The occupied West Bank cities at centre of resistance to Israel
Al Jazeera looks at the turn towards more organised Palestinian armed resistance in the cities of Jenin and Nablus.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Israeli military raids and killings have become an almost daily reality in Jenin and Nablus over the past year.
The raids are part of a campaign Israel calls “Break the Wave'”, under which it carries out mass arrests and killings in places such as the two northern occupied West Bank cities, aimed at fighters affiliated with armed groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) al-Quds Brigades, and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
The campaign is aimed at crushing a growing shift towards an increasingly organised Palestinian armed resistance in Jenin and Nablus that emerged on the heels of a mass popular outburst of Palestinian resistance in May 2021. It began in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and led to Israel’s war with armed groups in Gaza.
Israel’s military campaign, however, began shortly after a string of attacks by Palestinians that killed 19 people in Israel between March and May 2022. Two of the men who carried out the attacks were from Jenin.
Break the Wave is not just restricted to raids – Israel’s three-day assault on the blockaded Gaza Strip in August, in which 49 Palestinians, including 17 children, were killed, was also conducted as part of that campaign.
In Jenin, the Israelis have found a capable adversary, a group known as the Jenin Brigades, which has carried out shootings on Israeli military checkpoints and engages in armed clashes during Israeli raids. Now, when the Israelis enter Jenin, they are not just met by rocks, but by bullets too.
The group, mainly supported by the PIJ but also includes young men from Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), has come to pose a significant challenge to the Israeli occupation.
They first emerged in September 2021, in an effort to protect six Palestinian prisoners from Jenin who had gone on the run after breaking out of an Israeli jail.
“It is worrying for Israel because these fighters now represent a problem; during any raid, these fighters will confront and resist,” political analyst Ismat Mansour told Al Jazeera.
In May 2022, the birth of an armed resistance group called the Nablus Brigade was announced. In June, the Tubas Brigade was also formed, in the northern West Bank.
In Nablus, one of the faces of Palestinian armed resistance was 19-year-old Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a fighter from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who, despite being a target for Israeli forces, openly attended funerals held for fellow fighters.
“The Lion of Nablus”, as he was known, was killed by Israeli forces on August 9, but is emblematic of a new generation of Palestinian fighters, who are often not following orders from any of the traditional armed groups even if they do have ties with them, a phenomenon that the Israeli military is struggling to deal with and wants to nip in the bud.
“From an Israeli perspective – what is dangerous about this phenomenon is not the operations that these groups carry out per se – because this brigade [Jenin] has not really carried out any operations,” said Mansour. “It’s about it spreading. It started from Jenin, it extended to Nablus, now there are armed clashes in places near Ramallah. This manifestation has become like a contagion. The reality in the West Bank is changing in an observable way and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is unable to control the situation.”
The groups appear to be more capable of conducting defensive operations rather than anything more substantial, observers say.
“These weapons are being used to defend during confrontations when the Israeli army wants to raid Jenin camp or Nablus city, or for example against the [Israeli] occupation when settlers want to get to Joseph’s tomb,” Sari Orabi, a Palestinian political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“This weaponry has not yet been used for offensive resistance action – that would require spreading outside of the areas where the groups are based, and requires operating in secret,” Orabi explained.
While discussion of a large-scale invasion of Jenin seemed possible for a while following last year’s prison break, Israel has chosen instead to use more focused means rather than entering into an open confrontation.
Instead, Israel intends to “drain and pursue the resistance fighters, to keep them in a permanent defensive state, and to eliminate the largest number of them possible,” said Mansour. “It’s a surgical operation – it happens in a specific, targeted way, using a small number of undercover forces.”
“Currently, the cost for Israel is the confrontation between Palestinian fighters and its soldiers,” he continued, adding that the equation would be different if a scenario emerged where the new brigades “start to send fighters to carry out armed operations such as suicide attacks, and Israel pays a daily cost.”
In the blockaded Gaza Strip, Israel has chosen different tactics. According to Mansour, Tel Aviv’s assault on Gaza was aimed at creating deterrence, and to tell the PIJ that, if Palestinian armed groups continue to grow in the West Bank, the PIJ will pay the price in Gaza.
That is why, he says, the last war “had to be short, with quick, with consecutive fast hits on the PIJ. If it had gone on for longer, then we may have seen armed operations emerge in the West Bank,” Mansour said.
One of the main catalysts for the phenomenon of the growth of new armed groups in the West Bank is the declining popularity of the Fatah-run PA, which governs limited parts of the occupied West Bank, and cooperates on security with the Israeli army.
The groups would likely not have emerged if the PA had a political project, argues Mansour.
“The [Israeli] occupation adopted an approach, that through economic support it can empower the PA, and ease some restrictions on it so that it can become more popular than Hamas. This has failed,” he said.
Next year, Palestinians will mark 30 years since the PA’s creation. It was supposed to be a five-year interim government serving as a precursor to a state in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. That state has never come about.
While the PA has publicly condemned attacks carried out by Palestinians against Israelis and aids Israel in thwarting them, many of the men taking up weapons in Jenin and Nablus have traditionally been affiliated with Fatah, exposing a rift in the party, one that Orabi calls a “rebellion within Fatah”.
Jamal Hweil, a Fatah political leader living in the Jenin refugee camp, and a former member of its armed wing, said that while the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was set up by Fatah, ties are loose.
“The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade do not take political considerations into account,” he told Al Jazeera, highlighting that the many men within the armed wing do not follow the PA’s position, which is largely against armed resistance.
To Hweil, who fought Israeli forces in a deadly 2002 battle for Jenin’s camp, the lack of a realistic political outcome that would lead to an end to the occupation is leading many young men to take matters into their own hands.
“The President Mahmoud Abbas does not want one bullet to go towards the occupation – he says this day and night – but what has the occupation presented to us?” said Hweil.
Youth in the camp “began taking steps on the ground – retrieving power and the ability to defend – not to attack, but to defend our people and our land in Jenin,” Hweil added, explaining that the majority of them grew up in the shadow of the 2002 battle.
“It is a message to the world that we will not accept what the US and Israel want to impose – at the expense of the Palestinian people – it will not pass,” he added.
But Ata Abu Rmeileh, the secretary of the Fatah movement in Jenin, disagreed that there was any rift.
“Everything that is happening is happening as part of an organisational Fatah decision and it is not a ‘rebellion’,” Rmeileh told Al Jazeera. “We are with resistance in all its forms, armed, popular, peaceful.”
“What is required of the PA is to enforce the decisions of the central committee in ending the recognition of Israel and ending any relationship with Israel, the main thing being the security coordination,” he added.
For Hweil, the key factor bringing fighters together is “the national unity” that exists in the Jenin refugee camp between different political parties.
Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad political leader who lives in the village of Arrabeh, in the Jenin governorate, agreed.
“There is definite national unity that goes beyond only the military aspect,” adding that the “strongest relationship between resistance factions was the one between the [PIJ’s] al-Quds Brigades and Fatah”.