West Bank movement restrictions make life harder for residents and aid organisations

One morning, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in the Gaza Strip on 7 October 2023, Salem Hathaleen, 70, received unsettling news from his neighbours. The main road he used to enter and exit his community, Al-Muntar, had been blocked by Israeli settlers and soldiers the night before.

Hathaleen went to examine the site and saw a pile of dirt and rocks at the entrance used by the Palestinian residents. He was forced to spend almost three months confined to his community, hardly ever leaving. “We felt disconnected from the outside world,” he says.

The closure of Al-Muntar, located to the east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, was just one of dozens of access and movement restrictions imposed across the West Bank after 7 October. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this has brought the total number of movement obstacles up to 694 from the previous figure of 645.

Price increases and school closures

In the occupied West Bank, movement for Palestinians was already extremely difficult, with residents forced to navigate Israeli checkpoints and restrictions on shorter, more convenient routes only available to Israeli ID holders. The new restrictions have lengthened travel times even more and created additional problems, impacting all facets of life for West Bank Palestinians.The restrictions are already causing economic shocks, preventing Palestinians from travelling for work and restricting their livelihoods, with many residents forced to live off loans and savings.

“We are paying 250 shekels [c. USD 69] for the trucks that deliver us fodder instead of 150 shekels, to compensate for the length of the alternative road,” Hathaleen says. He estimates that 25km of dirt road has been added to the trip to bypass the closure.

His wife, Thuraya Hathaleen, 69, reports that her grandchildren’s school was closed between October and December 2023, because the teachers were unable to come every day. “Since January, children go to school only twice a week,” she explains. “It’s not good for learning. They are missing out on a lot.”

Al-Muntar is an area characterised by desert hills and is home to Palestinian families living in modest houses made out of tin and cloth. Their main source of income comes from animal herding. These families predominantly hail from the Negev desert in southern Israel and were forcibly displaced during the Israel’s establishment in 1948. The community suffers from a lack of infrastructure, with dirt roads and Israeli-imposed restrictions on construction.

“I stopped using my car” Al-Muntar is not the only community affected by the recent roadblocks. The neighbouring community of Al-Sararat, west of Al-Muntar, is located right next to the site of the recent barrier. “I stopped using my car,” says 32-year-old Muntaha Mashhour. “It’s easier for me to cross the roadblock on foot and get a taxi from the other side.”

She mentions that the recently closed road was already serving as an alternative to another restricted one right next to her house, which has been blocked by the Israeli military since the second Intifada (Arabic for uprising) in the early 2000s.

“Accessing the main road that connects us to other towns was once a 10-second drive from home. Then it became five minutes following the [previous] closure. Now, it’s a 30–60 minute drive, depending on traffic,” she says. “These are all attempts to make our life harder and displace us.”

Demolitions, violence and restrictions

Even prior to 7 October, life in Al-Muntar and the other communities in this area was difficult. These Palestinian communities and hundreds of others are in “Area C” of the West Bank, which has been under full Israeli control since 1967. Here, Israel has implemented policies that have created a highly coercive environment in which Palestinians have no choice but to leave. Displacement due to coercive factors amounts to forcible transfer, a grave violation under international humanitarian law.

The coercive factors include Israel’s policy of demolishing homes and infrastructure, including water networks, power sources, and roads, on the basis that they lack Israeli building permits, which are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Other coercive measures include limiting movement, restricting residents’ livelihood activities such as farming and herding, and relentless settler violence, carried out with near complete impunity. In 2023, forcible displacement in Area C reached a level not seen in recent years, with more than 2500 Palestinians displaced amid settler violence, movement restrictions and demolitions.

Every year between 2019 and 2023, Israeli authorities demolished homes and other structures in Al-Muntar. According to OCHA figures, 2023 witnessed the peak of these demolitions, with 21 structures destroyed. The demolitions adversely affected 440 Palestinians and resulted in the displacement of 63 others. The roads connecting the community with other towns remain unpaved to this day due to Israeli restrictions.

