ARAB AND WORLD

Sun 25 Feb 2024 5:16 pm - Jerusalem Time

Israeli Settlers and army blocking West Bank roads to Palestinians

ByYuval Abraham

Makeshift barriers erected since October 7 have sealed off dozens of Palestinian communities. Those who try to cross risk being shot.


Since October, Mahmoud Amer’s village in the occupied West Bank has been under an effective blockade. He can’t leave by car, and every time he wants to leave on foot — whether to visit a relative or run an errand — or invite a guest into the village, he has to ask the adjacent Israeli settlement for permission. 

“I call the settlement security coordinator every time the children go to school, or when my sister comes to visit,” Amer told +972 and Local Call. “We were told that if we left on foot without telling them, they would cause us problems.” 

Amer lives in Khirbet Sarra, a small village home to about 40 people in the occupied West Bank, between Nablus and Ramallah. According to him, on Oct. 16 — a week and a half after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel, and Israel launched its assault on Gaza — Israeli soldiers and “settlers wearing military uniforms” placed large boulders across the village’s sole entrance, completely blocking the way for traffic. “A car hasn’t entered the village in four months,” Amer said. 


Far from an isolated case, the blockade of Khirbet Sarra is just one example of a widespread and dramatic phenomenon that has taken hold across the West Bank since October 7. Citing intensified security concerns and coming under pressure from settlers, the Israeli army has constructed or permitted the construction of makeshift barriers and checkpoints to prevent dozens of Palestinian villages, towns, and cities from accessing major West Bank arteries. In some cases, villages have been blocked off from every direction. 

Major roads are now virtually inaccessible to Palestinians, almost exclusively servicing settlers. In order to travel around the West Bank, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are now forced to drive along unpaved, narrow, and winding roads. 

A dirt mound blocks traffic in the area of Mazmoria, east of Bethlehem, occupied West Bank. (Yuval Abraham)

A dirt mound blocks traffic in the area of Mazmoria, east of Bethlehem, occupied West Bank. (Yuval Abraham)

“They created a separate route for the settlers — a ‘security lane’ — so there wouldn’t be Arabs,” said a taxi driver who transports Palestinians on both sides of a dirt barrier that Israeli settlers and soldiers erected on Route 398, near Bethlehem. Due to the blockage, he has to travel along an unpaved road that passes through crowded neighborhoods in southern Bethlehem, meaning a journey that used to take five minutes now takes more than half an hour. 

All the Palestinian villages along this section of Route 398 have been cut off by makeshift barriers made out of dirt and rocks. “Anyone leaving Ramallah for Hebron must pass through here,” said a resident of Khirbet al-Deir, near Hebron, who runs a stall by the side of the road selling coffee and cauliflower. In the past, he told +972 and Local Call, the area was quiet; few people drove through it. Today, so much Palestinian traffic has been diverted from elsewhere that it has become a busy thoroughfare.

The main exit from Nablus, the northern West Bank’s largest city, has also been blocked: a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers restricts access to Route 60, the major road connecting Nablus to Ramallah and the southern West Bank. 

Palestinian ambulance drivers told +972 and Local Call that they, too, are prevented from entering Nablus through the main entrance, and that their journeys are often significantly elongated as a result of being forced to drive on unpaved bypass roads. (An army spokesperson denied this, claiming: “The movement of ambulances or any humanitarian requirement is permitted on the main roads in the area and there is no order to block or delay their movement.”)

“It used to take me 20 minutes to get to the hospital in Nablus — today it takes me an hour,” said Bashar al-Qaryuti, an ambulance driver from the village of Qaryut. “A week ago, I picked up a severely injured man who had fallen. He was bleeding. I tried to take the fast route, but they wouldn’t let me enter Nablus. They forced me to drive through Palestinian villages.”

Israeli soldiers close the Beit Furik checkpoint east of Nablus after a Palestinian attempted to run over soldiers, September 29, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers close the Beit Furik checkpoint east of Nablus after a Palestinian attempted to run over soldiers, September 29, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)


Nidal Odeh, an ambulance driver from the town of Huwara, said that the poor quality of the alternative roads exacerbates the suffering of the patients he transports. “They scream in pain because the bypass road through the town of Awarta is unpaved and full of potholes,” he explained. “They ask me to drive slower, but I’m already driving as slowly as I can. When I try to cross the road with seriously injured people, the soldiers at the checkpoint always turn me back.”

‘It reminds me of the Second Intifada’

In Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city, all exits to main roads have been blocked except for one, where access is restricted by an Israeli military checkpoint that is sometimes closed on weekends. “It creates huge traffic jams, because this is the only exit for 250,000 people,” Issa Amro, a human rights activist in the city, told +972 and Local Call. 

Further south, in the city of Yatta, the primary exit for 65,000 residents is blocked, and all traffic is redirected to an unpaved sideroad that is barely wide enough for two lanes. The road connecting the villages east of Bethlehem to Hebron is also closed from the south; today, one sees almost exclusively Israeli license plates driving by.

