For three days last week, Israel bombarded Gaza in a sudden conflagration with the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, leaving 44 Palestinians, 15 of them children, dead. As the violence flared in the besieged coastal enclave, the heat was also felt in the northern West Bank city of Jenin — where the Israeli army has been conducting regular operations for months — and spread quickly to the nearby city of Nablus.
A day after a truce was announced, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian fighters from Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — popularly regarded as the military wing of Fatah, the political party which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA). Those killed include 19-year-old Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, Israel’s most wanted man in the city and one of the new symbols of Palestinian armed resistance.
Videos appearing to show a shoot-out in Nablus, as well as an interview on a local television station with eyewitnesses who suggested that PA security forces were involved, were widely circulated online hours after al-Nabulsi’s death on Tuesday, shedding light on the possibility that the Israeli assassination was indeed carried out with the PA’s authorization. +972 was unable to verify whether the videos pertained to al-Nabulsi or a different fighter, and the spokesman for the PA Interior Ministry was not available to answer queries.
According to political analyst Jihad Harb, growing rifts among Fatah’s ranks, which is headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, are strengthening the views within the party that oppose Abbas’ adherence to what they see as futile peace negotiations, especially as Israel ups up the ante against both armed and unarmed Palestinian resistance.
In Nablus and Jenin, members of Al-Aqsa Brigades — which is designated as a “terrorist organization” by Israel and several other countries, and which was formally dismantled in 2007 under the rubric of the peace process and the PA’s state-building project — have been re-arming in spite of attempts by Israel and the PA to suppress the group. Now virtually independent from Fatah, the Brigades are cooperating with other armed militias in the refugee camps to present a united front against intensifying Israeli incursions.
“Those young armed men are mostly under 25, and they see a different reality than the one the leadership sees,” says Harb, who was born and raised in Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, known as the birthplace of Al-Aqsa Brigades between late 2000 and early 2001. In the camp, he explains, the entire lives of these young men have been marked by violent confrontation with Israeli forces as well as harsh socio-economic conditions.
“Unlike the armed men of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, members of Al-Aqsa Brigades are not connected to the party — neither through financial aid nor political mobilization,” he added. “Besides, inside the camp, the families belonging to different parties are now mostly related by marriage, so it is not easy to separate them from each other or from being recipients of attainable resources, such as firearms.”
‘The biggest mistake is that we trusted the amnesty’
Israelis have long regarded Jenin as a hub for militant, or “terrorist,” activity. The city’s refugee camp, with an area of a half-square-kilometer, is home to approximately 14,000 Palestinians and dozens of fighters belonging to the Islamic Jihad and Fatah movements. Established after the forced flight and expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba, the camp’s walls are peppered with pictures of “martyrs” and political prisoners, adorned with the emblems of various Palestinian factions as well a large key symbolizing the Palestinian right of return.
In April 2002, the camp was the site of one of the fiercest battles during the Second Intifada. Under the codename “Operation Defensive Shield,” Israeli forces raided the site and left at least 52 Palestinians dead, including women and children, according to a probe by Human Rights Watch; 23 Israeli soldiers were also killed during the confrontations. The battle, hailed as both tragic and heroic, elevated the stature of Jenin — both the city and the camp — in Palestinian society, making it a symbol of national resistance. Despite large areas of the camp being leveled during the 2002 invasion, it remains the most vibrant part of the city socially and culturally.
In July 2007, the Israeli government and the PA made the first of several deals with Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, granting amnesty to some 200 fighters under the condition that they surrender their arms to the PA, renounce future attacks against Israel, and be absorbed into the Palestinian security forces. The agreement was presented as part of a campaign to consolidate weapons in the hands of the PA and end a spreading phenomenon of gun violence and chaos in the streets of West Bank cities. The number of gunmen granted amnesty was increased over the ensuing months and years, pursuant to further agreements.
But despite the official dismantling, the group was gradually resurrected without the Fatah leadership’s approval, with younger men joining former fighters in taking up arms in response to continuing Israeli military activities, including in Palestinian cities designated under the PA’s civil and security control (“Area A”). In July 2014, the Brigades claimed responsibility for opening fire on Israeli soldiers at Qalandia checkpoint, the major crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem. At the moment, there appears to be no clear central command among the Brigades’ various cells, nor is its decision-making traceable to Fatah.
In July, +972 visited the Jenin refugee camp to meet “Abu al-Abed” (the name he provided us), a longtime member of Al-Aqsa Brigades who gave up his weapons to Israel in the early amnesty deal. However, a few years later, he was wounded by gunfire from Israeli soldiers while on his way to work — an injury that would lead him back to the Brigades.
A tall, skinny man in his early 30s, Abu al-Abed got out of a car occupied by three other young men, all dressed in black; contrary to what is customary for armed men here, their faces were unmasked. The car took off and al-Abed approached us, before apologizing and saying that he would not be answering any questions — he just wanted to make a statement.
“The biggest mistake is that we trusted Israel, and trusted the amnesty, because Israel doesn’t even see us as humans! I was granted their so-called amnesty and less than two years later, I was shot while walking to work,” he said, then added with evident sorrow given away by a glare in his small, dark eyes: “That’s when I remembered my friends and comrades who were martyred — and for what?”
