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Israeli Heavy-Handedness Said to Risk Backlash in West Bank; Military Violence, Economic Pressure Fuel Residents’ Ire

Toshiyuki Fukushima / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Posters hailing Palestinian fighters killed by the Israeli military are displayed in the old city of Nablus in the West Bank on Tuesday.

NABLUS, West Bank — Anti-Israel sentiment among residents in the Palestinian-governed West Bank is on the brink of exploding, as the conflict between the Israeli military and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip rages on even after passing the 100-day mark.

The Israeli military has killed more than 300 people in the West Bank since October, and this plus ongoing economic restrictions imposed on the Palestinian territory are fueling anger toward Israel. Senior Israeli military officials have even warned that mounting fury within the West Bank — an area named for its relation to the Jordan River — could develop into another intifada, or uprising.

At about 2:30 a.m. Monday, turmoil erupted at An-Najah National University in Nablus, the largest university in the West Bank. Several hundred Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns raided the university, injuring two security guards and detaining 25 students.

The students, who were members of a student council, had been staging a sit-in at a mosque on the campus. The Israeli military announced it had crushed a “Hamas cell,” but university spokesperson Raed Dibay pushed back against this claim and said: “The students were sleeping at the mosque to protest against the increase in university tuition fees. They were not gathering to support Hamas.”

According to the Palestinian Authority, 326 people have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Gaza conflict broke out on Oct. 7, and 5,980 Hamas supporters and others have been arrested. Laborers from the West Bank have been banned from entering Israel, resulting in about 200,000 people losing their jobs. Military checkpoints have been set up on the main roads linking cities, so residents cannot move freely around the territory.

At the end of October, Israel stopped remitting customs taxes it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, claiming that the authority was “supporting terrorism.” These taxes have been worth about 800 million shekels (about $210 billion) annually and accounted for about 65% of the authority’s budget. Consequently, salary payments to security forces personnel and government workers have fallen behind.

According to major Israeli newspaper Haaretz, senior military officials warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early January that the situation in the West Bank was “on the verge of an explosion.” Last weekend, the Israeli Army redeployed an elite unit from Gaza to the West Bank. On Monday, 18 people were killed or wounded in a terrorist attack carried out in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana by Palestinians who had slipped in from the West Bank. A military source said this attack “could be a harbinger of the third intifada.”

Nablus was one of the major areas embroiled in the second intifada, which started in 2000. Posters lauding fighters from an armed group calling themselves the Lions’ Den are plastered all around the old city of Nablus.

This group was formed in July 2022, consisting mainly of young people from the old city. About 50 members were killed or arrested in summer last year, significantly diminishing the group’s momentum. Despite this, the fighters are hailed as “heroes” for conducting a string of attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers. Shops selling photos of these fighters are hugely popular among junior high and high school students.

Israeli military operations in the West Bank continue daily, and three people were killed in one such operation Wednesday. A 70-year-old shopkeeper living in the old city, said the fighting was likely to get worse.

“The youth have risen up to resist the occupation of Israel. Our frustration has reached its peak, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it explodes at any moment,” he said.