Sadness and fear in West Bank as Israel resumes Gaza offensive

Palestinians in the occupied territory feel hopeless as war rages on

The normally bustling city of Bethlehem is quiet as tourists and pilgrims stay away while the war rages on. Willy Lowry / The National
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The day after Israel resumed its offensive in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians in the West Bank looked at the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe with growing fears for their own safety and a mounting sense of dismay over what has become an indefinite economic freeze.

Israeli security forces have conducted repeated raids in West Bank cities since October 7, when Hamas militants from Gaza stormed southern Israel and killed about 1,200 people.

As Israel looks for Hamas members and sympathisers in the West Bank, security forces have arrested more than 3,000 people since the war began. West Bank residents say many of those caught in Israel's drag net have no affiliation to Hamas – or any political party.

In Bethlehem on Saturday, the normally bustling place of Jesus Christ's birth was devoid of tourists and pilgrims, and business owners complained that life is at a standstill while the war rages on.

Basil Khalil, 35, who runs a small bookshop, said he was living under a de facto curfew.

“I'm afraid to go out with friends after 8pm because it's not safe,” Mr Khalil told The National. “They're storming the West Bank every day and detaining people.”

Mr Khalil said his 22-year-old cousin, who has no political affiliations, was arrested recently for no good reason.

The bookseller was dismayed by news of the resumption of the war in Gaza because businesses have no way of knowing when tourists might return.

“Here in the West Bank life is not moving, the economic situation is not moving,” he said.

Israeli war planes and artillery bombarded the south of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, hitting mosques, homes and close to a hospital, after the collapse of a week-long truce between Israel and Hamas militants.

The end of the ceasefire means traumatising footage of collapsed buildings and dead and wounded civilians has returned to TV screens.

Renewed misery in Gaza as Israel recommences air strikes – in pictures

The Gaza health ministry said at least 193 Palestinians had been killed and 650 wounded since the truce ended – adding to the more than 15,000 Palestinian dead since the start of the war.

“We had in our mind that this war had come to an end, but unfortunately they resumed it and they resumed killing children again,” said Abdullah, a 22-year-old construction worker.

Sitting alongside his friend Mohammed in Manger Square in the centre of Bethlehem, he said he feels powerless as he watches news footage of the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.

“As Palestinians living in Bethlehem, we can't do anything to stop it,” he said. “We're just watching and getting sad.”

Like Mr Khalil, Abdullah said he fears for his safety while walking the streets of the occupied West Bank city.

“I'm afraid, they're killing people without any reason,” Abdullah said of the Israeli military.

He only wanted to give his first name as he hoped one day to be able to work in Israel, where the pay is three or four times higher than in Bethlehem.

Just off Manger Square, diners ate hummus and falafel in Afteem, a cavelike restaurant with arched limestone ceilings.

Randa Hreimi and her two daughters and granddaughter dug into their lunch during a rare family outing. Since October 7, they've barely gone out and this was their first meal out at a restaurant.

“For 12 days we haven't left the house,” Ms Hreimi said.

“We needed a change and the weather is beautiful. … We are at home all the time watching TV and just feeling more and more depressed, so we decided to go out for some change.”

Updated: December 02, 2023, 4:32 PM