HUWARA, West Bank — As an Israeli Army front-end loader approached, the Palestinian mayor tried one last time to stop the soldiers from blocking an intersection in Huwara, his town in the northern West Bank.
The soldiers were unmoved: They said a Palestinian child from Huwara had thrown a stone at a passing Israeli bus. The machine raised its giant bucket, tipping a mound of earth and rubble onto the ground, sending a plume of dust across the street and blocking off the road.
“This is collective punishment,” the town’s mayor, Moin Damedi, said. “You’re suffocating us.”
This road closure on Tuesday was the latest expansion of a much wider Israeli lockdown in the northern West Bank that has now entered its third week.
Since early October, the Israeli Army has blocked or restricted access to at least nine roads in the roughly 25 square mile region, after a wave of violence in the occupied West Bank that has centered on the northern cities of Nablus and Jenin. The closures have placed Nablus, a city of about 160,000 people, under a semi-blockade, damaging its economy and creating hourslong bottlenecks. They have also limited movement and harmed trade in smaller nearby towns like Huwara.
The lockdowns are the latest development of the conflagration between Palestinian violence, settler attacks and Israeli Army raids that have all increased in 2022, leading to the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians and five Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and making this the deadliest year there since 2015. Separately, more than 40 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, and at least 18 Israelis and foreigners in Israel.
The Israeli Army says its lockdown is an attempt to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s tepid response to the rising violence. The Israeli closures in the Nablus region are primarily aimed at stymieing a new militant group based in the Old City of Nablus, the Lions’ Den, which has claimed several recent shooting attacks in the West Bank and which Israel has linked to a failed attack on civilians in Tel Aviv in September.
The Israeli Army said in a statement that it had “implemented blockades and inspections around the city of Nablus and the nearby villages due to the recent rise in terrorism within the city.”
The deterioration has prompted comparisons with aspects of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the early 2000s.
Palestinian leaders say that a new generation of Palestinians has lost faith in the ability of the Palestinian Authority, which administers Palestinian cities like Nablus, to achieve a Palestinian state and end Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank. As a result, some young men have turned to violence, rejecting the authority’s attempt to combine partial cooperation with Israel with legal and diplomatic opposition to it.
The authority has avoided a full crackdown on the young militants, some of whom are close relatives of their own officials — largely because, analysts say, the authority is fearful of deepening its unpopularity, and unsettled by splits in its leadership.
The Israeli Army is acting “to maintain the security of the State of Israel and its citizens” as well as Palestinian “civilians of the area, while working to maintain their normal life routines,” the statement said.
But to Palestinians, the closure is part of a pattern of aggressive Israeli behavior in the West Bank — which includes settlement expansion, settler violence and demolition of Palestinian homes — that prompted the emergence of the Lions’ Den.
“The thing that created the group was the occupation,” said Tawfiq Hijawy, 56, whose flower shop stands next to a roadblock in Deir el-Sharaf, a town west of Nablus. “If the occupation ended today, this group would disappear,” Mr. Hijawy added.
The blockade has forced Nablus residents to queue for several hours to leave the city during the day, restricted almost every aspect of the area’s economy and discouraged other Palestinians from entering the city. Some have circumvented the barriers by walking through rural paths, while others have driven over the top of them, prompting the army to heighten them with more earth.
The closure has drastically reduced revenues at most kinds of shops, emptied hotels, forced lawyers to postpone court cases, suspended university classes and canceled events including a martial arts competition, according to interviews with several Nablus-based business owners, tradesmen and residents.
The mound outside Mr. Hijawy’s flower shop has rerouted Nablus-bound traffic through another town, depriving him of almost all passing customers and leaving his flowers to wilt unsold.
First the petunias died, he said, and then the chrysanthemums, marigolds and geraniums. On Tuesday, he worried the pansies were next.
But if Israelis hoped that would turn him and other traders against the Lions’ Den, “in reality, it’s the opposite,” Mr. Hijawy said.
Palestinian anger has been compounded by a sharp recent rise in settler violence in the Nablus area.
At least twice this month, Israelis were filmed entering Huwara, vandalizing Palestinian property, throwing stones at Palestinians and waving clubs.
Lines of masked men were also filmed descending from a nearby hilltop settlement last Friday and throwing stones at Palestinian residents of the neighboring village of Burin, who threw stones at the settlers.
Settler leaders said all three incidents were provoked by Palestinians throwing stones first, and that the settlers have been forced to take matters into their own hands because of inaction by the Israeli Army.
‘’I realize these incidents happen occasionally, but you need to understand that they are completely disproportionate compared to the scale of rock throwing” by Palestinians, said Tzvi Succot, a prominent settler activist from Yitzhar, an Israeli settlement next to Huwara.
Videos showed that soldiers had done little to stop the settler incursions, sometimes standing aside entirely, and sometimes targeting the Palestinians instead of the settlers.
Army officers have also been attacked by settlers this month.
The army said in a statement that it had acted “to disperse both Israeli and Palestinian rioters,” and that a man in uniform seen handing a tear-gas canister to a settler was a civilian not a soldier.
But to Palestinians affected by the settler attacks, the army’s actions seemed one-sided.
In Huwara, the army’s closure of a neighborhood on Tuesday prompted Palestinians to question why similar action had not been taken in nearby Yitzhar.
“Where’s the humanity in that?” asked Mr. Damedi, the mayor. “Why don’t you stop the settlers?”
The Israel commander was unmoved.
“Until you raise your children properly and stop throwing stones, this will continue,” the officer said in the presence of three journalists from The New York Times. “We’ll close off all the neighborhoods.”
As tensions continue to rise, analysts are, once again, debating the perennial question of whether the unrest might lead to a third intifada.
Several national strikes have also been held across the West Bank in recent weeks, an indication of growing frustration at the occupation.
Widespread unrest, however, has yet to break out across the whole territory. In the past week, two calls for mass protests were both met with a muted response.
Brusli Eid, a Palestinian injured during the recent clash with settlers in Burin, reflected the ambivalence of an older generation of Palestinians. An authority police officer, Mr. Eid said he was frustrated with his leadership and understood the despair of groups like the Lions’ Den.
But he felt the second intifada — which left thousands of Palestinians and Israelis killed and maimed, and led to the construction of a wall around much of the West Bank — had left Palestinians worse off than before and had left him wary of another mass insurgency.
“I don’t think there will be an intifada and I am against it,” said Mr. Eid, 47. “Our loss will be greater.”
But a mile away in Huwara, a crowd of younger Palestinians had a different response.
The crowd looked on as the Israeli tractor dumped pile after pile of earth on their street, and as soldiers detained and interrogated a 13-year-old boy they accused of throwing stones at passing Israeli cars.
A reporter for The New York Times saw one soldier grab the boy, Zuhdi Odeh, by the neck while another punched him in the face.
The boy was later released, and the army later said its soldiers “did not use excessive force.” But the crowd was incensed.
“Every day they’re arresting children,” said Muhammed Odeh, 24, a network engineer and the boy’s distant relative. “The only solution is a third intifada.”
Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Huwara, West Bank; Hiba Yazbek from Amman, Jordan; and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.