Nablus mourns following Israeli invasion that tore city and lives apart

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  February 24, 2023

Nablus is mourning the loss of loved ones following an Israeli army invasion that killed 11 people. “Loss is difficult as it is,” says newly widowed Umm Muhammad. “Loss because of the bullets of this ugly regime is indescribable.” 

On Thursday, February 23, city streets in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip were silent. Palestinians had declared a general strike and a day of mourning in light of the Israeli invasion of one of the West Bank’s most ancient cities the day before, which left 11 Palestinians dead and over 102 people injured. 

On the morning of February 22, Israeli forces invaded Nablus. It started with an undercover special operations unit infiltrating the Old City in the early dawn hours, searching for fighters from the Lions’ Den resistance group. 

Hours later, the special operations force located two resistance fighters that had just walked into the Habalah Quarter of the Old City — Husam Bassam Isleem, 24, and Muhammad Omar “Juneidi” Abu Bakr, 23. 

By approximately 10 a.m., the undercover Israeli teams moved in for the kill. An armed confrontation ensued as the two fighters were holed up in a house in the city. The Israeli special forces summoned reinforcements 20 minutes into the operation, and that’s when the large-scale onslaught began, as Israeli military vehicles flooded the city. 

According to eyewitnesses from Nablus and Balata refugee camp, more than 50 Israeli military vehicles launched a full-fledged land invasion of Nablus while imposing a closure on entry and exit points to the city. 

Three fighters were killed during the confrontation in the Habalah quarter, as a third comrade of Juneidi and Isleem, 23-year-old Waleed Dakhil, had joined the fight in the middle of the exchange of fire. Other resistance fighters from Nablus-based resistance groups, such as the Nablus Brigade and the Balata Brigade, were also killed during armed confrontations with the Israeli military throughout the city.

All the while, the Israeli army’s conduct throughout the city was violent and indiscriminate, as soldiers fired at bystanders and killed several noncombatants while injuring countless others. By 1:30 p.m., the army began its retreat, leaving devastation in its wake.

All told, the army killed 11 Palestinians in Nablus, ten on the day of the invasion, with the eleventh succumbing to his wounds the following day. More than 100 Palestinians were injured, including at least three journalists. 85 of the injuries were with live ammunition, with six in critical condition, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. 

Seven of the slain were resistance fighters, identified as Mohammad Khaled Anbusi, 25, Tamer Nimr Ahmad Minawi, 33, Musaab Muneer Mohammad Oweis, 26, Jasir Jameel Abdelwahhab Qan’ir, 23, Husam Basam Isleem, 24, Walid Riyad Hussein Dakhil, 23, and Mohammad Abu Bakr Juneidi, 23.

The other four Palestinian non-combatants were killed by the army throughout the invasion. Three of them were elderly men, identified as Adnan Sabe Bara, 72, Abdelhadi Abed Aziz Al-Ashqar, 61, and 66-year-old Anan Shawkat Annab, who died the day following the invasion from respiratory injuries due to tear gas inhalation. The fourth noncombatant was a minor, identified as Mohammad Farid Shaaban, 16.

According to the Israeli military, two Israeli soldiers were injured during the confrontations.

Fighters bound by friendship

The Israeli army said the extrajudicial assassination mission was launched upon receiving intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Muhammad Juneidi and Husam Isleem, who were wanted by the Shin Bet. 

The home where the armed youth had made their last stand now lies in ruins, water pipes flooding the area. 

Standing on the rubble of what was once a staircase, a friend and comrade of Juneidi shows me a video of the slain man from the night before. The 23-year-old holds a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, his rifle thrown across his stomach as he slouched on a yellow mattress. Remains of the men’s last meal can be seen among the rubble, an empty “Cappy” juice bottle, and some emptied styrofoam bowls. 

When they were encircled in the Habalah quarter of the Old City, Isleem and Juneidi were in the company of another young fighter, Walid Dakhil, 23. 

Dakhil’s body was riddled with bullets. Although not the target, he confronted the soldiers in an attempt to help his friends survive. 

Moving slowly and gently with his hands in his jacket, Dakhil’s younger brother looked a lot like the photos of Walid. 