“In many places in the West Bank, the idea is to create a total separation between Palestinians and settlers,” Roni Pelli, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, explained. “The main roads belong to the settlers, and the Palestinians receive a kind of extensive road system full of checkpoints.”  

Israeli soldiers are stationed at many of these new roadblocks, and there have been several reports in recent months of soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians who try to cross. One such fatal incident at the end of December was captured on video: Mohammed al-Jundi approached the unlocked yellow gate that cuts Beit Jala off from the main road passing near the settlement of Har Gilo; he tried to open the gate so a woman could drive through, at which point soldiers positioned behind a nearby rock opened fire on him. 

Israeli soldiers close a checkpoint in Huwara following a deadly shooting attack, August 19, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers close a checkpoint in Huwara following a deadly shooting attack, August 19, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)


His uncle, Kamel, said al-Jundi bled on the road for nearly an hour and a half before an ambulance arrived, and it was too late to save his life. “The woman who wanted help opening the checkpoint came to our house and sobbed,” he said. “She asked his children for forgiveness. He has five daughters, and two sons. The youngest is just four months old, and the eldest is 12.” 

The yellow gate has since been replaced by some concrete bricks. Eyewitnesses said the military made this change the day after al-Jundi was killed. 

A truck driver who works in the area told +972 and Local Call that he brings food to hotels in Bethlehem; since October, he has had to unload the goods at the roadblock, while another driver picks them up on the other side and completes the journey. “At each of the [new] checkpoints, there’s been a case in which someone has been shot,” he said. “It reminds me of the Second Intifada.”

The army says that brigade commanders decide whether and where to put up and maintain barriers in accordance with security considerations and in order to control Palestinian traffic. “After October 7, in light of an increase in attempts to carry out attacks, we decided that we needed to control the routes better,” a security official told +972. “The points where villages connect to major roads make it difficult to control the roads and to block them if necessary.” 

However, according to this official, the brigade commander is not the sole decision-maker: settlers play a key role.

Israeli settlers and soldiers block a main road around Nablus in the occupied West Bank, April 10, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Israeli settlers and soldiers block a main road around Nablus in the occupied West Bank, April 10, 2022. (Oren Ziv)


‘A road opens up next to you? Block it with your bodies’

Much of this settler activism is being coordinated by a group called “Fighting For Our Lives.” (The group declined to comment for this article.) Since October, it has organized dozens of demonstrations to prevent roads from being reopened to Palestinian traffic. In many cases, according to testimonies from Palestinians in various parts of the West Bank, their efforts have paid off: villages that the military initially sought to reopen remain closed to this day.

+972 and Local Call have seen internal correspondence among Fighting For Our Lives activists. In the organization’s WhatsApp group, activists called on other settlers to photograph roads that remain open to Palestinians and to report them to the authorities, and then “go to the area. Don’t give up. A road opens next to you? Gather some people and block it with your bodies.”

One of the oft-repeated slogans in messages in the Whatsapp group is “We demand roads safe from enemies.” The activists also share news of their successes: “After the righteous residents of Tapuach blocked the entrance to the village of Yasuf on Saturday night, and thanks to their presence yesterday morning as well, the route remains closed [to Palestinians] to this day,” they wrote at the end of November.

“Dozens of residents are now protesting in the village of Huwara following the opening of roads to Arab traffic, endangering their travel along the route,” the activists wrote in mid-November. “Congratulations to all the residents who came down immediately to protest and prevent the opening of roads. Report open roads to us, and go out and block the terrorists’ routes.”

Roads are often closed after incidents of violence by Palestinians against settlers. In early November, 29-year-old Elhanan Klein, a resident of the settlement of Einav, was shot dead. “It does not make sense that the roads are open to the movement of the Nazi enemy in wartime,” the group’s organizers wrote to activists after the shooting. “Tonight we all go out to the intersections — we won’t allow the enemy to use the roads and kill us.”

Israeli settlers block Palestinian traffic near Kedumim, northern West Bank, July 6, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Israeli settlers block Palestinian traffic near Kedumim, northern West Bank, July 6, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)


Dror Etkes, a researcher at the organization Kerem Navot which tracks the development of settler infrastructure in the West Bank, fears that these roadblocks will become permanent. “Experience with the Israeli military regime in the West Bank shows that temporary security considerations — which of course are employed almost exclusively to safeguard the security of settlers — may become permanent, as they serve the broader political purpose of dispossession and the expulsion of Palestinians,” he told +972 and Local Call. 

“There is no doubt that settlers will try to cement their achievements from recent months, both in terms of the roadblocks and checkpoints themselves, and in terms of the authority they have been given to enforce the new movement arrangements in many other places in the West Bank,” Etkes added.

It is clear that the settlers’ actions are achieving their desired outcome. After a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice against a blockade on the main road connecting the village of Al-Muntar to the nearby town of Sawahira al-Sharqiya, the government admitted the army’s brigade commander overseeing the area simply adopted the blockade that had been built by settlers.

