‘It’s not about Hamas,’ say West Bank Palestinians amid growing violence and anguish
Nineteen-year-old Rabia Odeh flits through the darkened corridors of her family’s house in the Palestinian village of Qusra, south of Nablus, with a nervous energy.
Her skin is pale against a black hijab as she steps around broken glass on the floor under a bullet hole through the window above a staircase.
She’s heading for the roof to point out more evidence of an attack by hard-line Jewish settlers on Oct. 11, four days after Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and taking about 240 people hostage.
Settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has spiked sharply in the weeks following the attack, leading to condemnation from U.S. President Joe Biden, who denounced “extremist settlers” and compared the attacks to “pouring gasoline” on a fire.
Odeh has a video showing a group of settlers descending the hill above their house, throwing rocks. The husks of cars she says they set on fire still sit outside the house.
“My brother tried to tell them we don’t want any problems,” she said, “but they suddenly attack us without [provocation].”
When relatives and neighbours alerted by Odeh’s mother arrived to help, she says, the settlers opened fire, killing four men. A day later settlers fired on their funeral procession, killing two more men, a father and son.
More than 800 Palestinians have been forcibly displaced by settler violence and increased movement restrictions in the West Bank since Oct. 7, according to the United Nations.
While the violence might have intensified since the Hamas attack, it is not new. Odeh’s father, Mahmoud, was killed during a confrontation between Palestinians and settlers back in 2017.
‘Enough is enough’
The Israeli cabinet appointed last year, which includes ultra-nationalist settlers who favour annexing the West Bank, has emboldened hardliners, say rights groups.
“Since the establishment of the current Israeli government, there has been a vast increase in the presence of Israeli settlers in these very small so-called outposts throughout the West Bank,” said Sarit Michaeli of B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. “And all these outposts are protected by the army.”
More than 700,000 Israelis live on settlements in the West Bank built and supported by the Israeli government, but considered illegal under international law by much of the international community including Canada.
Coupled with events in Gaza, the despair, anger and anxiety many West Bank Palestinians say they already live with under occupation is amplifying.
At least 11,078 Palestinians have been killed, including 4,506 children, in Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct. 7, the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza said in a statement on Friday.
Few Palestinians accept Israel’s distinction that it is waging war specifically against Hamas, a designated terrorist organization by several Western governments, including the U.S. and Canada.
“Getting people out of their homes, bombing women and children, bombing hospitals, killing the Palestinian people and the identity is not about chasing a specific party — it’s about chasing the entire people of Palestine,” said Sabri Saidam during a recent march against the Israeli attacks in Ramallah, in the central West Bank, north of Jerusalem.
Saidam is the deputy secretary general of the Central Committee of Fatah, the secular party that runs the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, and Hamas’s long term political rival.
“All Palestinian factions have to come together and turn to the international community, say, ‘enough is enough.’ Had this conflict been resolved decades ago, we would not have seen the wars, successive wars over the decades that have passed.”
Support for Palestinian Authority at all-time low
The creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) with civil control over some parts of the West Bank was an essential part of the 1990s Oslo Peace Accords, signed by then-Fatah leader and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
But the failure of that peace to materialize has left support for the PA and its Fatah leadership at an all-time low, seen as weak — even complicit by some — in an Israeli occupation now in its 56th year.
Bloody factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza following contested parliamentary elections in 2006 led to Hamas running Gaza and the Fatah-run PA nominally in charge in the West Bank. Security experts say Hamas now sees space to try and extend its influence in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, even further than it already has.
The day after the Oct. 7 attack, Saleh al Arouri, the de-facto leader of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank, called on Palestinians outside of Gaza to escalate attacks against Israel. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) blew up his former family home in the West Bank village of Arura on Oct. 31.
Local children have already placed a Hamas flag on the ruins.
“This will not make us weaker,” said Saad Dagher, an agronomist from a neighbouring village who went to school with al Arouri as a child. “On the contrary it makes us, as Palestinians, even stronger.”
Dagher had just been made mayor of his village because the previous incumbent, a Hamas supporter, was arrested by Israeli soldiers, he said.
“I support Palestinian resistance in general. It’s not about Hamas,” said Dagher.
He believes Israel’s current crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank will backfire, ultimately uniting Palestinians.
“It creates more anger against the occupation because, for example, if they will arrest me, my friends, my family will become more and more angry and they will start also thinking how to liberate and how to free the prisoners. The same as what’s happening now.”
Israel steps up arrests in West Bank
As of June this year, the Israel Prison Service was holding 4,499 Palestinians in detention on what it defined as “security grounds,” according to the human rights organization B’tselem.
Since Oct. 7, Israel has stepped up its arrests across the West Bank, saying most are associated with Hamas.
Two weeks ago, Israeli soldiers raided the home of Fadia Barghouti in the village of Deir Ghassana, she said, arresting her son Basil in the middle of the night.
“They have never been as violent as this time. This time they have smashed the door,” she said.
Barghouti’s husband, Mahmoud, an accountant who works for the PA’s department of religious affairs, has been arrested several times before, all but once without being charged.
He’s currently in his 14th month of administrative detention in an Israeli jail, she said. Barghouti believes her son was arrested for supporting the Hamas-linked party that won the student elections at Birzeit University last spring.
“So he had to be punished,” she said.
Barghouti believes support for Hamas stems from failure of the peace process and those naïve enough to believe it could protect Palestinian rights.
“This world respects strong people,” she said. “When Palestinians were weak, they smashed us. I think resistance gives Palestinians a sense of dignity and a sense of power.”
‘Whatever gives them the hope of freedom’
Mudar Kassis, who heads the Muwatin Institute of Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University near Ramallah, doesn’t believe either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority reflect the majority of Palestinian public opinion any more.
“What is relevant eventually for the Palestinians is that which will make them free,” he said. “Not Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, not Fatah, not the third way, not the left, not the right. Whatever gives them the hope of freedom is what will get relevance for Palestinians.”
In Qusra, Rabia Odeh and her mother no longer spend nights in their home, too afraid the settlers might return. They come back now and again to check on it, but they’ve moved much of their furniture to where they are staying with relatives.
In Odeh’s bedroom there are still pictures and postcards taped to the wall, most in English as she’s studying translation.
One of them has a picture of green leaves and a little saying written on it. It says, “Come morning light, you and I’ll be safe and sound.”