“He was so loving,” Dakhil told Mondoweiss as he moved to the site of his brother’s assassination. 

Guiding the way toward the Habalah quarter of the Old City, Walid’s 21-year-old brother clenched his jaw when recalling the slaughter of that morning. His chin seemed to unlock only as he shared tidbits of his brother in more intimate settings with friends. 

“He loved life,” he said. “My brother, he loved life,” he repeated, in case it didn’t resonate the first time.

“He loved to laugh,” Walid’s younger sibling interjected, chuckling. “He used to always crack jokes to make those around him laugh too, in a teasing kind of way.” 

The Israeli military claimed that the three men had posed a threat to Israeli lives, albeit without providing evidence. At the same time, the Shin Bet claims that the Lions’ Den  no longer poses a serious threat to Israel. Additional statements from the Israeli military justified the extrajudicial assassination on the grounds that the men had refused to turn themselves in.

Young men in sweatpants against a military

“There was no sign that the [Israeli army] was going to do something like this at this time,” a 20-year-old boy from Balata Refugee Camp tells Mondoweiss, a few hours after the assault

“They want to clear out the guys before Ramadan,” another young man says. “They want a quiet Ramadan — no problems.” 

The two youths were lookouts keeping watch for any new invasions or undercover forces that might enter the city.

Most youth in the West Bank dress the same. The same baseball caps and Adidas or Under Armor training jackets have become something like an informal uniform of the new disaffected generation facing off against the occupation. 

You know, one of the martyrs was one of us,” one of the young men says, lifting his hat from his face. 

Musaab Muneer Oweis, 26, was one of the people from Balata who heeded the urgent call of the Lions’ Den to rush to the defense of the surrounded resistance fighters during the height of the incursion. The army killed him during the armed confrontations.

“Musaab’s heart was attached to Ahmad,” Oweis’s mother said in an interview with the Palestinian Quds News Network, (QNN). “Since Ahmad’s killing, Musaab hadn’t shaved,” she told QNN. “He then went on this path, became wanted [by the Israeli army], and never came home.” Trying to console herself, she continued: “the boys told me he was fierce, at the frontlines of confrontation.” 

Beyond Balata Refugee Camp, a few kilometers away, lay the Old City. Several hours after the invasion, a hushed silence reigned over its cobbled streets. An entire community had been torn apart by the Israeli rampage, much like the invasions of the previous year that led childhood friends to bid one another farewell much too early.

In November 2022, Husam Isleem was seen holding a rifle to his chest, palms overlapping, face covered, and wearing a cap emblazoned with a ribbon that read “Areen Al-Usud” — the Lions’ Den. He was bidding farewell to his friend and comrade, Mohammad Hirzallah, 30

Also known by his nom de guerre “Abu Hamdi,” Hirzallah had succumbed to wounds sustained on July 24, 2022, during an Israeli invasion that killed two Palestinians in Nablus’s Yasmeena quarter. At the time, the Lions’ Den was a smaller group within what was known as the Nablus Brigade, a local branch of the Islamic Jihad’s military arm, Al-Quds Brigades (Saraya al-Quds).

“I think Juneidi was ready to go,” a young man from the Old City and close comrade of the slain fighter told Mondoweiss, opening photos and videos they had taken the night before. “He was saying last night how he was ready to go.” 

Another man in the small alleyway leading to the assassination site interrupted, “Alhamdulillah,” sharing a prayer of gratitude to God. “He asked to be a martyr, and he received it.”

The men had been living in hiding since last year, unable to comfortably or safely meet with friends and family. Part of that isolation means the young men must look out for each other. Another part of the burden is that they are saddled with the responsibility of protecting their communities.

Just before the Habalah quarter, where the three youths were killed, lies the Faqous quarter, where one of the most infamous assassinations of 2022 took place — the February assassination of Adham Mabrouka, Ashraf Mubaslat, and Mohammad Dakhil. The three resistance fighters were part of a group of youth who would later coalesce into the Lions’ Den. Their assassination sparked the beginning of the phenomenon of Israeli extrajudicial assassinations of resistance fighters.

