'The new Hebron': Huwara on the brink as economic downturn bites

Israeli closure of West Bank financial powerhouse due to settler violence and Gaza war has residents predicting a new Palestinian uprising

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
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

“If you go behind my shop, it smells like dead bodies,” says the owner of a supermarket in the deserted West Bank town of Huwara.

“I had fresh vegetables and meat worth many thousands of dollars, which are now rotting – the [Israeli] army didn’t even give us one hour to empty the shop.”

The business owner, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, is sitting in a cafe in Ramallah, 50 kilometres away from his business that normally makes $30,000 in profit per month.

“I paid salaries for my employees this month because they have families. I don’t know what I’ll do next. The Israelis told us the closure will last as long as the war in Gaza,” he adds.

“I like Ramallah, but it feels wrong to be here. My children ask me if we can go and get pizza but it feels wrong to be doing something happy when Gaza is suffering so much.”

The merchant is one of many Palestinians whose life has been thrown into chaos by the Israel-Gaza war, even if they do not live in the strip itself.

It might be because of mounting settler violence, Israeli policies that stymie the local economy or tight restrictions on movement.

In Huwara, all three problems have combined to make the situation near untenable for residents.

“I’ve lost $100,000 dollars in indirect costs so far. If this lasts for three months, I think everything will be destroyed,” the supermarket owner says.

The town is home to between 400-500 shops, making it one of the most important commercial areas in the West Bank.

Even Israelis used to come and spend money there. The town is home to many mechanics who charge lower prices than in Israel.

Huwara has been in a precarious situation for some time. It is split in two by a main road that leads to Nablus and Jenin, cities that have become flashpoints between locals and Israeli forces in recent years.

The situation has deteriorated even more this year.

Nearby Israeli settlements are among the most extreme in the West Bank. Huwara residents say the election of Israel’s far-right pro-settlement government at the beginning of the year has emboldened radicals to act more violently towards Palestinians.

“Everything has changed since the new government,” the supermarket owner says. “Before, the settlers were attacking us with stones. Now they are attacking us with guns.”

The Israel-Gaza war has dealt a terrible blow to the Palestinian economy. The UN said on Friday that the gross domestic product of the West Bank and Gaza shrank by 4 per cent in the first month of the war.

There is no certainty when things will be back to normal. Most in the West Bank predict that it will at least be a matter of months.

Residents of Huwara were already struggling more than others in the West Bank. They have been on the sharp end of the mounting chaos since 2021, says Saddam Dumaidi, 33, an engineer and member of the Huwara municipal council.

“The town's problems did not start on October 7, rather May 2021, the last time Israel and Hamas were at war,” he explains.

“We put up Palestinian flags in solidarity with Gazans, which enraged the settlers who came in force to put up Israeli ones.”

Mr Dumaidi blames the Israeli military in large part for Hawara’s decline. The military maintains a tight grip on the strategic area, often erecting road blocks, taking up armed positions inside people’s homes and, as is the case now, barring outside Palestinians from entering the town and residents from venturing on to the main street, by foot or car.

“The army has divided the town into four zones. Residents have to stay in the ones assigned to them,” Mr Dumaidi says.

“Moving from the east to west side of town takes two minutes. Now I have to go through [the villages of] Einabus, Urif, Madama, Asira, Tell, Nablus city and Awarta to get there.

“Even the mayor is restricted. He can only drive on it with permission from the military – and only him.”

Like all Huwara residents The National spoke to, Mr Dumaidi is angriest at the settlers.

The closure of the town did not happen on October 7, but on October 5, when Israelis locked it down for security reasons, Mr Dumaidi explains.

“The day after, on October 6, settlers killed my 19-year-old nephew, Labib Dumaidi,” the grieving uncle says.

“He was studying graphic design and dreamt of becoming a photographer. He loved Huwara. He went outside to defend his house from settlers and they shot him. They didn’t allow the ambulance to arrive while he was bleeding to death.”

Residents say the problem of settler violence has become worse since October 7 because regular Israeli forces that had been positioned in the West Bank have now been deployed to Gaza and the north, where tension between Israel and Hezbollah threatens the opening of a new front in the war.

Settlers have been given the task of guarding the area by the Israeli military. Now they attack Palestinians wearing military uniforms, residents claim.

Mr Dumaidi says the situation is so bad that Huwara could be the next Hebron, the deeply contested and once commercially active city where Israeli forces have imposed the closure of a number of shops for more than two decades, and where settlers and Palestinians live side by side in deep animosity.

Residents say such a scenario would be terrible for the economy and security, particularly in the northern region that is at the heart of violent Palestinian resistance in the West Bank.

They are, however, determined to stay put. Even in entrepreneurial Huwara, many Palestinians say they will forfeit business for the sake of their political cause.

The owner of the supermarket plans to leave his family to go back to his town at the weekend and stand guard on the roof of his shop, armed only with stones. The settlers have guns.

“I will never leave Huwara. It is my land,” he says.

Updated: November 11, 2023, 6:32 AM