HAWARA, West Bank — The main road running through the town of Hawara is virtually the sole meeting-point for Israeli and Palestinian civilians in the northern West Bank.
Part of Route 60, it is the north-south artery linking six major Palestinian cities as well as four Israeli settlements in the Samaria regional council: Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Elon Moreh and Itamar.
Israelis wishing to travel from those settlements to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem have little choice but to take Route 60 through the Palestinian town.
There is a bypass route. But that would require an extra 30 minutes — time few people are willing to sacrifice on a daily basis.
After the past week’s events, however, some might consider waking up half-an-hour earlier a habit worth getting used to.
On Thursday, an Israeli settler driving on Route 60 to his home in Itamar was met in Hawara by dozens of Palestinian rioters demonstrating in solidarity with security prisoners currently hunger-striking in Israeli jails.
As the driver, a father of eight, continued through Hawara, the protesters turned violent, kicking his car and pelting it with rocks. The Israeli then tried to plow through the crowd, but his way was blocked by an ambulance, which had crossed into the lane.
Fearing his life was in imminent danger, the driver later said, he opened fire with his handgun, killing one Palestinian and lightly injuring an Associated Press photographer.
A military jeep pulled up seconds after the man’s car came under attack, and the soldiers inside quickly scattered the crowd with tear gas and other riot dispersal means.
The settler described the experience as a “lynch” attempt. “I saw death in their eyes,” he said.
However that incident, as well as two similar ones that unfolded this past week, have far from convinced Itamar residents to reroute.
“Statistically speaking, the majority of travel goes by fine,” said Pinchas Michaeli, the settlement’s spokesperson.
“I travel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every day for work and I have no choice but to pass through Hawara,” he said.
Michaeli shrugged off a reminder of the less convenient bypass route. “You can use it, but nobody does. Even when the atmosphere is heated, people still go through there,” he added.
Asked why the driver proceeded through Hawara after seeing the protesters approaching, the Itamar spokesman explained that this was not the case.
“You don’t know until the last second what exactly is happening,” he said. “One moment, you are sitting in traffic, and then all of the sudden a large group approaches. This happened to me when I was driving with my kids three years ago, during Operation Protective Edge” against Hamas in Gaza.
Michaeli recounted how rocks were hurled at his car and that a couple of the rioters tried to open the door. “It was not pleasant, but we were, thank God, able to escape unharmed.”
Thursday’s incident was not the only one that took place on Route 60 this week. On Wednesday, two Israeli settlers found themselves under attack further south down the road. A group of 20 Palestinians approached their car and began hurling rocks at it.
The driver stopped the car, chased the fleeing Palestinians, and shot one of them in the back. The Palestinian was arrested and taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem in moderate condition. The Israeli driver and passenger were detained for questioning by the IDF, but were released shortly afterwards.
According to Michaeli, roughly 90% of the men in Itamar carry a weapon. He too had one tucked into his waistband.
Reut, an Itamar resident of eight years, explained that driving along Route 60 is routine, and that she’s not going to stop using it.
“I have been taking that road three times a week since I arrived here. It’s part of my schedule,” said the mother of five. “It doesn’t matter what happens, I will continue to drive through Hawara.”
She too dismissed the option of an extended 30 minute car-ride in return for the ostensible peace of mind. “I have kids to take care of, things to do.” she said.
While Reut acknowledged that some newer members of Itamar have been more affected by the attacks on the road, “the ones that have built roots here have no intention of leaving and are not fazed by these events,” she said.
When asked if she had thought about arming herself, Reut laughed off the idea. “I listen to my husband’s advice. The smartest thing to do in these situations is to keep driving. Even if people get trampled in the process.”
Spokesman Michaeli pointed out that those who demonstrate along Route 60 in Hawara are not even from the town. “These are people from surrounding cities that are bussed there by political groups interested in disrupting the routine. The shop owners are not the ones responsible,” said the father of four.
Basel, a Palestinian who owns a bakery less than a block away from where Thursday’s events took place, confirmed the Itamar spokesman’s account.
“I don’t agree with what these youngsters are doing because then the army comes, and we are the ones that have to pay for it,” he said.
On Tuesday, Rabbis for Human Rights reported that three Palestinian vehicles were vandalized by a crowd of Israeli settlers outside of Hawara on Route 60. Later in the day, the road was briefly closed by the IDF due to Palestinians rioting in response.
Further down the street on Friday, outside Basel’s sweet shop, the IDF was blocking Palestinian vehicles from entering Hawara through Route 60. While not addressing why Israeli cars were still allowed access, the army said that the main highway was closed between Hawara and Nablus due to a “situational assessment.” An alternative route was offered.
Raed Debiy, the head of Fatah Youth International who is involved in organizing Hawara protests, insisted that they are necessary.
“We are doing this to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinian prisoners as well as to send a message to the Occupation, to the settlers, and to the right-wing government that we will not allow them to strip us of our dignity,” he said.
After some five weeks, 843 Palestinian security prisoners are still on a hunger strike, according to the Israel Prisons Service. Jailed for offenses linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are seeking better conditions, including 20 TV channels, air conditioning, family visits, and public telephone use.
“We understand the arguments of the residents (against protesting), but at the end of the day, there is a price for raising the voice of the people,” Debiy added.
He dismissed the army’s account of what unfolded Thursday in Hawara, insisting that the Israeli driver ran over demonstrators before the crowd began to get violent.
The young Fatah activist also argued that the ambulance which the Israeli settler told police had blocked his path on purpose, had arrived at the scene to care for Palestinians who had been run over.
The ambulance driver was detained by the IDF on Friday morning for further questioning.
“At the end of the day the Arabs are more negatively affected by what happens in Hawara than the Jews,” said Michaeli. “The traffic caused by these demonstrations blocks off the main road that they take to get to Nablus and Ramallah.”
“We don’t like the protests. They are hurting our business,” Basel said. He gestured around his shop full of large trays of sweets. “Nobody’s here,” he said despondently.
There was no such sense of despair from the Itamar spokesperson, despite the events of the past few days. “Just this past week, there were three families that visited [the settlement] with the intention of moving here,” he said.
Asked if the prospective members took the longer route to get there, Michaeli smiled. “I don’t think so.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.