Six months later, the three martyrs’ comrade, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi (dubbed “the Lion of Nablus”), was also assassinated, alongside Islam Subuh and 16-year-old Hussein Taha, on August 9, 2022. 

Mohammad Dakhil was attributed as the co-founder of the Lions’ Den. However, it was the killing of Al-Nabulsi that caused the organization to skyrocket in popularity and visibility. Walid Dakhil, the resistance fighter killed in the Nablus invasion while attempting to aid Juneidi and Isleem, was Mohammad Dakhil’s cousin.

“He loved life,” Walid Dakhil’s younger brother says. “My cousin too,” he continued.

“My brother Juneidi and I will be greeting all the martyrs,” Isleem recorded as his final words. “I just wish that you will forgive us, my brothers. Please forgive us.”

‘That’s my father!’: an ER medic’s worst nightmare

While the heart of the operation took place in the Old City, the army’s assault spread across Nablus and reached the city center, where tear gas was fired at residential buildings and civilian homes.

According to Ahmad Jibril, the director of emergency services in Nablus, an hour into the invasion, medical personnel were either unable to reach or were actively denied from reaching many of the injured. Adnan Sabe Bara, 72, was one of them, who was shot in several parts of his body and was left to lie bleeding as Israeli soldiers obstructed medical personnel from reaching him. 

Another two Palestinians, 16-year-old Mohammad Shaaban, and 61-year-old Abdelhadi Abed Aziz Al-Ashqar were also shot in multiple parts of their bodies and died of their wounds. 

Al-Ashqar, who lived in Askar refugee camp a few kilometers southeast of Nablus, was reportedly leaving prayers when he was caught in the middle of the sudden invasion and subsequently riddled with Israeli bullets. Al-Ashqar was hospitalized and declared dead at Nablus’s Najah Hospital.

Mondoweiss spoke to Ashqar’s widow, Umm Muhammad.

“Separation and loss are difficult as it is,” Umm Muhammad told Mondoweiss from her home in Askar refugee camp, 6 km northwest of the Old City of Nablus. “Separation through loss because of the bullets of this ugly regime is indescribable.” 

“I wonder if he was upset with me,” she said, looking around her home forlornly. “No, he would’ve told me.” 

She turned again and addressed the room of family members and women who had come to give their condolences. “What’s consuming my mind is how I am going to handle the coming days,” Um Muhammad said. 

Al-Ashqar’s sister sits beside Umm Muhammad, constantly repeating the mantra, “God grant us patience in such times.” 

The first family member to find out about Ashqar’s death was his son, Elias. He found out in the worst way imaginable.

Elias is a medic in the ER at Al-Najah Hospital in Nablus. He was about to finish his shift before the invasion began. The sheer number of injuries required that he stay in the ER a little longer. 

Elias was supposed to resuscitate an older man who was injured, only to find that it was his father. His screams of “Allahu Akbar, my father! This is my father!” were captured in a harrowing video that circulated across social media.

At the funeral home in Askar, Elias’s eyes welled with tears as women walked up and down the stairs to console his mother and sister. 

“Even if he was a resistance fighter, this loss might have been easier for us,” Umm Mohammad told Mondoweiss. “I know we consider our martyrs to be exalted by God,” she said, half embarrassed, half in tears. “But…how? How can I ever accept this?”

“How is it that you are used to a person who talks to you every day, helps alleviate your wounds and your pains, someone who wishes that they can take the pain in your place, and then have them gone? How can I forget this?” she continued.

Umm Mohammad cried then, and the women around her were crying too. Her only daughter was hiding in her room. “She was his spoiled one,” Ashqar’s sister explained to Mondoweiss. “He loved that girl so much.”

Earlier this month, on February 7, Israeli forces killed Ashqar’s young cousin, 17-year-old Hamza Ashqar. He was shot in the face for throwing a piece of metal at an Israeli army vehicle during an incursion on Nablus.

Outside of Askar, the rest of the city of Nablus is grieving. In the late hours of the evening, only youth and young boys can be seen patrolling the streets in small groups. It is as if the city has become a ghost town inhabited only by the young.

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss