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The blocked northern entrance to the village of Deir Nizam. Photo by Iyad Hadad, B’Tselem, 17 Feb. 2020
From the field

Jan.-Feb. 2020: Military blocks five West Bank villages as collective punishment

Blocking access to West Bank villages has long since become a routine method of oppression that Israel uses against Palestinian residents of the West Bank. The military usually blames the blocks on alleged actions by young men from the particular village – throwing stones or Molotov cocktails at Israeli vehicles, or shooting at Israeli security forces or civilians. In one fell swoop, the military punishes all residents of the village and those near it, who use these roads, even though they have done nothing wrong nor are they suspected of anything. Over the course of January and February 2020, the military blocked the entrances to five villages in the West Bank.

The restrictions were gradually removed, with the exception of the village of Osarin, where the entrance has remained blocked ever since unprecedented limitations on movement were imposed on all West Bank residents (by the military and by the Palestinian Authority) in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The gate at the entrance to the village of ‘Abud after it was opened. Photo by Iyad Hadad, B’Tselem, 20 Feb. 2020

The main entrance to Osarin, a village to the southeast of Nablus with a population of some 2,100, was closed on 30 January 2020, on the grounds that locals had thrown rocks at Route 505. The block, still in place due to the corona crisis, was made using boulders and dirt mounds. It obstructs access to the main road, and local residents are forced to use one of four other roads that connect the village to the villages of Beita and ‘Aqraba. Travel via these routes, parts of which are on narrow, rough roads that wind through village homes, is longer and more costly. The military blocked the main entrance to the village for 29 days last year.

On 9 February 2020, the military blocked the entrances to four more villages in the Ramallah area, without offering any explanation to local residents, who remained at a loss as to why they were being collectively punished.

  • In the village of a-Nabi Saleh, northwest of Ramallah, which has some 600 residents, the military blocked the main, eastern entrance, for five days. Residents were forced to enter and exit the village through the western entrance, where a rough dirt road leads to the village of ‘Abud. From there, they had to proceed on foot through village fields as the entrance to ‘Abud was also blocked.
  • In the village of Deir Abu Mash’al, northwest of Ramallah, which has a population of roughly 4,400, the military blocked the main entrance for six days, forcing residents to use rough, unpaved roads that are difficult to drive on.
  • About 2,000 people live in the village of ‘Abud, northwest of Ramallah. The military closed the gate it had installed at the main entrance to the village for seven days. Alternate routes to the village are steep and winding, which is why locals preferred to cross the fields on foot, get to the main road and continue to their destinations by public transportation.
  • The village of Deir Nizam, northwest of Ramallah, has some 900 residents. There are three access points to the village – north, northwest and southeast. The military intermittently closed the northern entrance through January and February, finally reopening it in late February. It blocked the northwest entrance from 9 February until the end of the month, when it reopened it as well (Last year, the military intermittently closed this road from June to August). The blocks left residents with access only to the southeastern entrance, which leads to Route 450 – a road that connects Palestinian villages to the city of Ramallah and involves travel through a checkpoint, multiple delays and passage through a narrow, rough agricultural road on the western side of the village. Residents now have to take a long detour to get to the northern West Bank.
The gate at the western entrance to Deir Nizam. Photo by Iyad Hadad, B’Tselem, 17 Feb. 2020

The blocks were gradually removed in a-Nabi Saleh, Deir Abu Mash’al and ‘Abud. Instead of every block that was opened, the military set up flying checkpoints where it detained locals. The affected villages are located in close proximity to one another and have close trade, work, family and social relations. In addition, passengers traveling between Salfit and Ramallah would stop and patronize businesses in these villages. Because of the blocks, local business owners suffered financial losses.

The closures impact all these aspects of life and harm tens of thousands of West Bank residents, with the extreme restrictions on movement severely disrupting their lives and impairing their ability to make a living, get to school, farm their land, receive medical treatment or simply maintain a reasonable daily routine.

This form of collective punishment, which forces local residents to live in conditions of uncertainty and frustration and waste precious time and money, is completely unjustifiable and an abuse of military force.

Muhammad Abu Jeish, 49, a married father of nine from Beit Dajan, is a taxi driver on the Nablus-Osarin line. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i on 17 February 2020, he said:

Muhammad Abu Jeish, 49, a married father of nine from Beit Dajan, is a taxi driver on the Nablus-Osarin line. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i on 17 February 2020, he said:

Ever since they blocked the entrance to Osarin, I’ve had to drive through the village of Beita. I pick up passengers in downtown Nablus, take the Huwarah road and, from there, go into Beita and drive on the narrow winding roads inside the village. From there, I continue on a road that was used by farmers in the past. It was paved a few years ago, but it’s a narrow road that can only accommodate one-way traffic. If a car comes ahead, I have to veer to the shoulder. Because of the rain and the land erosion, there’s now a 30-40 centimeter gap between the road and the shoulder, and every time I have to veer like that, the car gets damaged.

I’m very worried about this damage, because it’s already tough financially and every repair costs a fortune. I make up to 150 NIS (~42 USD) a day, and half of it goes on gas. What do I have left? Very little.

I also have to drive slowly because I go through residential areas, and also because the roads are narrow and full of potholes, unlike Route 505, which is a wide and properly paved road. On that road, you can do 80-90 kilometers an hour easily. It’s super convenient. On the Beita road, I do 40-50 kilometers an hour, at best. In ordinary times, I make an average of three trips a day, and now I barely make one or two.

Walid Zitawi, 55, a married father of six from Jamma’in, is a counselor at the Osarin boys’ elementary school. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i on 19 February 2020, he said:

Walid Zitawi. Photo courtesy of Zitawi

At the beginning of the month, when I was on my way to the school in Osarin, I suddenly saw piles of rocks and dirt at the entrance to the village. I’d almost made it, but I had to turn around and drive through the nearby village of ‘Aqraba. It made me late for work, and that’s going to be deducted from my pay.

The blocks have created a bleak mood. The military is punishing everyone – all the residents of the village and everyone working there. What did we do? Why should we be delayed on the way to work and have to pay more? I’m now spending more money every day on gas to get to work through ‘Aqraba.

Muhammad Rabi’ is a 32-year-old married truck driver from Deir Abu Mash’al. He spoke about the situation in a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 17 February 2020:

On Monday, 10 February 2020, I had breakfast and went to work. I transport construction materials between my village, Deir Abu Mash’al, and nearby villages such as Deir Nizam, ‘Abud or a-Nabi Saleh, and sometimes Ramallah, too.

I got into my truck and drove to the entrance to the village, which is where the only road that connects us to the main road, Route 465, starts. But when I got there, the gate was closed and there were soldiers who only let pedestrians through. The soldiers delayed the pedestrians, too, and asked them questions rudely.

I went back home in a bad mood. I was frustrated, because there’s no other exit I can take. There are some dirt roads, but they’re rough. Private cars can hardly get through, let alone a truck. They’re only good for four-by-fours. So, I’ve been out of work since the first day of the block. All of us, all the residents of the village, were trapped inside a big jail. No one coming in and no one going out.

If I hadn’t put some money away, I would have had to borrow money for my family’s needs. We passed the time playing cards, going out here and there, binge-eating from the stress and sleeping. On nice days, we took nature walks. We went crazy with boredom. It was a very unpleasant feeling.

Even after they opened the gate, on Friday evening, the soldiers wouldn’t leave us alone. Starting Saturday morning, they put up flying checkpoints at the entrance to the village, especially in the afternoon, when people get home from work. They delayed us for a long time, sometimes 15 or 30 minutes. They seemed very smug, completely unbothered by the fact that they were disrupting our lives and creating a bleak mood. That’s how we have to live.

Yusef Asmar, 52, a married father of five from Beit Rima, works as a caretaker at the Deir Nizam high school. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad on 17 February 2020, he said:

Yusef Asmar. Photo by Iyad Hadad, B’Tselem, 17 Feb. 2020

I have to be at work every day at 7:00 A.M. Since the military closed the gates at the entrances to the villages on my way to school, my routine has been completely disrupted. Usually, I drive from my village, Beit Rima, through a-Nabi Saleh and from there to Deir Nizam, where I work. It takes about 15 minutes.

On Monday morning, 10 February 2020, I suddenly discovered the military had closed the gate at the entrance to a-Nabi Saleh, and I found out the gate at the entrance to Deir Nizam was also closed. I called the school administration and a few teachers who come from my area to find out if there were alternative routes. We discovered the military had closed the gates in other villages, where the alternative roads are, such as ‘Abud and Deir Abu Mash’al. We couldn’t get to school that day and we all went home.

The next day, Tuesday, when we got to the entrance to a-Nabi Saleh, the gate was open but there was a military checkpoint, and the soldiers searched and checked every car. There was a long line, and it took me half an hour to get through. When I got to the northern entrance to Deir Nizam, I saw the gate there was closed, but luckily, the northwestern entrance was open and I went through there. It took me about an hour to get to work that morning, and we didn’t have a full school day that day. After that, they closed that entrance, too.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the gate at the entrance to a-Nabi Saleh was closed, and we couldn’t make it to school. On Friday, it opened, but sometimes the military sets up flying checkpoints there. The two gates at the northern and northwestern entrance to Deir Nizam are still closed, so I have to drive to school on the Halamish road, which leads to the southeastern entrance to the village. I always get stopped and searched by soldiers there. The soldiers there often testy, especially if I tell them I work at the school in Deir Nizam. One time, one of them started threatening and swearing, saying: “The students in Deir Nizam are dogs. Everyone who teaches at your school is a dog, too. I want to shoot their legs. Tell them that if I see one of them throwing a stone, I’ll kill him”. Since then, I stopped saying I work at the school. I’m either going to Deir Nizam or coming from there. I say I’m going to Beitillu, another village on the same road, so I don’t have to hear the swearing and threats.

These delays disrupt the whole workday, of course, and bring my mood down. Now I arrive about a half-hour late every day, and I don’t have enough time to do everything that needs to get done in the morning, like removing waste and getting the teachers the supplies they need.

The situation has affected everyone, including the students, teachers and administration. It’s very difficult to run classes this way. I hope God helps the students and the teachers during this time. This isn’t the first time the gates at the main entrances to Deir Nizam have been closed. The military started doing it two years ago. Sometimes, it closes the gates for a long time for no apparent reason, or on the pretext that one kid threw a stone at the fence of the nearby settlement or the bypass road. And then they punish the whole area and keep everybody in a big jail. In this kind of situation, everyone’s life is at the mercy of whatever mood some officer is in, who decides when he feels like opening the prison gates or shutting them.