"We need someone to give us back our dignity"

Palestinians in a cafe in the city of Bethlehem, with the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in the occupied West Bank in the background
Palestinians in a cafe in Bethlehem, with the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in the occupied West Bank in the background: In December Israel approved the construction of a further 1,700 homes in the occupied territory (image: HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

The Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October and the war in Gaza are also having a huge impact on the West Bank. Support for an armed struggle – and for the actions of Hamas – is growing there

By Andrea Backhaus

Whenever Lama Yahya switches on the television or scrolls through social media she is confronted with images from Gaza: bombed out streets, mothers holding their wounded children in their arms, bodies decomposing beneath the rubble ... When she sees such images, she is overcome by feelings of rage, helplessness and shame. "We are watching our brothers and sisters being slaughtered," she says. "And we can do nothing for them."

The 29-year-old student runs a souvenir shop in Ramallah, the political centre of the West Bank. She sells pottery, carafes and hand-embroidered cushion covers, but the stream of customers has reduced to a trickle since the war broke out. The air conditioning blows a warm, gentle breeze around the sparsely furnished office; a smell of old cigarette smoke lingers in the air. Yahya is a liberal Palestinian and is well connected within her community. She knows what people here think and feel. And she wants to talk about the anger that is gripping the young generation.

She says that people have the feeling that Israel is waging war against the entire Palestinian people. Yahya goes on to say that while the Israeli army says it only wants to fight terrorists in Gaza, she believes that the soldiers are killing above all innocent people, women and children. According to Yahya, many people are disappointed that Western states support Israel's actions in Gaza. "The Palestinians feel abandoned by the world," she says, adding that this is why many people have recently begun sympathising with Hamas, which is fighting the Israeli army in Gaza. "They believe that no one else will help them fight this injustice," she says.

The village of Kharas, north of Hebron, surrounded by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank
"The Palestinians feel abandoned by the world," says Lama Yahya, who runs a souvenir shop in Ramallah. Pictured is the village of Kharas, north of Hebron, surrounded by Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in the West Bank (image: John Macdougall/AFP)

Popularity boost for Hamas

Attitudes in the West Bank seem to be shifting. Hamas was not very influential here before the war. Now, however, support among the three million Palestinians who live here would appear to be growing. The massacre on 7 October, during which Hamas killed over 1,200 civilians in Israel, has obviously boosted support for the terrorist group. This is backed up by a survey conducted by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) since the war began. According to the results of this survey, which were published in mid-December, 44 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank support Hamas, up from only 12 percent in September. The majority is also in favour of "armed resistance".

In conversations with people who live in Ramallah, one thing keeps coming up again and again: were elections to be held in the West Bank tomorrow, Hamas would win by a landslide. Because, as one man puts it, their attack showed that Israel is vulnerable, and because, as someone else explains, only Hamas is in a position to end the occupation.

Many don't want to admit the appalling suffering the terrorists inflicted on the people in Israel. They play down the massacre or say that it was perpetrated by radical civilians, and that Hamas would never do such a thing. Some deny that the rapes and executions took place at all. Others say that the excessive violence was an understandable reaction of the Palestinians, who suffered from the blockade in Gaza.

'When Palestinians die, hardly anyone gets upset'

Yahya says that many who now say favourable things about Hamas don't actually like Hamas itself and that they reject its ideology, its objective of eradicating Israel. "But there's no other group fighting for the Palestinians," she says, adding that many people see Palestinians as second-class citizens. "When Israelis are attacked, everyone is outraged," she says. "When Palestinians die, hardly anyone gets upset." And Palestinians are dying – not just in Gaza, but just around the corner from Yahya's shop too.

Palestinians wrestle with Israeli settlers who have set up tents in on land belonging to the village of Halhoul, north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank
Palestinians are harassed by Israeli settlers who have set up their tents on land belonging to the Arab village of Halhoul north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, 1 August 2023 (image: Mamoun Wazwaz/APA Images via ZUMA Press Wire)

Hamas knows how to use this anger to its advantage

While the world's gaze is fixed on Gaza, the West Bank is increasingly turning into a battlefield too. For weeks now, Israeli soldiers and radical settlers have been attacking Palestinian residents, arresting them in raids or killing them. Officially, Israeli soldiers are targeting members of militant Palestinian groups. 

But the reality is that they often hit people who chance to get caught between the two fronts. According to the United Nations, almost 300 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank since 7 October. Of this number, 77 were children. The anger felt towards the occupying power grows with every Palestinian who is killed.

Hamas knows how to use this anger to its advantage. It portrays itself as a strong force and with some success. When Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons were exchanged for hostages held by Hamas in November, many in the West Bank saw it as a Hamas success. 

They cheered the released women and teenagers, many waved Hamas flags, some called for solidarity with Hamas's military wing, chanting "The people want the Al-Kassam brigades".

The Israeli army frequently carries out raids in the occupied West Bank, triggering exchanges of fire with Arab youths
The Israeli army frequently carries out raids in the occupied West Bank, triggering exchanges of fire with Arab youths (image: AFP)

Warning to potential collaborators

Experts say that there are signs of radicalisation in many places in the West Bank, especially in Palestinian refugee camps and rural areas. Militant groups of different persuasions – supporters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) – are obviously joining forces in these areas.

How the armed groups are dealing with opponents became evident at the end of November, when members of a militant group in the refugee camp in Tulkarm killed two Palestinian men for allegedly spying for Israel. According to the news agency Reuters, an angry mob strung up the bodies on an electricity pole as a warning to other potential collaborators.

