Different Tactics, Same War: The Perils of Treating Israel’s West Bank Offensive as Separate From Gaza

The horrors in Gaza are just one part of Israel’s unified system of controlling Palestinians from the river to the sea.

JENIN, OCCUPIED WEST BANK -- NOVEMBER 10, 2023: A cacophony of thunderous gunfire & sorrowful praise to the Almighty punctuate a mass funeral for 14 Palestinians killed after Israeli forces raided the refugee camp in Jenin, Occupied West Bank, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. Over a thousand Palestinians march and bear their slain on stretchers for the procession that moves the dead through 'Right of Return' square, which was destroyed by constant Israeli assault on Jenin, which they consider it a militant hotbed in the occupied West Bank.  (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A mass funeral for 14 Palestinians killed after Israeli forces raided the refugee camp in Jenin, occupied West Bank, on Nov. 10, 2023. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On November 10, a couple of Israeli settlers, accompanied by a soldier, entered the Palestinian village Tuba in the rural south of the occupied West Bank, opened the residents’ water tanks — their only source of water — and watched the water spill to the ground before leaving, unfettered. A few weeks earlier, in the Bedouin shepherding community of Wadi al-Seeq east of Ramallah, an armed group of settlers assaulted and threatened the community, as they have been doing for months. The next day, the residents of the West Bank community, about 100 Palestinians, packed up their belongings and left. On October 28, an armed Israeli settler shot and killed Bilal Muhammad Saleh while he was harvesting olives near Nablus.

These are the kinds of incidents that typify life in the occupied West Bank and have only intensified and increased since the October 7 Hamas attack, in which thousands of Palestinians raided Israel and killed 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and took over 200 hostages. As a Palestinian shepherd from the Jordan Valley told me in September, even before the outbreak of the current war, “What we are experiencing is ethnic cleansing. One settler outpost inhabited by one or two Israeli families can control thousands of acres of land, guarding it with arms. The army protects them and the police [do] not do anything.”

Violence by Israeli forces and settlers has escalated sharply over the last six weeks, in a year that is already the deadliest for Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank in 20 years. With all eyes on Gaza, where Israel has killed well over 11,000 Palestinians, about half of them children, the West Bank is treated by journalists, policymakers, analysts, and Israel itself as a separate, distinct front, as if compartmentalized. Israel’s head of the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security service, has warned that settler violence could contribute to the West Bank “erupting,” hurting Israel’s war in Gaza. The U.S. has been urging Israel repeatedly to rein in settler violence in the West Bank, warning that it could become another front in this war. “They’re attacking Palestinians in places they’re entitled to be,” President Joe Biden said.

But the West Bank already is a front; it is part of the same war.

There are, of course, salient differences between the West Bank and Gaza, starting with their separate geographies. The West Bank is partially governed by the Palestinian Authority (or what is left of it), not Hamas, and Israel occupies it from the inside, while Gaza, since 2005, has been punished from the outside by an Israeli blockade. The West Bank is also home to half a million Israeli settlers. But despite the differences and distance between them, Gaza and the West Bank are home to a single population, conjoined in a single war, under one system of permanent occupation and Israeli control.

DEIR AL BALAH, GAZA - NOVEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image depicts graphic content) A child mourns by the corpses after bodies of the deceased are brought to the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza on November 17, 2023. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A child mourns after bodies of the deceased are brought to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on Nov. 17, 2023.

Photo: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel began its military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Sinai, after its victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967 (Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982). Since then, Israel has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that has kept the populations in occupied territory physically separated, preventing movement and access in and between them. That management and division of all the territory under its control is — and as more and more people recognize — a one-state reality.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza in 2005, after which Hamas was elected and took control of the strip in 2007, paradoxically should be understood as part of this one-state framework. The withdrawal was less abandonment than retrenchment, the result of a demographic calculation that left Israel with a majority-Jewish population in the area under its direct control while cutting off Gaza’s 1.5 million people. It also had the effect of further fracturing the Palestinian body politic and diminishing the prospect of a unified Palestinian state, further hollowing the peace process. Gaza, Israel claimed, would no longer be its responsibility, even as it imposed a blockade on the territory and for the most part prevented movement both between the West Bank and Gaza, and between each region and Israel.

The engineering of demography and territory that characterizes Israeli statecraft applies, of course, in Israel’s capital as well, which includes occupied and annexed East Jerusalem. There, the government has systematically encouraged depopulation for decades by revoking permanent residency for Palestinian residents and through settler groups’ efforts to claim properties in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah. 

