This article was published in partnership with Local Call.
The streets of Jenin refugee camp are full of commemorations of the dead. Pictures of the faces of armed Palestinian youths, who were killed by the Israeli army over the last year, are glued one on top of the other, new layers plastered over the faded older ones. “It’s everywhere you walk in the camp,” 23-year-old Yasmine told +972. “I fell into depression because of all the death here.”
Four more names were added to the list of the dead on Sept. 28, when Israeli forces raided the camp in the early morning hours. During the incursion, soldiers surrounded the house of Abed Hazem — the brother of Raad Hazem, who carried out a shooting attack on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street last April — killing him and three other people.
For a year and a half, in the cities of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank, groups of young Palestinians — most of them in their mid-twenties — have confronted the Israeli army with assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. Since the events of May 2021, which marked a major turning point, 52 Palestinians have been shot and killed in the Jenin district during Israeli raids. Israel claims that two-thirds of those killed participated in armed resistance.
“I feel hopeless,” 26-year-old Amir confessed as he stood next to the entrance of the camp. “On one hand, it is good that young people are leading the struggle. They have created an atmosphere of resistance that we all need and are happy to have. They are heroes. But after they die, nothing on the ground changes except for the fact that there is another martyr.
“It’s an incomprehensible situation,” he continued, sitting down on a plastic chair. “I see friends around me who are acting from a place of wanting to die. They aren’t thinking about any gains for themselves, which they can benefit from politically in the future. The perception is: either we die, or Palestine will be freed by magic.”
Camp residents say many of the armed youth are politically unaffiliated, having started their own local, independent resistance front. Most of them are children of the Second Intifada. “They are the leaders now,” said Amir.
Mohammed was born in the camp in 2002 during “Operation Defensive Shield,” in which the Israeli army directly reoccupied Palestinian cities across the West Bank and destroyed vast parts of Jenin camp. He was wearing a shirt that emphasized his muscles, and his face was white and smooth like a child’s. I asked him what is fueling the current wave of resistance, and he answered firmly: “the army’s killings.”
In the past two months alone, Mohammed saw three of his friends get killed. This kind of story repeated itself again and again in conversations with residents of the camp: the trigger that made the youth go out and fight the Israeli army — in addition to the general revulsion at life under military occupation — was personal anger over the killing of someone close to them.
“If I have a friend who they shot and I know he was with the [Palestinian Islamic] Jihad, I would go out wearing a flag of the Jihad to express solidarity with him,” Ahmad, 31, said. “You hear young people saying: I want to die to follow my friend. That is the dominant discourse here.”
I asked him what is behind this, and he answered immediately: “You grow up in the camp, and all the time in your subconscious something is cooking. A desire to do something. You think: why are they raiding here and shooting my friends? Why is my dad in jail?
“You sit in your room, or on the street, and hear the music playing outside with lyrics praising the martyrs — ‘Oh battalion of struggle, put terror in the heart of the enemy’ — and you are already exploding with emotions. The army killed your friend, you live under a discriminatory regime and occupation, you are depressed,” he said.
“Then you hear a song talking about freedom, dignity, us and them, and struggle. Someone tells you: there is struggle, freedom, and Jihad. The army invades, you hear the shots, they surround a house, kill someone, and without knowing it you are ready. In an environment like this, I swear, even someone like me who is against such things could go out and shoot at the army.”
A prison for refugees
Jenin refugee camp is home to some 15,000 Palestinians. The residents, whose families fled or were expelled from cities and villages in what is now northern Israel during the 1948 Nakba, rely on the basic services provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to survive. Unemployment is rife, compounded by Israel’s near blanket ban on allowing camp residents to cross the Green Line for work.
All of the young people I met in the camp told me that they are denied entry permits into Israel. Some of them are also refused passage at the crossing into Jordan because the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, prevents them from traveling abroad. Several people I spoke to used the word “prison” to describe their situation, and everyone had at least one family member who was killed during the Intifada or was imprisoned in Israel.
