On the main street of the Palestinian West Bank town of Huwara, where Road 60 heads north towards Nablus, the shops are all shuttered. Petrol stations, bakeries, banks, the business selling cut stone from the local quarries, the sweetshops and mobile phone boutiques are closed at the order of the Israeli military. At the main crossing points between the west and east of the now divided town, wary Israeli soldiers with machine guns guard a closed yellow metal gate.
On the road itself, the only cars that are moving belong to residents of the nearby hardline Jewish settlements that dot the surrounding hills, whose ultra-orthodox nationalist residents have a reputation for promoting and carrying out violence against Palestinians.
The denial of Road 60 to Huwara’s Palestinian residents is being enforced despite the fact that a new bypass for the use of the settlers is now passable by car: but many choose to drive through the centre of Huwara, to emphasise their hold on the land.
The splitting of the flashpoint town, east from west, began on 7 October – the day the Islamist militant group Hamas massacred 1,400 people in the southern Israeli communities close to the Gaza border – and represents one of the most extreme responses by the Israel Defence Forces in the occupied West Bank. It has come, however, as far-right figures – including Israel’s hardline nationalist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich – have used the crisis to demand the imposition of new “security zones” to be set up around Jewish settlements to create new areas closed to Palestinians.
In Huwara, home to about 7,000 people, residents can cross Road 60 only with negotiated permission, if at all. Side roads are blocked. What was once a walk of a few minutes now requires hours of travelling.
“It’s like East and West Germany,” said the city’s mayor, Moeen Dmeidi. “Yesterday, everyone in the town decided they would try and reopen their shops to break the siege. But the army said that what would happen if they stayed open would be a repeat of the settlers’ attack on Huwara.”
Dmeidi is referring to the violence carried out by settlers in Huwara in February, when 100 armed Israelis were allowed to rampage through the area by the IDF in response to the murder of two brothers by Palestinian gunmen in the city. Cars and businesses were burned and hundreds were injured.
“For the first 10 days,” the mayor said, “residents were forbidden to cross the main road on foot. After intense and tedious negotiations, you can walk across from east to west but you’re not allowed to walk on the sidewalk.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. And all of what they are doing is to please the settlers.”
Dmeidi spoke at an emergency meeting in the municipality crowded with councillors and business owners from both sides of the city, called to discuss the failure of their efforts to reopen in defiance of the IDF.
“It’s not one or two days of closure. It’s been a month,” said Dmeidi, exasperated. “We are not fighting the Israelis. We’ve been obeying their unjust laws. We tried to open up because we need to make a living. We only want to live in dignity.”
As the meeting proceeded, shouting could be heard on the ground floor from residents angry at the situation.
Among those who tried to open up their shops was 26-year-old “Slash” Awda, who owns a mobile and dry cleaning business.
“I was open for about 10 minutes before the army came to my store,” he said. “The soldiers said close up … right now. They mentioned a store that was bulldozed by the army [as a threat] and one of the soldiers cocked his weapon. It’s been a month now and we can’t even cross the city.”
The consequences of Huwara’s closure and separation have been profound. Many Palestinians rely on prepayment cards for water and electricity, but most businesses where cards can be charged are on the main road.
Now the municipality has had to make arrangements to collect cards to take them – with permission – to a business that is still open.
With bakeries also shut down, residents must either bake at home, or travel to nearby towns along the few back roads still open.
“I’m from the east side of the town,” said Jalal Awda, another of the councillors. “I needed to come here to sign some papers. To cross the road is a distance of eight metres. Instead, I have had to drive for 14 kilometres to get here today. It took me two hours. It is totally unjust.”
“This is not a normal way to live,” said Mohammed Handan, 71, who runs a bakery. “If a relative lives on opposite side of the city, I can’t visit.
“I have a supermarket, and a bakery and a sweetshop. They have all been shut since 7 October. I have 15 workers who I can’t pay. And every day, I am throwing away merchandise because it is out of date.”
The closure of Huwara has not happened in a vacuum. A longtime focus of violent tension between far-right settlers and Palestinian residents, it has become a symbol of a deepening crisis in the West Bank in the last year and a half, and the increased political influence of settler-affiliated politicians in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
For these figures, the war with Hamas has provided a pretext for an ever more radical agenda of expropriation that has inevitably stoked growing violence.
One of the most prominent has been Smotrich, head of one of the religious-nationalist parties in the ruling rightwing coalition, who wrote to Netanyahu and the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, demanding special zones around the settlements to stop Palestinians coming near, “including for the olive harvest”.
While Smotrich argued that the 7 October attack by Hamas offered lessons for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in fact he had already called for the closure of Huwara on a visit to the city the day before Hamas’s attack, after a shooting in the city.
“I demand that a written directive be issued immediately by the political echelon to the Israel Defence Forces to create those wide security zones around the settlements and roads and to prevent Arabs from approaching them,” he wrote, adding that he proposed to compensate those who were denied access to their crops.
Earlier this year, Smotrich went even further still, speaking at a financial conference. “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” he said.
For Jihad Awda, one of those present at the meeting, Huwara’s residents now face a terrible dilemma. “We want to defy closure but with the least expense. We don’t want to die. We don’t want anybody to get shot.”