wall. “Please record me. I like to be recorded,” he says, in a joking reference to the mass surveillance Israel subjects Palestinian leaders to.

“This Israeli government is very extreme,” he says. “We have people like [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich saying ‘we should fill the West Bank with settlers’. So we then have one of three options. One: leave, which is ethnic cleansing. Two: accept a life of subjugation, which is apartheid. Three: die, which is genocide.” He goes on to describe the settlers’ “terror tactics”: “They are using the distraction of Gaza to push forward with their stealing of our land. They now think they have the green light to go.”

“We are already in an intifada,” he says. “What does it mean? Self-organisation, self-reliance, and defying Israel measures. The IDF cannot enter any town or city without being confronted by young people who try to resist in non-violent ways.” But these confrontations can easily slip into violence, which in this region easily expands.

Barghouti appears sincerely to want peace. But later, I watch an interview where he tells CNN that no Israeli civilians were killed on October 7. With each side enraged, and the hatred growing, even moderates must speak out both sides of their mouths.

Later that day, I talk to an American-born Israeli settler, Yehuda Anaki, who moved from New York to the settlement of Ofra, deep in the West Bank. I ask him what he thinks about those who say settlers like him are stealing other people’s land. “If anything is historic Israel it’s this,” he says. “It’s not Tel Aviv and its beaches. It’s not called Judea for no reason. This is our birth right — we have a historical connection to the land.” This is the problem in a single sentence. Settlers are driven by an unshakable belief in God the divine estate agent, parcelling out land to them personally.

It is impossible to reason with this sort of nonsense. And even the IDF, as an officer later tells me, regards the settlers as a strategic threat to Israel. Word from inside the IDF is that on October 7, certain army units took a long time to arrive on the scene because they had been moved from the southern border to guard settlers in the West Bank.

Anaki, too, fears the possibility of war here. “Everyone is on high alert. It could ignite at any moment. What happened in Gaza will be 10 times worse. We are surrounded by Palestinians — to the north of Ofra is a Hamas village. I definitely think another intifada is possible. I slept in my full body armour 10 days ago. I thought, that’s it — it’s begun.”

Everywhere I looked in Ramallah, I saw young people — mostly men: gathering, smoking, talking. Without any hope of finding a job, many could drift towards organised violence and extremism. Meanwhile, Israeli civilians are out in force buying as many guns as they can lay their hands on. This is a war in which no one is left out. And here in the West Bank, the message is as worrying as it is clear: this is just the start.

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