a journey through a west bank on the brink
photophoto

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

As the world focuses on the war in Gaza, pressure is mounting on the West Bank.

Israelis and Palestinians live worlds apart, separated often by a single road — or roadblocks.

They are united only by a sense of growing anger and resentment.

‘We Are Not Very Far From an Explosion’

Jan. 31, 2024, 5:02 a.m. ET

One recent morning in Huwara, a Palestinian man maneuvered a front-end loader back and forth, clearing rocks and rubble that Israel Defense Forces soldiers had piled into a roadblock. Four young soldiers looked on, fingers tensed on triggers, as the machine’s claws heaved shattered masonry from clutching mud. A crowd of approving Palestinian onlookers gathered.

The barrier, put in place to prevent access to a main street that has been a battleground over the past year, has infuriated the 7,000 inhabitants of this town in the northern West Bank, who are now accustomed to eking out survival as Israeli forces close stores and control their every movement. The mayor, Moin Damidi, told me that Huwara has become a ghost town. Surrounded by Israeli settlements and traversed by the major north-south highway, it has also become a center of violence. “The greater the pressure, the bigger the explosion,” he said.

Jihad Odeh, a city official, pointed at the soldiers. They opened and closed the road 10 times in the past year, he said. “The roadblock is for the settlers, to make them feel comfortable on our main street.”

Almost a year ago, a Palestinian militant shot and killed two settlers as they drove through Huwara. In response, settlers swarmed down from the adjacent hilltop settlement of Yitzhar. They burned cars, businesses and homes, killing at least one Palestinian and injuring many more. The I.D.F., nominally responsible for keeping order, did not prevent the riot, and in the aftermath many right-wing politicians celebrated it. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, called for Huwara to be “wiped out,” and not by lawless settlers — “the state of Israel should do it,” he said.

In Huwara, Israeli soldiers are seen as the settlers’ army. Smotrich, under a coalition deal struck in early 2023 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, oversees the administration of settler affairs in the West Bank. He himself lives in the West Bank, in a settlement called Kedumim, a 15-minute drive from Huwara. Israel’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is also a settler who lives in a suburb of Hebron.

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