Israel’s war to root out Hamas in the aftermath of the latter’s Oct. 7 massacre, which killed 1,400 people, may no longer be confined to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military on Sunday carried out an airstrike on a mosque in the middle of a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin—which Israel says was being used as a “command centre” by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to plan terror attacks—killing two people and wounding several others. Though airstrikes have been commonplace in Gaza long before the latest escalation, which has left at least 5,000 people dead over the past 18 days, they are relatively rare in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which unlike Gaza is governed not by Hamas but by the rival Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
In many ways, the war had already reached the other Palestinian territories. At least 95 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and armed settlers in the West Bank since Oct. 7, according to Palestinian officials, making it the bloodiest period there in at least 15 years. (This year was already on track to be the deadliest year for West Bank residents since the U.N. began monitoring fatalities in 2005.) More than 1,400 Palestinians have also been detained. In East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967, tensions are flaring in other ways too; Israeli authorities have cracked down on displays of Palestinian solidarity and identity, both on and offline.
The surge in violence this year in the West Bank is now “on steroids,” says Mairav Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based senior Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group. The only difference, she says, is that now it’s taking place “without as many [Israeli military] forces on the ground and without almost any media attention being paid to it. So it’s a very dangerous and precarious situation.”
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, these fatalities have been accompanied by new restrictions on Palestinian movement across the West Bank (which is already severely curtailed by dozens of Israeli military checkpoints) as well as an uptick in Israeli settler violence targeting Palestinian communities east of Ramallah, in the Jordan Valley, and in the South Hebron Hills. “B’Tselem has received reports of settlers entering Palestinian communities, sometimes armed and often escorted by soldiers, and attacking residents, in some cases threatening them at gunpoint or firing at them,” the organization said in a recent press release, adding that eight Palestinian communities of more than 450 people have since been forced to leave their homes in the past week over fears for their safety. “Events on the ground indicate that under cover of war, settlers are carrying out such assaults virtually unchecked, with no one trying to stop them before, during, or after the fact.” There have also been reports of some Israeli soldiers participating in the attacks on Palestinians. In one such incident, which occurred days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, a group of soldiers and settlers allegedly tortured and assaulted three Palestinian men in the West Bank.
“Settler and the state have a clear agenda of taking over land and that’s a big part of why they exert violence,” Zonszein says. “But there’s also a sense of revenge when there’s an attack against Israelis … very much an ‘us versus them’ situation.”
Despite some protests in Ramallah and Nablus against Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza, there haven’t been any major escalations in the West Bank—at least not yet. Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, tells TIME that this partly comes down to the fact that Fatah has not organized any demonstrations. If anything, they’ve cracked down on them. “The Palestinian Authority is focused right now on preventing any kind of destabilization in the West Bank because of a fear that, if this happens, this will bring violence to the West Bank as well and that this violence could actually be directed at the Palestinian Authority and threaten its survival,” Shikaki says. (The PA has long faced criticism over its security coordination with the Israeli government, which many Palestinians regard as enabling Israel’s occupation.)
That fear is not unwarranted, Shikaki adds. “The concern is valid based on the assumption that things in Gaza could escalate; that if there is a ground invasion, there would be violence and there would be greater anger,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, there is an uneasy calm between the predominately Palestinian eastern half and the Jewish western half. “The streets aren’t empty, but they’re far from full,” says Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem-based lawyer and an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the city. “A lot of people are staying home.”
Police have placed concrete blocks that have historically been used to seal off Palestinian neighborhoods—an indication, Seidemann says, that they may be preparing to do so as a preemptive measure. There have also been recent reports that Israeli police are confiscating phones in an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in the country. Omar Haramy, the director of the Palestinian ecumenical organization Sabeel, tells TIME that several hundreds of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have had their phones searched—and, in some cases, even destroyed—by Israeli police in recent weeks. “If they see something that [indicates] you’re sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, 99% of the time they smash the phone on the ground,” he says, adding that “it has caused most people in the community to stop having anything that could be Palestine-related on their phones.” (Israeli police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
These expressions of support for Palestinians, much less Palestinian identity, are resulting in arrests too. The Israeli legal advocacy group Adalah told the Forward that at least 100 Israelis have been detained over social media posts supporting Palestinians in Gaza, including popular Palestinian singer Dalal Abu Amneh who was arrested over a social media post in which she shared the image of the Palestinian flag with the caption “There is no victor but God”
As the situation in Gaza gets worse, and as the prospect of an Israeli ground invasion looms, the rest of the Palestinian territories will remain on a knife edge. “The ice is very thin,” Seidemann says.
By Yasmeen Serhan