Yatta is now 'under siege' with security cranked up as Israel bars all Palestinians from entry in wake of attacks
Israel’s response to a deadly Tel Aviv shooting carried out by two Palestinians has already begun to reverberate in the daily lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
On Thursday, Israeli authorities began implementing wide-reaching measures to beef up security and restrict movements in what critics say is collective punishment.
Four Israelis were killed and 16 wounded in the Wednesday attack when two residents of the southern West Bank town of Yatta went on a shooting spree in a popular cafe in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market.
Within hours of the attack, the Israeli leadership revoked travel permits granted to 83,000 Palestinians from both the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the holy month of Ramadan and sealed off Yatta.
By Friday morning all Palestinians had been barred from entering Israel, following an Israeli government cabinet meeting.
An army spokeswoman told AFP that crossings to Israel from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be closed for Palestinians in all but "medical and humanitarian cases" and that the closure would remain in place until midnight on Sunday.
The moves were some of the harshest restrictions imposed in recent months. AFP journalists said, however, that on Friday morning, well after the full lockdown was supposed to have taken effect, Palestinians were still crossing from the occupied West Bank into Israel in large numbers in the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas.
Issa Amro, a prominent activist in the Hebron area, arrived in Yatta on Thursday morning as soldiers began closing the roads.
“Yatta is now 100 percent under siege,” Amro told Middle East Eye. By late afternoon on Thursday, Amro said, all roads leading in and out of the city, including side and agricultural roads, were closed off by earth mounds or concrete blocks.
An Israeli army spokesperson confirmed the closure of the city after Wednesday’s attack, and told MEE all movement was prohibited with the exception of humanitarian cases.
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday said that "life in the Yatta village won't carry on as usual. A village that has terrorists leaving from its midst will pay the price.”
The initial closures sealed in about 45,000 Palestinians and will inevitably take a serious toll on the local economy.
“People usually come from all over the West Bank to the Friday animal market in Yatta, which would be very active because of Ramadan,” Amro said.
The closures will not only hurt farmers who rely on Ramadan sales, but also thousands of people who will no longer be able to travel to see relatives, Amro said, adding that such a move by the Israeli army was ripping apart the social fabric of Ramadan for locals.
Philip Luther of Amnesty International has warned that such actions against Yatta may be breaking international law.
“While Israel has the right to enact necessary and proportionate measures to protect those under its control, Israeli forces must not respond to these attacks with further measures of collective punishment or other disproportionate actions, which would themselves violate international law,” he said.
Yatta, however, is just the harshest case in what is already looking like a blanket punishment of the civilian Palestinian population.
On Thursday some 83,000 Palestinians – including 204 family members of the two cousins accused of carrying out the attack - were been stripped of their Ramadan permits before Israel announced it was entirely sealing off the West Bank and Gaza.
Hakim, a 34-year-old father of two who did not give his real name for security reasons, is just one of the Palestinians left reeling from the restrictions.
He and his wife received permits to travel to Jerusalem for the holy month of Ramadan, when many people wish to pray at Islam’s third-most-holy site, the al-Aqsa Mosque. However, a Palestinian Authority (PA) official told the pair on Thursday that they would be unable to go.
Despite living in the Bethlehem area, just a few kilometres from Jerusalem, the visit would have only been Hakim’s second since 2000, as Israeli authorities have imposed ever more severe travel restrictions on Palestinians in recent years.
“The first thing we talked about after they said they were going to freeze the permits was: ‘We’ve been living like this for years,'” Hakim told MEE.
“The point is not that the permits have been frozen. The point is the checkpoints, the Israeli regime itself. It’s sad not to see Jerusalem, but the worst part is that we can’t go when we want,” Hakim said, citing the extensive myriad of restrictions imposed upon Palestinians.
Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who serves in the Israeli Knesset as part of the Joint List, told MEE that the restrictions would only fan existing frustrations.
“The Palestinians should not have to ask for permission to travel from one place to another anywhere. This is an absurd situation to begin with,” she said.
“The cancellation of all entry permits is a form of collective punishment that prevents people from praying in al-Aqsa as well as from visiting their family members – which are both basic human rights.”
Human rights groups have long condemned Israel for practices that they say punish the whole community for the actions of a few.
In a controversial policy, Israel often demolishes the homes of the families of Palestinian attackers.
Authorities halted demolitions as a form of punishment in 2005 in the wake of an Israeli military report showing that rather than deter attacks, the practice fuelled hostility towards Israel.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resumed the punitive measure in 2014.
Human Rights Watch has called the practice a "war crime".
The US, a key Israeli ally, on Thursday gingerly urged Israel to avoid taking steps that would escalate tensions with the Palestinians.
The debate over clamping down on whole areas has even rocked the Israeli establishment. Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot sparked controversy by calling such closures a “bitter mistake” and warning that they may “work against Israeli interests”.
Children 'have never seen Jerusalem'
For Hakim and his family, the threat of further restrictions only compounds existing resentments.
He told MEE that his children, aged six and seven, have never been able to visit relatives in Jerusalem. Forced separation from family members, however, was only one part of a much wider problem, he said.
“It [Jerusalem] is a holy place for us ... I used to read poetry by Tamim Barghouti about Jerusalem, ‘Fil Quds’ [In Jerusalem],” Hakim said.
“He [Barghouti] says words about the Old City walls, and the market ... I’d imagined it before, but when I went for the first time I really noticed these things. It’s Jerusalem. You really love it as Jerusalem.”
Israel’s freeze on travel permits this Ramadan comes amid ongoing restrictive measures implemented following attacks carried out by Palestinians since last October.
The restrictions have hit the fragile economy hard, often preventing people from reaching workplaces, shops, schools or universities.
As individuals mostly without political affiliations have carried out the attacks, Israeli forces have retaliated against the families and hometowns of Palestinian assailants.
'They can close any city, kill anyone'
The revocation of permits comes despite the fact that the majority of Palestinians who carried out attacks - including those who committed Wednesday’s deadly shootings - were not permit holders and had entered Israel illegally.
“The collective punishment from Israel is something that happens daily,” Hakim said, adding that Wednesday’s shootings did not surprise him.
“People under pressure and occupation, you can’t expect anything else from them. To be living in an unjust situation like we’re living in now, with Israeli control of everything ... they can close any city they want, kill anybody they want.
“You can’t expect any other reaction from people under all of this pressure and injustice.”
Hakim’s sentiment was echoed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who in an unprecedented deviation from the state line regarding such attacks on Thursday said they were caused by the ongoing Israeli occupation.
“I haven’t told my kids yet because I'm hoping that things will change, but I’ll have to tell them eventually," Hakim said.
"'This is occupation.’ This is what I always say."