“I am rejected on the basis of [my] family,” 19-year-old Ibrahim explained. “I am automatically denied [a permit] because my father and uncle are prisoners. I tried twice to have the ban removed but it didn’t work. It is the same story for 80 percent of the youth here.”
Mohammed, 20, said: “I’m from the camp, so there is an entry ban on my name on security grounds, like everyone here. I cannot work inside [Israel] and the only work available here in Jenin is selling produce on an illegal cart. Every week the municipality arrives and wrecks my cart, and it destroys me. So enough, you get sick of this terrible life.”
He added: “A person joins a faction not because he wants to die, but because you get to a place where you ask yourself: when is it going to end? Enough. You want it to be over. Death, migration, anything, just to end it.”
Moussa, 22, lives next to the main road in the refugee camp. Like others, he mentioned an incident from June 2021 as the starting point which ignited the current resistance wave in Jenin.
“It started with the death of Jamil Al-Amouri,” Moussa said. “Before that incident, the military did not shoot at us and we did not shoot at them.” Statistics from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem back this up: in over a decade, and until the middle of last year, there were few killings in the Jenin district and refugee camp. The Israeli army also considered the region calm compared to other regions in the West Bank.
Al-Amouri, 23, was an Islamic Jihad militant who was shot and killed in the camp in June 2021 and became a local hero. His photos are glued everywhere and young people go to take photos at a site commemorating him.
He was wanted by the Israeli security forces after shooting at military posts several times, and he managed to escape multiple arrest attempts. In June 2021, special forces ambushed him in the camp. When he tried to escape from them — as documented on video — they shot him in the back and killed him. Two Palestinian security officers were killed in an exchange of fire that broke out at the scene.
“The whole camp knew Jamil,” Moussa said. “After his death, a big group formed around him. Then they killed Abdullah [Al-Husari last March, a militant and resident of the camp] and another group was cultivated around him. Every time someone dies here, his name is glorified.”
Moussa raised his hand and counted on his fingers the names of the armed groups that are active in the camp, which were born after the killings of Al-Amouri in June 2021. Each one, according to him, was named after someone who was killed in confrontations with the occupying army. “With every death, the number of arms in the camp increased gradually,” he recalled. “Young people raise the money independently and prepare explosive devices to take revenge.”
Filling the leadership vacuum
This is how the phenomenon goes: people like Jamil Al-Amouri and other armed youths, some of them aged only 18, became popular public heroes in the last year. After the army killed them, their status was elevated even higher.
“We have a need for a national leader,” is how Shadi, a resident of Nablus, explained the phenomenon. “Someone clean, from the streets, who is not sitting in an office like the senior factions, distributing flags of various colors. People need someone in the field, who can say, ‘Come on guys, today we are doing a demonstration outside the Palestinian Authority and we will not move from the square for two weeks.’ And people really will not move for two weeks because they believe in him.”
According to Shadi, these youngsters, who lack experience, grow up as leaders within the context of a deep Palestinian political crisis: there is no leadership and no clear strategy for liberation from the occupation; the various factions are in conflict with one another and drowning up to their necks in power struggles; and on top of all that, the PA is viewed as a collaborator with the occupation, thus lacking the legitimacy to lead the people.
Across the West Bank, teenagers — girls as well as boys — can be seen wearing necklaces from which hang the pictures of the dead fighters, who receive extensive coverage in the Palestinian media. “People stopped believing in the political factions,” said Shadi. “I do not really remember from which party Al-Husari was, or [Ibrahim] Al-Nabulsi, and it doesn’t really matter if they belong to a particular faction.”
Al-Nabulsi, an 18-year-old resident of Nablus, became famous on TikTok through videos in which he was documented shooting at the Israeli army. He escaped several times from arrest and assassination and posed for pictures holding weapons with his face unmasked. Eventually, the army killed him in August. There is not a person in Nablus’ Balata refugee camp that doesn’t know his name.
