'After Gaza it will be Huwara': Inside a West Bank town terrorised by Israeli settlers

Residents of Huwara, a flashpoint of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, have effectively been locked in for more than a month

Life comes to standstill amid blockade and tensions in occupied West Bank's Huwara

Life comes to standstill amid blockade and tensions in occupied West Bank's Huwara
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One of Rawan's children jumps on to a table in their house in Huwara, a town in the Occupied West Bank.

Another plays a video at full volume from a mobile phone in the family home on the main road that runs through Huwara, connecting the north and south of the occupied territory.

“The children are at home 24 hours [a day], this is why they are getting crazy,” says Rawan.

“They study on the mobile but now all day they fight,” she laughs. “I try to make peace with them.”

Huwara, which is normally an important commercial hub, is now effectively a ghost town, an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic place.

The shops lining the main street that splits the town are all shuttered following a lockdown order from the Israeli army. Mounds of earth block the entrances to most of the smaller roads that run further into Huwara.

The handful of cars traversing the main street have one thing in common; yellow Israeli number plates, while Israeli military personnel lurk in a dilapidated, dark building.

Huwara is almost a symbol of the West Bank today – surrounded by Israeli settlements deemed illegal under international law, while its residents require the permission of the Israeli army to even cross the main street.

For example, Rawan says she cannot visit relatives who live on the other side of the road. Other residents described how buying basic products such as water requires travelling to nearby villages in “permitted” areas, rather than a simple 20-second walk across the street.

“Even Huwara itself is divided because of the closure. East, west, south etc,” says Saddam Dumaidi, 33, a member of Huwara's municipal council.

“The main street, I am not allowed to either drive or walk on as a Palestinian, with a Palestinian car. Even the mayor is restricted. He can only drive on it with permission from the military – and only him.”

“There's a medical clinic for emergency cases, it is in the east side. If I am in the west side, I can't even reach there,” he said from the municipality building in the western chunk of Huwara.

“Usually to move from east to west takes two minutes,” Mr Dumaidi said. Now it would require a long, looping journey north through permitted areas to enter somewhere only a few metres away.

This has been the situation since October 5, when the Israeli army locked down Huwara for security reasons, although settler-related violence has increased since the events of October 7, when Hamas gunmen rampaged through southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking about 240 people hostage.

In response Israel has levelled swathes of the densely populated Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing more than 11,000 people in the process.

The situation in Huwara is symbolic of the ramped up repression against Palestinians in the West Bank – even compared to normally extremely high levels – since October 7.

According to the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, 150 Palestinians, including 44 children, have been killed by Israeli forces, and eight, including one child, by Israeli settlers since October 7. Meanwhile many hundreds have been forced from homes after threats and violence by settlers.

In the context of the wider Israel-Palestine conflict, Huwara is a particular flashpoint. It is surrounded by settlements, some only 100 metres away.

When two settlers were shot by a Palestinian as they drove through the town in February, a mob of hundreds went on an unprecedented rampage. The settlers torched Huwara, burning homes and businesses and killing one Palestinian.

The settlers have in part been emboldened by the most extreme Israeli government ever, with new far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling earlier this year for Huwara to be “wiped out”.

But Mr Dumaidi says the situation has been particularly severe since May 2021, the last time Israel fought a war with militants in Gaza.

“We live in constant horror,” said Rawan. “Settlers, when they drive, point at the houses on the main street. God knows what they are planning,” she said, adding that her children want to go and play outside on the road but it is too dangerous to do so.

When her husband sought to remove a part of the mounds of earth blocking the road, he was attacked.

“They saw him, went after him and they beat him with the back of the rifle. They kept beating him, on his body, on his head. It feels like our turn is coming after Gaza, it feels like Huwara will come after Gaza.”

There are also growing fears of how the violence will affect the children; traumatised, with little to do and no school.

“My children now don't sleep alone. When they want to sleep they come to my bed and they sleep with me. Yesterday Lilas she was saying I had a nightmare that the settlers are coming and they are burning our house,” Rawan said, referring to her 10-year-old child.

“They are afraid. They don't go to schools, everything is not even through the laptop, but via the mobile. I am afraid that we are losing the school year.”

Rawan says she is scared to even stand on her balcony overlooking the main street because the settlers are armed and swear at them.

“It’s not only a prison, but also they insult you in the prison.”

Mr Dumaidi described the mood in Huwara as one of “oppression, suppression and injustice”.

“The grudge that the kids will grow up with … the way these settlers are treating people … these kids, they don't go to school, they can't buy sweets, they don't have a normal life.”

At her home Rawan describes how they have steadily been forced to take increased measures to secure the entrance door to her building, reinforcing it with a pole and a ladder behind it.

“They don't want you to leave,” she says of her children, as The National left the family home. “It's like someone visiting a prisoner.”

Updated: November 13, 2023, 9:01 AM