In the turmoil of the West Bank, new Palestinian militants are emerging

JABA, West Bank — Stuttering blasts from M-16s broke the silence in a West Bank village surrounded by fields of barley and olive groves. Young Palestinian men in Jaba once wanted to farm, residents say, but now more and more want to fight.

Last week, dozens of them, wearing balaclavas and wielding rifles with photos of their dead comrades taped to clips, stormed a school playground – introducing Jaba’s new militant group and paying tribute to its founder and another militant killed by an Israeli army. raid last month.

“I don’t want to mourn my parents,” said Yousef Hosni Hammour, 28, a close friend of Ezzeddin Hamamrah, the group’s late founder. “But I’m ready to die as a martyr.”

Similar scenes are playing out in the West Bank. From the Jenin refugee camp in the north to the city of Hebron in the south, small groups of disillusioned young Palestinians are taking up arms against Israel’s indefinite occupation, defying Palestinian political leaders they despise as collaborators with Israel.

Due to their fluid and overlapping affiliations, these groups lack a clear ideology and operate independently of traditional chains of command – even if they receive support from established militant groups. Fighters from Palestine Islamic Jihad and other organizations participated in last week’s ceremony in Jaba.

In almost daily arrest raids over the past year, Israel has tried to crack down on the youth militias, leading to deaths and unrest not seen in nearly two decades.

While Israel maintains that the escalating raids are aimed at preventing future attacks, Palestinians say the escalating violence has helped radicalize men too young to remember the brutal Israeli crackdown on the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago, which served as a deterrent to for older Palestinians.

This new generation grew up uniquely inhibited, in an area torn by infighting and divided by barriers and checkpoints.

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More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the beginning of 2023, after the most right-wing government in Israel’s history took office. The Associated Press reports that about half of the gunmen have died in the fighting with Israel, although the dead include stone throwers and bystanders who did not take part in the violence.

During this time, at least 15 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, including two Israelis on Sunday in the town of Hawara, south of Jabba. In response, Israeli settlers set fire to dozens of buildings – a Palestinian was also killed in the rampage.

“It’s as if the new government has let go of the soldiers and the settlers and said they can do what they want now,” said Jamal Khalili, a member of Jaba’s local council.

At a recent commemoration, children gathered around the gunmen, wearing black armbands on their foreheads, eager to catch a glimpse of their heroes.

“The result is what we see here,” added Khalili.

Last week, an Israeli military raid in the northern city of Nablus sparked a shootout with Palestinian militants, killing 10 people. The raid targeted the most important of the emerging armed groups, the Lion’s Cave.

Israeli security officials say the military has crippled the Nablus-based Lion’s Den over the past few months, killing or arresting most of its key members. But they acknowledge that its militants, who roam the Old City of Nablus and pump out Telegram videos with a carefully honed message of heroic resistance, are now inspiring new attacks across the area.

“The Lion’s Den is starting to become an idea that we see all around,” said an Israeli military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence assessment. Instead of throwing stones or incendiary bombs, the militants now mainly open fire. , often using M-16s smuggled from Jordan or stolen from Israeli military bases.

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The official said the army was monitoring the Jaba group and others in the northern cities of Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem. But he acknowledged that the military is struggling to gather intelligence on small, loosely organized militant groups.

The Palestinian Authority government governs parts of the West Bank and works closely with the Israeli military against its domestic rivals, particularly the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

As young Palestinians increasingly see the Palestinian Authority as an arm of Israel’s security forces rather than the foundation of a future state, Palestinian security forces are reluctant to intervene against budding militias. Palestinian forces now rarely venture into militant strongholds such as the Old City of Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp, according to residents and the Israeli military.

According to the Jaba militants, the Palestinian security forces did not attack them. Residents said that the group, which was founded last September, quickly grew to 40-50 militants.

Hammour described Palestinian leaders as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary Palestinians. But he said: “Our goals are much bigger than causing problems with the Palestinian Authority.”

With the PA’s popularity plummeting, experts say it cannot risk tensions by arresting widely admired fighters.

According to Tahani Mustafa, a Palestinian analyst at the International Crisis Group, the PA is “going through a crisis of legitimacy.” “There is a huge gap between the elites at the top and the groups on the ground.”

Palestinian officials admit their grip is slipping.

“We fear that any action we take against (these groups) will cause a reaction on the street,” said a Palestinian intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

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As the Israeli military steps up raids, the West Bank’s power structure shakes, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government expands settlements in the occupied territories, frustrated Palestinians say they are not pursuing any Islamist or political agenda — they simply want to protect their cities and resist. Israel’s 55-year occupation.

For Mohammed Alawneh, 28, whose two brothers died in clashes with Israeli forces two decades apart, the Jaba group is a “reaction”. He said he could support peace if it meant an end to the occupation and formation. For now, it is clear that Israel does not want peace.

Hamamrah, the late commander of the Jaba group, threw stones at the Israeli army as a teenager and then joined Fatah, the armed wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s party, according to his mother, Lamia. After 10 harrowing months in an Israeli prison, he became religious and reclusive. He was talking about revenge.

After his death, Lamia discovered that he had helped form the Jaba group and that Islamic Jihad had supplied them with weapons, including the weapon Hamamrah fired at Israeli troops on January 14.

The army pursued him to Jabba, killing Hamamrah along with another militant, Amjad Khleleyah. Their crushed and bloodstained car now sits in the center of Jaba like a grisly monument.

At his funeral, Lamia said that Hamamrah’s friends urged her to show pride in her son, who became a warrior and inspired the entire village.

But Lamia cried and cried. His 14-year-old daughter, Malak, still wants to die as a martyr.

“I’m just a mother who lost her son,” she said. “I want this to be over.”