Neighbouring Israeli settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim, which is home to more than 40,000 Israeli settlers enjoy a well-developed infrastructure including streets, electricity, water, and telecommunications networks. The settlements are well connected to Jerusalem by a public transportation network. Israeli citizens living in settlements are subject to Israeli civilian law, unlike their Palestinian neighbours who are subject to Israeli military law.

Building resilience to prevent displacement

The West Bank Protection Consortium (WBPC) supports Palestinian communities through the provision of material and legal assistance. Formed in 2015 to prevent the forcible transfer of Palestinians in the West Bank, the WBPC is a strategic partnership of five international NGOs led by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The consortium is supported by 11 EU donors, together with the United Kingdom, Canada and EU Humanitarian Aid.

The consortium focuses on three key areas: emergency relief, resilience building, and humanitarian advocacy. Long-term resilience entails establishing essential infrastructure to meet the basic needs of the communities, within the constraints of Israeli building restrictions. This includes building schools, setting up basic water networks, paving roads, and other relevant activities.

Al-Muntar is a community that the consortium has supported for many years, including the establishment of a community school, which was completed in 2017 with support from the EU. Prior to its establishment, children would spend hours each day walking to a nearby community to attend school. “Before the school was built, the enrolment rate was lower,” says Imad Salah, principal of Al-Muntar Elementary School. “Now, children start school at five or six years old instead of seven, because they have access to a nearby school.”

Salah believes the school has been instrumental in helping families remain in their homes and lands without being forced to uproot their lives to allow their children to access education. Despite Israeli authorities issuing a demolition order in 2017 the school still stands today due to NRC’s legal interventions on behalf of the WBPC.

“It’s been harder for us to do our work”

The recent escalation in Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement has not only impacted residents but also humanitarian organisations, like the WBPC partners. Many of these have been working for decades to support Palestinian residents in Area C to stay on their land.

“Accessing Palestinian communities has become difficult for all humanitarian organisations, especially during the first month following 7 October,” says Mohammed who works with the WBPC.

Mohammed explains that the new reality has imposed restrictions on their activities, leading to some of their projects being postponed, including plans to improve the roads in Al-Muntar.

“Al-Muntar is just one case. There are dozens,” Mohammed explains. He feels that Al-Muntar is in a better situation than other communities because his organisation has already established basic infrastructure over the past decade. Their work has included laying down a water network, rehabilitating housing units, building the community school, and installing solar panel systems.

NRC, which has supported the community with legal assistance, recently submitted a petition to Israeli authorities regarding the closure in Al-Muntar. “It’s been harder for us as lawyers to do our work,” explains NRC lawyer Farah Bayadsi. For Farah, field visits are crucial for examining sites, collecting testimonies, and obtaining power of attorney from communities.

She adds that one of the lawyers working with NRC was denied access to Al-Muntar while on his way to meet residents. Israeli settlers and the army stopped his vehicle and demanded he leave the area. Al-Muntar residents have also reported that a mobile health clinic has stopped visiting their community since 7 October because staff members are afraid.

Adjusting to a more difficult reality

As the hostilities in Gaza continue and reverberations are felt in the West Bank, humanitarian organisations have no other option but to adapt to the new reality and, in some cases, challenge it.

Several organisations, including NRC and its partners the Society of St. Yves and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), have filed petitions to Israeli authorities challenging the recent roadblocks and checkpoints. In some cases, the Israeli courts give a positive response, while in others such as Al-Muntar, no resolution is promised.

Regardless of the results of these petitions, WBPC members are adopting different work methods and techniques to continue their operations. For instance, in-kind assistance programmes have been replaced with cash which is transferred to project participants online. Employees are relying more on phone calls when field visits are not possible, and there is an increased focus on humanitarian advocacy to address emerging needs and trends.

“It’s been hard for international organisations to stop Israeli policies in normal times. Imagine how it is now,” says Muntaha Mashhour, from Al-Sararat. She expects a more difficult reality in the West Bank in general, and in Area C in particular.

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