Palestinians trapped in Nablus as Israeli army cracks down on armed resistance
On the main highway leaving the city of Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank, traffic is at a standstill.
Stalled cars line the road for miles, as frustrated passengers honk their horns and yell, while others have resigned to parking their cars and putting their feet up, or pacing along the street.
Two drivers put on a loud and aggressive show, arguing from their car windows. While most turned to watch, a group of young men farther back in the line were too busy making the best of a bad situation to care. With their music blasting, they lounged in their car with their legs up and sunglasses on.
'We are waiting until they let us pass. Maybe it will be in one hour, maybe four. We don't know'
- Ahmed Adeeb, truck driver
All the while a group of armed Israeli soldiers man the checkpoint in the distance, which has been completely shut down for the past few hours. No one in or out.
Over the past eight days, Israel has shut down the Nablus district, one of the largest in the West Bank, as the army cracks down on a resurgence of armed resistance in the area.
The siege of Nablus has resulted in a virtual halt on life here, bringing with it substantial economic repercussions, not only for Nablus residents but Palestinians across the West Bank.
Ahed Busalat, 42, has been waiting at the checkpoint for five hours. Between the roar of honking horns, he explains that it usually takes 10 minutes to get from his village, Hijja, to Nablus. Now, it takes him almost a full day.
"I got here at 11 am. Now it's 4pm,” he told Middle East Eye on Tuesday, frustration rising in his voice.
“In the beginning, the soldiers searched cars before letting people go; now, they are doing nothing. We have been at a standstill for hours."
Nine days of siege
For nine days, the Israeli military has closed all eight surrounding military checkpoints to enter and exit Nablus. The army has also erected dozens more flying checkpoints, and has sealed off a network of side roads across the governorate.
The Nablus district is home to over 425,000 people spread across four refugee camps, 55 villages, and one city. Virtually all of the district's residents have been affected by the closures, as they remain stalled at checkpoints, hoping to make it to work, university, or to visit friends and family who are trapped in the city, unable to make it out.
After an Israeli soldier was killed on 11 October while at a military post outside the Nablus-area town of Deir Sharaf, the Israeli army embarked on a widespread manhunt for the shooter, who belonged to the new “Lion’s Den” armed resistance group.
Based out of the old city in Nablus, the group, which is seemingly unaffiliated with any political faction, has been stepping up its activity across the northern West Bank, claiming responsibility for a number of shooting operations targeting Israeli military positions and settlements in the area.
The day after the soldier was killed last week, the Israeli army announced it would be enforcing widespread closures across Nablus, and enforcing “strict security checks” on Palestinians passing in and out of the area.
Over the past nine days, the army has invaded Nablus and the surrounding villages raising new checkpoints throughout, increasing night-time military raids and "stop and searches" under the pretext of searching for wanted members of Palestinian resistance groups.
According to Ghassan Daghlas, 50, a Palestinian activist who monitors the activity of settlers in the northern part of the West Bank, entering Nablus is doable, but exiting is almost impossible.
"Family breadwinners who need to pass through Nablus to get to work have stopped going home. They sleep in the cities where they work out of fear of being unable to return."
Ahmed Adeeb, a 53-year-old resident of the village of Aqraba, has been at the Sarra checkpoint in western Nablus, waiting to leave the city for six hours.
As a truck driver that transports commercial goods in and out of Nablus, this route is familiar to him, and he usually travels through it many times a day for his shipments. On Tuesday, he told MEE he hadn't been able to get out of Nablus even once.
While waiting at the checkpoint in his truck, Adeeb commented, "We are waiting until they let us pass. Maybe it will be in one hour, maybe four. We don't know,” he said.
‘It’s collective punishment’
As they waited in their cars, growing increasingly impatient as the hours dragged on, the line barely moving an inch, Palestinians told us that what they were experiencing was no less than “collective punishment”.
Adeeb explained that Israel was punishing not only the district of Nablus, but also all of the West Bank residents who need to pass through Nablus on a daily basis. The army, he said, had effectively shut down an entire region, and with it, hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.
'This blockade has made our lives difficult. I can't drive my kids to school, and we live too far for them to walk'
- Mahmoud Wawii, Palestinian in Nablus
"I want people to look at us, here in Palestine, stuck in this line. People are trying to cut through the line because they can't wait. Some people are sick, and some people need the bathroom. People need to move freely,” Adeeb said.
As the intensity of the military lockdown of Nablus increases, the checkpoints have become more challenging to cross.