Many Palestinians reject the mindless brutality of the militants and yearn for fundamental change. In the Al-Amari refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah, Shaher Haroun lights a cigarette. Haroun helps out in the local community centre. He leans on a solid wood desk in a stuffy office. Behind him on the wall is a picture of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, dressed in khaki clothing and wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh. "The Hamas attack was a watershed moment for the Palestinians," he says.

The 52-year-old knows well what people in the camps think about what happened. Haroun has lived his entire life in Al-Amari, where some alleyways are barely a metre wide and power cables hang right down to the level of a car roof. The camp was set up in 1948 for Palestinians who were displaced during the first Arab-Israeli War. Today, it is home to about 9,000 people. Most of them, like Haroun, support Fatah, some Hamas too, he says. Haroun adds that while what happened to the civilians was painful, Hamas's attack on Israel showed Palestinians that it is possible to break out of the woeful status quo.

Most Palestinians in the West Bank are young and frustrated. Their everyday lives are shaped by poverty, unemployment and a lack of prospects. The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The PA only exercises control over part of the territory. The last parliamentary election in the Palestinian territories took place 17 years ago. In 2006, the Islamist Hamas beat the moderate, secular Fatah led by President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, Hamas has ruled in Gaza, and Fatah in the West Bank. The two factions are rivals. Haroun, who leads a local Fatah youth group, believes that the Palestinians have lost faith in the possibility of political change.

At the end of the First Intifada in 1993, things looked good for the Palestinians. It looked as if the Oslo Accords had opened the door to peace negotiations and a Palestinian state seemed possible. Many Palestinians believed that the two-state solution would one day come about, says Haroun. "But the negotiations with Israel have brought us nothing over the past 30 years," he adds. "On the contrary; everything has got worse."

The situation in the West Bank has become more precarious. Hardliners on both sides have sabotaged the peace process. The political leaders in Ramallah have also wasted a lot of money and potential through nepotism and incompetence. Israel's right-wing governments have made life increasingly difficult for the Palestinians. They have built a massive barrier along the Israeli-West Bank border and pushed ahead with the construction of illegal settlements. With dozens of checkpoints, controls and curfews, they have steadily reduced the radius of movement of Palestinian residents.

Haroun says that many Palestinians now find it hard to even imagine co-existence with Israel. "We want peace," he says. "But for that, Israel has to give us the same rights."

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Fatah's weakness is Hamas's strength

Many people are not only fed up with Israel's hardliners, but with their own leaders too. The survey also showed that the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank have also had enough of 88-year-old President Abbas, who rules by decree and has brought no improvements in the many years of his rule. People here like to say that Abbas is like a carpet that the Israelis walk all over. This is another reason why many people now support Hamas. Fatah's weakness is Hamas's strength.

Dentist Belal Assi, who is treating patients in the community centre in Al-Amari, says the same thing. The 26-year-old has a beard and is dressed in jeans and a white pullover. Like Haroun, he is close to Fatah, or – to be more accurate – to the party that Fatah once was. Assi says that many people in his generation glorify Hamas because they have no one else to look up to. "Fatah used to be the big model," he says. Yasser Arafat, who co-founded Fatah in the late 1950s, initially backed terrorism and had dozens of attacks carried out on Israelis, before changing tack and working for reconciliation with Israel.

Assi believes that Palestinians today would like something similar: a strong leadership that will try to negotiate peace with Israel, but sees armed resistance as a legitimate means. Assi says that he is not calling for groundless attacks on Israelis. "It's about self-defence," he says, adding, by way of example, that when Palestinian farmers are attacked by Jewish settlers, there needs to be some kind of authority that protects the farmers against attacks. "Fatah must finally start taking action," he says.

It remains to be seen what the growing popularity of Hamas will mean for a future post-war order. Many experts – and many people in the West Bank – consider Israel's goal of completely eradicating Hamas to be unrealistic. "Hamas cannot be fought using weapons," is a sentence that can be heard again and again in the West Bank.

Even as the war in Gaza rages on, leading Palestinian politicians are already drawing up scenarios for a new political beginning. For many, it is clear that Hamas has to be involved in some way. Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister, wrote in an essay at the end of October that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) will in future have to integrate all major factions, including Hamas.

The current prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, takes a similar view. In interview with Bloomberg in early December, Shtayyeh said he would like "Hamas to become a junior partner under the broader Palestine Liberation Organization, helping to build a new independent state".

Many Palestinians don't believe that a unity government is a realistic possibility. The fear is that Hamas would not subordinate itself to Fatah, but would grab power.

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Most people don't want an Islamic state

And hardly anyone in the West Bank wants Hamas rule – apart from its militant supporters. The men in Al-Amari refugee camp, the people on the streets of Ramallah and Lama Yahya all confirm this. People feel that the Islamists' style of rule in Gaza was too rigid: they dictated to people what they had to wear and what they could say, punishing anyone who dared to denounce the group's corruption and mismanagement.

"I don't want to live in an Islamic state," says Lama Yahya, who abhors religious dogmas. She says that she and people she knows reject violence and would prefer to fight the occupation with peaceful means such as demonstrations, training and boycotts.

However, she adds, many people she knows are convinced that peaceful protest alone will not get them anywhere because anyone who expresses even the slightest criticism of the Israelis' brutal approach risks being arrested. "We don't need Hamas," says Yahya. "We need someone to give us back our dignity."

Andrea Backhaus

©  ZEIT online/Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan