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In West Bank, deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces open new flash point

Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli forces Friday during a protest near the West Bank city of Nablus over tensions in Jerusalem and escalation in the Israel-Gaza conflict. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)
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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The escalating conflict between ­Israeli forces and Palestinians flared in a new setting Friday with deadly clashes in the West Bank, raising the prospect of a front emerging in areas dotted with Jewish settlements and Israeli outposts.

The violence ended a relative calm that had held in the West Bank since barrages of Palestinian rockets from the Gaza Strip and Israeli airstrikes in the enclave tumbled the region toward all-out war this week.

At least 11 people were killed and over 500 injured by Israeli forces during the protests in the West Bank showing solidarity with Gaza and Arab Israelis,and denouncing the decades-long occupation, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. 

The prospect of widening unrest in the West Bank could add major new elements to the conflict, including Israeli concerns about security for Jewish settlements in the occupied territory. At least four of the Palestinians killed Friday were taking part in protests in villages near Nablus, the scene of frequent skirmishes between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

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Human rights groups have denounced "price tag" attacks in which right-wing settlers target Palestinian homes and property, including the burning of olive trees and fields.

The spiral of violence also is a test for the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank and maintains a security-coordination agreement with Israel. But the authority's leadership faces counterpressures from the streets as sympathy grows for Gaza, controlled by rival Hamas.

Most of the West Bank protests on Friday were notably outside the territory's main city, Ramallah, and in areas where the Palestinian Authority has less reach.

In cities like Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem, Palestinians poured into the streets early Friday following reports that Israel had accelerated its bombardment of Gaza. The conflict, which shows no sign of abating, has so far resulted in the deaths of 126 people in Gaza and nine in Israel, with hundreds more injured.

"I came because there's a Palestinian revolution happening," Hurriyah Ziada, a 31-year-old ­Israeli studies student at Birzeit University, said during a rally near the Beit El checkpoint that divides Ramallah from a nearby Jewish settlement. "We are standing united. This hasn't happened for years."

The main difference this time has been protest marches inside Israel by Arab citizens, some of whom have family in the West Bank. In recent days, some have faced off with right-wing Israelis — some of them from West Bank settlements — in mixed Jewish-Arab cities including Lod, Jaffa and Haifa.

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“We are seeing a very emboldened version of these [settler] movements that are out on the streets, not just in the West Bank but also now . . . within Israel,” said Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and activist in Ramallah.

Across the West Bank, Palestinian cities and villages are often separated by Israeli settlements,which has hampered political and civic organizing, said Ines Abdel Razek, 33, a Palestinian advocate in Jerusalem. The Palestinians’ West Bank economy, already dependent on international aid, also has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many people economically reliant on the Palestinian Authority, she said.

But Palestinians additionally feel push from the Western-backed authority, established as an interim semiautonomous government by the Oslo accords in the 1990s. The authority remains widely unpopular, as does its head, President Mahmoud Abbas.

During an anti-Israel demonstration Tuesday, authority security forces blocked protesters from reaching the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah. They forcibly dispersed the crowd after chants criticizing Abbas and arrested two people, Barghouti said.

The authority, led by Abbas’s Fatah party, is locked in a 15-year conflict with Gaza’s Hamas. The first Palestinian elections to be held in more than a decade were supposed to be held later this month until Abbas — trailing in the polls — indefinitely suspended them, citing Israel’s refusal to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians access to voting booths.

Israel has strengthened its security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to stop violence and protests in the West Bank. But many Palestinians oppose this relationship, saying Abbas has since wielded this power to effectively enforce Israel’s occupation and crack down on his own opponents.

“The PA doesn’t want internal unrest,” said Abdel Razek. “To make security coordination work, that means suppressing unrest and [political] organizing.”

But no political alternative to either Fatah or Hamas has been able to gain traction.

Now, said Ziada, comes another moment of reckoning for the authority.

“If the Palestinian Authority listens to its people and resists settler colonialism with us, then it has a role,” she said. “But if it doesn’t stand with us, then it has none.”