“At first, the dirt road that is the subject of the petition was blocked by parties whose identities are unknown to the brigade’s headquarters,” the government wrote in response to a petition against the blockade. “After a thorough examination of the matter, the brigade commander decided that the blockade was required for security reasons, and today it is controlled and supervised by the brigade.”

‘We feel like we’re in a cage’

Although the authorities reportedly intend to remove many of the roadblocks in the leadup to Ramadan, there are still small villages in the West Bank that remain blocked from every direction solely because of pressure from settlers. One such village is Susiya, in the South Hebron Hills. 

A dirt mound blocks the entrance to Umm Safa, occupied West Bank. (Oren Ziv)

A dirt mound blocks the entrance to Umm Safa, occupied West Bank. (Oren Ziv)


In October, military forces blocked all entrances to the village and demolished several of its buildings. An army spokesperson told +972 that this activity was carried out without authorization. “IDF forces deviated from the defined boundaries of activity due to a lack of coordination,” the spokesperson said. According to Palestinian residents of the village, the driver of the bulldozer was a well-known settler who lives in a nearby outpost.

Although the military itself admits that the blockade operation was carried out without authorization, the village is still closed off. When soldiers came to remove one of the roadblocks, settlers protested and successfully prevented the soldiers from doing so. An army spokesperson told +972 that “the roadblock in the village of Susiya has been removed”; this claim is false, and the roadblock remains. 

“We feel like we’re in a cage,” said Halima Abu Eid, a mother of two from Susiya. “Since being locked in, we have been walking long distances. No cars can enter. My daughters — one is 8 years old, one is 7 — have trouble getting to school. But settlers enter the village freely.”

In another village in the southern West Bank, Sha’ab el-Butum, the situation is similar. “At the beginning of the war, three settlers came with a bulldozer from the Mitzpe Yair outpost, which is close to the village, and closed us off from all directions,” said Ziad al-Najjar, who lives in Sha’ab el-Butum. 

“No entrance is open,” he continued. “We can’t bring food in. We carry equipment on donkeys. If a child is sick, or someone needs a doctor, we still have to use donkeys to get anywhere.”

Israeli soldiers close a metal gate at a military checkpoint in Beit Furik, east of Nablus, occupied West Bank, October 19, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Israeli soldiers close a metal gate at a military checkpoint in Beit Furik, east of Nablus, occupied West Bank, October 19, 2022. (Oren Ziv)


Although settlers have constructed barriers and checkpoints throughout the West Bank, they have done so with particular effectiveness in Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control, and in which all Israeli settlements are located alongside scores of Palestinian villages, such as Susiya and Sha’ab el-Butum. “The closures are the result of pressure from settlers who want to take over Area C,” Yonatan Mizrahi of Peace Now told +972 and Local Call. 

“The Palestinians, who live in small villages near settlements, have been cut off from larger communities and so are much more vulnerable to violence,” he continued. “When the road is closed, they are alone. Sixteen such communities have already been expelled [since October].”

The recruitment of thousands of settlers to civilian security teams in the wake of October 7 has exacerbated the trend of roadblocks. Settlers living in Ma’ale Amos and Ibei HaNahal, for example, erected independent blockades on the main road for a month, shutting off all access for Palestinians.

In light of the roads being blocked, “there were no classes because the teachers couldn’t get to school,” said a math teacher from the nearby village of Arab al-Rashayidah. “My brother’s wife was giving birth, and we wanted to go to the hospital in Bethlehem at night, but the settlers told us it wasn’t allowed,” he said. She had to give birth at home.

A dirt mound blocks the access road to the Palestinian village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, occupied West Bank. (Yesh Din)

A dirt mound blocks the access road to the Palestinian village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, occupied West Bank. (Yesh Din)


Collective punishment

Often, these measures are clear examples of collective punishment employed by the military in response to violence or protests. On the locked gate of Al-Arroub refugee camp, between Hebron and Bethlehem, soldiers pasted a notice with a message in Arabic: “To the residents of the camp, the gate is closed due to the throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails at the army and settlers. 

“Whenever there is something like this, the gate will be closed for three days,” the message continued. “Don’t let the youngsters make trouble. Israel Defense Forces.”

According to the army’s “movement restrictions” protocol, a community can be besieged only when there is a “concrete security need,” and “no movement restriction may be imposed as a punitive or purely deterrent measure.” The roadblocks must be regulated by a time-bound order, and “sweeping movement restrictions must be avoided, and exceptional permits must be allowed for urgent needs.” 

Yet the blockade of Al-Arroub remains. “That message is still there, and the gate is still locked,” said Sameh Titi, a journalist who lives in the camp. “You can’t get out onto the main road.” 

Al-Fawwar camp, south of Hebron, is also cut off from the main road, and residents say the army is enforcing the roadblock by threatening their lives. Ahmad al-Anati, a resident of the camp, told +972 and Local Call: “Whoever passes by the entrance to the camp in the evening is shot.”

 

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Israeli Settlers and army blocking West Bank roads to Palestinians