In May 2021, Hamas demonstrated that what happens in Jerusalem does not remain in Jerusalem. The militant group fired rockets at the city from Gaza following a series of repressive and escalatory measures by Israel against Palestinians in Jerusalem, most critically amid police raids at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. This set off an outburst of violence between Israelis and Palestinians across the land — in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel proper — exposing the artificiality of these divisions. When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, it named its operation “Al-Aqsa Flood,” once again centering on Jerusalem.

The attack — in its unprecedented scale and intimate impact on civilians — shook Israel’s sense of control across its entire expanse and Israelis’ sense of security. This, and the fact that the Islamist movement is the only adversary that Israel has gone to war with in a generation, explains why Israel is pushing so hard to reassert control.

GAZA, PALESTINE - 2023/11/10: Palestinian families are seen walking along a road while evacuating from the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. For more than a month, thousands of Palestinians have been fleeing Gaza City and northern Gaza, making their way to the southern part of Gaza due to the ongoing intense conflict between the Palestinian armed group Hamas and the Israeli military. This conflict was sparked by an unprecedented attack by Hamas on October 7 in southern Israel, leading the Israel Defense Forces to respond with retaliatory bombings on Gaza. (Photo by Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Palestinian families are seen walking along a road while evacuating on Nov. 10, 2023.

Photo: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Israel claims it now has a hold on the northern part of the Gaza Strip and has expelled much of its population, instructing over a million people to move south at the outset of the war. It is estimated that over 800,000 Palestinians have already done so, and according to the United Nations, 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza are internally displaced throughout the strip (out of a total of 2.3 million). As a former senior Israeli security official acknowledged on Israel’s Channel 12 on November 9, a displacement of this scope has not taken place since 1948, when 700,000 Palestinians became refugees, many of them ending up in Gaza. On that same channel a few days later, Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s internal security service and currently a member of the security cabinet and a minister in Netanyahu’s government, boasted that Israel is “rolling out the Gaza Nakba.”

It is clear that many or most of the people displaced by this war will not be able to return and live in the northern Gaza Strip for a long time due to the destruction, giving Israel free rein to operate there for an indefinite period, as it tries to secure its border with Gaza. Two Israeli parliament members have called for the U.S. and Europe to take in Palestinian refugees from Gaza who seek to emigrate, in what appears to be a proposal for population engineering couched as humanitarian concern, an echo of Israel’s gambit at the war’s outset to transfer, for at least some time, Gaza’s population to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.


I Joined Gaza’s Trail of Tears and Displacement

Meanwhile in the West Bank, Israeli forces and settlers have killed nearly 200 Palestinians in recent weeks, more than 50 of them children, while a rising number of people across the West Bank are also being forced from their homes. According to the U.N., since October 7 alone, over 1,000 people from 143 households have been displaced due to settler violence and restrictions on freedom of movement and access.

While the war has thus far not prompted another round of violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, the state’s Palestinian citizens are feeling its effects. In a blanket crackdown on free speech across Israel, Palestinians are being arrested and suspended from jobs for trying to protest the war or for social media posts, many of which express empathy for Palestinian people and nationalism but that Israel claims are support for Hamas.  

It’s an elemental law of physics: When you put the contents of a closed system under pressure, you run the risk of explosion. For decades, the equation has been the same: blockade and bombardment in Gaza; settlement expansion, oppression, and displacement in the West Bank; disenfranchisement in East Jerusalem; violation of the delicate status quo at the Al-Aqsa compound; and the closure of public space to any meaningful dissent in Israel. Israeli scholar Baruch Kimmerling described this as “politicide,” the systematic destruction of a Palestinian political identity and existence. Time after time, in one region or another, separately or in unison, peacefully or lethally, Palestinians inevitably react. Israel then doubles down on its use of force, and the vicious cycle continues.

Regardless of what transpires in this war, all the people and all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will remain linked. Just this week, on November 16, several Palestinians from the occupied West Bank city of Hebron shot and killed an Israeli corporal and injured five other Israeli forces at a checkpoint south of Jerusalem. Police say the assailants had likely planned to carry out a large attack inside Jerusalem itself, and Hamas claimed responsibility. Anyone who thinks this war begins and ends with Gaza is not paying attention. Any efforts to mitigate the violence will have to look at the whole picture and the full context, not just bits and pieces.

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