According to Daghlas, at least two women have even been forced to give birth at checkpoints. Meanwhile, places of work and higher education have been forced to close as transport between Nablus and the surrounding areas has become near impossible.
“When you travel between villages near Nablus, you feel on edge,” Daghlas told Middle East Eye.
“Drones surround us in the sky and soldiers on every corner. It is common knowledge here that the soldiers pointing guns in our faces are not doing it to intimidate us.
"They are always ready to shoot and will do so without hesitation if they think we are a threat. The threat of Israel is omnipresent, making the environment we live in very scary,” Daghlas said.
Mahmoud Wawii, 55, lives in Deir Sharaf, where large dirt mounds protected by the Israeli military have been erected across the roads. While people can walk over them, there is no way to drive through.
The mounds have been there for nine days, blocking 40 families who live on the opposite side, preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
As Wawii spoke, a Palestinian ambulance with its sirens on was forced to turn around, unable to cross the giant dirt mounds blocking the roads in Deir Sharaf.
"This blockade has made our lives difficult. I can't drive my kids to school, and we live too far for them to walk,” Wawii said.
“We can only drive them to the mound. Then they have to walk or wait for someone else to drive them. And if somebody is sick, we cannot take them to the Nablus hospital. We have to go to another hospital in a different village which is almost 20km away."
The roadblocks have also affected business. What was once a bustling street is now full of closed shops because nobody can get to them, and even the people who can don't because they do not want to be hassled by Israeli soldiers. Hundreds of families have lost their income with these closures.
Busalat says his work as a furniture trader in Nablus has been negatively affected, causing him immense financial losses. "When they finally do start to move us again, they will search us slowly, taking their time,” he said of the soldiers at the checkpoints.
'Sometimes the soldiers stop us for a few minutes, other times an hour. They make us lift our shirts, search our phones and go through our social media. It's humiliating'
- Ahed Busalat, furniture tradesman
"You can't work under these conditions. I came to Nablus for one delivery, and this one thing has caused me to lose a whole day of work."
"Sometimes the soldiers stop us for a few minutes, other times an hour - it depends on their mood. They make us lift our shirts, search our phones and go through our pictures and social media. It's humiliating. They even do it to women and children,” Wawii said.
He continued: "We resent Israel and its occupation. We feel oppressed. Look at what it is doing to us. How would you feel? The way they use collective punishment against us through checkpoints and blocks is killing our life.
"There is no economic work, freedom of movement, or hospital access. All areas of our lives have been frozen, not just here but across Nablus."
While Israeli media has framed the siege of Nablus as a defensive move, many Palestinian residents believe it is a false narrative, designed to excuse the increased intensity of Israel's pre-existing military occupation.
"Israel is using the Palestinian resistance groups as an excuse for collective punishment measures, but this is a lie,” Daghlas said.
“Settlers killed the Dawabsha family [in 2015], soldiers shoot children in the street, neither of which was a reaction to Palestinian resistance but caused by the occupation. In the occupation, all policies are anti-Palestinian," he continued.
When asked what they believed the goal was behind the siege of Nablus, many of the Palestinians that spoke to MEE said they believed Israel was attempting to sow the seeds of discord within Palestinian society, and turn ordinary Palestinians against the resistance groups who were seemingly the cause of the closures.
"They are using these collective punishment policies to make the average Palestinian feel resentment towards the resistance fighters," believes Busalat. "The punishments we are facing are not just the fault of the Israeli occupation, but the whole world - they share accountability."
“They use their search for Palestinian resistance fighters to rationalise this slow torture," he said.
Adeeb expressed similar sentiments, saying: “The Israelis are taking revenge on the entire Palestinian population for the resistance groups.”
Palestinians like Wawii told MEE that he has lost hope in the international community, which he said “values money over people”.
“No one cares about the oppressed person,” he said. “When the oppressed person decides to resist and demand his rights, he is called a terrorist,” he said, warning that if things continue like they are, “the pressure cooker will explode.”
Daghlas relayed a message of warning to the world, saying: “We are close to a Palestinian massacre. Soldiers and settlers alike are not being held accountable for attacking, burning, and killing Palestinians and their land. The international community needs to interfere.”
Still, his hope stands strong. "This kind of collective punishment has been used against us many times and has always failed since the beginning of the occupation,” he said.
“It always fails because Palestinians keep holding onto their hope and continue fighting for their freedom.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.