After recent attacks, Israel sealed off several towns throughout Hebron – a policy that has drawn widespread criticism
“Don’t drive through Younis – they shoot at people there,” Um Ahmad said through a bus window to the driver as he left Hebron’s central bus station.
Younis is a checkpoint at the main entrance to the occupied West Bank village of Sair, which was sealed earlier this month by the Israeli military after gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle and injured the driver before fleeing into the village.
Um Ahmad and a dozen other Palestinians bound for the blockaded town told Al Jazeera that the junction in front of the checkpoint is notorious, as Palestinians have been shot dead there in the past during alleged attacks on Israeli forces. They debate which route to take home, before piling into another bus headed for the village’s southern entrance.
“We think this will be safer,” Um Ahmad told Al Jazeera, motioning to her niece’s young family. “We are scared. This is probably the best way.”
The bus moved through the neighbouring village of Beit Einun and passed by armed Israeli soldiers at a makeshift checkpoint before stopping on the outskirts of Sair, where passengers disembarked and crossed over cement roadblocks on foot.
Sair is one of several towns throughout the Hebron district that has been fully or partially closed by Israel since the start of the month, when deadly attacks carried out by locals left two Israeli settlers dead, marking the most widespread lockdown since 2014. The closures, accompanied by nightly detention raids that have left dozens injured, have severely disrupted the movement of an estimated 400,000 Palestinians, according to the United Nations.
A spokesperson for the Israeli army told Al Jazeera that the recent measures were carried out “according to security assessments” in light of the latest attacks.
In recent months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has also ordered revocations of work and visitation permits to Israel, punitive home demolitions and withholding of bodies of Palestinians killed while perpetrating attacks.
The measures come despite mounting reports of opposition to such punitive policies by leaders of Israel’s military and security establishments. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last month said such policies opposed long-standing analyses by security and military sectors, while the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, has warned that closures and permit revocations could increase frustration and lead to future unrest.
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has rejected such criticisms, vowing after a deadly Tel Aviv attack last month to make residents of the attacker’s hometown of Yatta “pay the price”.
In Sair, meanwhile, residents’ frustration is palpable. Near the city centre, Palestinian lawyer Jarrar Jabarin described the closures as collective punishment.
“[The Israeli army] distributed leaflets across the village, saying they won’t stop the closures until the citizens give them the wanted people,” Jabarin told Al Jazeera, sitting outside a shop with two friends.
The trio said that the army has carried out nightly raids throughout the village all month – some of which kept residents up until dawn. Several locals also reported seeing mista’aravim, Israeli security forces who enter Palestinian areas posing as Arabs.
Sair resident Muhammad Jaradat said that while the village has grown accustomed to frequent closures since a fresh wave of violence began rippling through Israel and the occupied West Bank in October, the current lockdown was tighter than previous ones.
Critics attribute the harsher measures to Netanyahu’s efforts to cement his authority, as he has ushered increasingly hard-line politicians into his inner circle. Israeli rights group B’Tselem described the measures carried out in Hebron as “an ostentatious act of vengeance taken by Israeli authorities for domestic political reasons, at the expense of Palestinian residents in the Hebron area”.
An apparent divide growing between the military and government came to a head in May, when former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon resigned after urging members of the military to express their opinions – even those that contradict the official line. At the time, he said Netanyahu’s government had “lost its moral compass”.
According to Tel Aviv University political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin, “the security establishment is willing to say there’s a connection between economic opportunity and terror, and the political establishment doesn’t like that narrative, or refuses to see [the narrative] as a legitimate way to respond to security incidents.”
Such opposition by security and military leadership goes back decades, but its recent increase is a “natural outgrowth of an unsustainable political policy”, Scheindlin said, citing Israel’s military control over 4.5 million Palestinians.
“[The current government policy] is not status quo. There’s nothing static about it,” she said. “It’s dynamic, in that it’s deepening and expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank … It contributes to and perpetuates lack of economic opportunity and lack of political realisation, all the things we know that are among the contributors to the violence.”
Barak, in his scathing review of Netanyahu’s government, also implied such policies were untenable, noting that the agenda being carried out by the current government would “collide directly” with the “values of the [Israeli army], the principles of Israel, international law and common sense”.
Back in Sair, local teacher Husan Jabarin told Al Jazeera that the recent measures were pushing the community away from the peace it has been seeking.
“They’re pushing us into depression,” he said. “We just want to live peacefully and live our lives, nothing else. But the situation that we’re facing today … It’s affecting the new generation [and] causing them to be more violent.
“We are really sad for that – it’s not what we want, but that’s what the occupation is creating.