In recent months, in response to several attacks carried out inside Israel by armed Palestinians earlier this year — one of which was committed by a Jenin resident — Israel has imposed various measures of collective punishment on the city. These include economic sanctions, revoking travel permits for workers, closing off roads connecting Jenin to other parts of the occupied West Bank, and increasing raids, arrests, and targeted killings in and around the city.
These punishments, though, have brought about new forms of cooperation between the various Palestinian armed groups in Jenin against what they see as their common enemies.
“It’s time for the Palestinian Authority and the occupation to acknowledge that there is no way to stop the youth here from going all out on everything,” said Abu al-Abed. “This is why here in the camp we all work together: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Abu Ali Mustafa Brigade [the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], and all those who are willing to defend the camp.”
According to him, the Fatah party and the PA are not on the same wavelength. Since Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, the PA has mostly maintained security coordination with Israel, something that has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Palestinians. Fatah, which usually falls in line with the PA’s policies, has in recent years become divided between those supportive and those critical of the line Abbas has taken — most notably his demand for unarmed resistance.
Al-Abed seemed sure there is still a faction within the party that still supports armed struggle, especially the shabab (young men) who came of age amid daily Israeli military raids, arrests, and violence who were also raised by older Fatah members. He was referring to the likes of Hazem Raad, a 28-year-old from Jenin refugee camp known to his camp peers as “Cyber,” who opened fire on Israelis at a crowded bar in central Tel Aviv on April 7. Raad killed three and wounded 10 others, before being shot dead by Israeli security forces following a massive man-hunt.
Hazem’s family home was raided and demolished soon afterward, and his father has been in hiding following several attempts to arrest him. “Hazem’s entire family, including a younger brother no more than 10 years old, has been living in their cars, or at relatives’ homes. If the world doesn’t understand where this is taking us, we will make them understand,” said Abu al-Abed.
The car with the young men in black returned to pick up Abu al-Abed, their guns visible inside the vehicle. When asked why they were no longer concealing their identities, they answered almost in unison: “Fearing what? Let them come and get us!” The men laughed aloud and disappeared into the small alleyways of the camp.
The simultaneous rise in tensions across different “arenas” of historical Palestine is nothing new. A similar though sharper dynamic occurred in May 2021, when Israeli authorities escalated its repressive policies in Jerusalem by attempting to expel Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, while attacking worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Damascus Gate. A war on Gaza soon followed after Hamas intervened in Jerusalem’s name, firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities while the Israeli army bombarded the strip over 11 days.
Just a few months later, in September 2021, six Palestinian prisoners hailing from the Jenin area escaped from Gilboa Prison, a maximum security facility in the north of Israel. Over the few days between their escape and their capture, fighters and residents from the camp fired bullets and threw molotov cocktails at the Jalamah checkpoint, while Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line showed their solidarity to the escapees through demonstrations and social media posts.
In recent months, the Israeli army and the PA have intensified their attacks as militants in the Jenin refugee camp have grown more defiant. In December 2021, the PA arrested several men in the camp, claiming it was an operation to weed out criminals; residents said it was aimed at crushing the resistance. On May 21, one of the victims of the ongoing campaign was a Palestinian teenager killed by Israeli troops, 17-year-old Amjad al-Fayed.
Israel has also escalated its raids on the camp since Al Jazeera’s veteran Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, was killed by one of its soldiers on May 11. Abu Akleh had been covering an Israeli incursion into the city when she was shot; although Israeli authorities have refused to open a criminal probe and attempted to obfuscate the cause of her death, multiple investigations by media outlets — including the New York Times, CNN, and Associated Press — concluded that an Israeli sniper was almost certainly the killer.
Two days later, Israeli forces invaded the refugee camp and the nearby town of Burqin, wounding more than a dozen Palestinians and arresting several. In that raid, the army surrounded the home of a wanted Palestinian youth, Mahmoud al-Dabai, leading to hours-long clashes that ended with Dabai’s arrest and the killing of an Israeli soldier.
During the fighting on that day, Israeli forces also shot Daoud Zubaidi, a leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the Jenin region and the brother of Zakaria Zubeidi, the most prominent Gilboa Prison escapee from last September. Daoud was transferred to Rambam Hospital in Haifa, where he died of his wounds on May 15.
Israel’s Channel 12 cited security sources as saying that, in light of the heavy resistance from Palestinian fighters during the May 13 operation, the army is considering the use of gunship helicopters — which were frequently employed during the Second Intifada — for its raids in the West Bank. Some analysts have speculated that Israel considered carrying out a large-scale military operation in Jenin, but that it never materialized due to concerns over numerous casualties, flare ups on other fronts, and the possible collapse of the fragile Israeli governing coalition (which ultimately dissolved in June for other reasons).
Though a new Israeli government is set to be elected later this year, it is clear that the political and military establishment will be keeping Jenin in its crosshairs for the months to come. The PA is also likely to continue trying, and perhaps failing, to bring the city and the camp under its control. With the close coordination between the two authorities, and the perception of the PA as the occupation’s local enforcer, the armed groups will continue to persuade many Palestinians that the battles over the refugee camps are a fight for the very survival of the resistance. As Abu Al-Abed said, unlike the PA, “Here, we make our own decisions by ourselves.”