“Every person like Al-Nabulsi who becomes a well-known leader in the field among the people is taken out immediately,” says Shadi. “The occupation does not want us to unite around a certain person. Anyone who becomes noticeable or visible, as soon as we have a national leader, for 70 years now, they take him out.”
The inhabitants of Jenin refugee camp say that the collective rage toward the PA is also feeding the yearning and hunger for the figure of a leader. “We youngsters need to struggle against the PA, take it down, and only then struggle against the occupation directly and smoothly,” argued Moussa. “We notice every day that if it’s 11 p.m. and there are no Palestinian police on the streets, there will probably be an army incursion. We see all the PA jeeps leaving, and we know. They are working together. The same body. The same thinking.”
“The most significant thing for me is that the stance of the PA is not clear,” added another youngster from the camp. “Are you with us or not? When armed people from the security system made guerrilla attacks, the PA did not adopt them explicitly, but at the same time said: ‘These are our sons.’ They are saying both things at once.”
The PA almost never enters the camp, and its arrest operations targeting militants in Jenin and Nablus are met with public rage and strong resistance. The PA’s governor in Jenin, Akram Rajoub, said in a recent interview with +972 that he wants to operate in the refugee camp in order to serve the security of the Palestinian people, but the PA security apparatus is unable to because of the Israeli raids.
”The problem is that Israel invades the camp at night, kills people, and then asks us to operate there during the day. We cannot work on the same turf as the Israelis,” said Rajoub.
‘Fuck them all. Just let us live’
The involvement of PIJ, Hamas, and Fatah-affiliated armed units in Jenin and Nablus is growing, according to the inhabitants. But, in contrast to the Second Intifada, they are still not the leading driver.
Israeli intelligence officials have issued somewhat contradictory statements in the past two years: on the one hand, they claim that the PIJ has been strengthened significantly in the camp and is behind the armed resistance; on the other hand, they say that most of the militants have no organizational affiliation, and are acting independently.
“It is not like 2002,” said Ahmad, a resident of the camp. “During the Intifada, a PIJ activist would have been raised and educated in the organization for years, and a Hamas activist had to know the Quran, study Islam, and have a military background. Today, it’s not the same. The youths that are joining the factions have no political background. Most of them do not know how to use a gun.”
Amir, a Nablus resident, says that the resistance today is fed from “two directions”: the youngsters in the field, and the upper levels of the various factions. Despite his view that armed struggle is legitimate, he related to the current situation critically. “A 19-year-old young man comes to the factions and requests to be recruited. They give him arms and toss him to his death, just like that. The casualness of all this death really frightens me. In the past, resistance fighters struggled against the occupation because they wanted to live on their land, not because they wanted to die.”
Ahmad described the moments at the cemetery in the last few months in which representatives of various factions were quarreling about the flag that would cover the coffin of the new martyr: the black of PIJ, the green of Hamas, or the yellow of Fatah. According to him, the public glorification of the dead leads the factions to invest money in order to recruit more young people to their services and subsidize their arms as a way to win additional public sympathy and financial support from abroad.
“But what sort of faction are you, when you give money and a weapon to a 16-year-old boy to die just like that?” asked Ahmad. “How are you fighting? What’s your strategy? This is a joke.”
According to Ahmad, mass death and resistance without strategy serve the Israeli occupation. “It’s convenient for them [Israel] to have shootings and martyrs,” he said, “They are glad when there are weapons. Because when someone from the international community sees the pictures of masked [fighters], and has no knowledge, it is easy to [feed them] political propaganda that everything is terrorism.”
Despair was the constant feeling hovering over every conversation. “So many years of occupation,” said Ahmad. “Sometimes, I think: Israel, Palestine, America, fuck them all. Just let us live. Let us go to Haifa, to Jaffa. To sit by the sea, my family and I, with my sisters, and their daughters, and eat something. Just to get out of this camp.”
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.