Mondoweiss / February 9, 2023
In the aftermath of Israel’s ten-day siege on Jericho, the people of Aqbat Jabr refugee camp rally around the martyrs of a nascent armed resistance group that has emerged in their midst.
Wrapped in a black jacket and wearing a hat to keep the cold at bay, Wael Oweidat reflects on the murder of his sons.
Earlier that morning, on February 6, the Israeli army invaded Aqbat Jabr outside of Jericho, the refugee camp that Wael Oweidat had called home.
The army’s objective was as clear as it was deadly — to assassinate the two resistance fighters suspected of the attempted shooting of a restaurant outside the illegal Israeli settlement of Almog ten days earlier. Those fighters were Wael’s son, Ra’fat Oweidat, and his son’s childhood friend and comrade-in-arms, Malek Lafi.
On that day, the army killed them and three other Palestinian resistance fighters, while injuring over a dozen people. Wael’s other son, Ibrahim, was among them. The two others were Adham Oweidat and Thaer Oweidat.
Rafat Oweidat and Malek Lafi were 21 and 22, respectively. Ibrahim Oweidat, 27, was killed during confrontations as soldiers targeted his younger brother and Lafi. The other two men, Thaer Oweidat, 28, and Adham Oweidat, 22, were also killed in their attempt to protect the two younger men (also their cousins).
All were shot and killed while confronting the Israeli army.
“In this world of human beings,” Wael tells Mondoweiss, “there is neither justice nor humanity.”
The assassination came after a ten-day manhunt and military siege of the Jericho district. Only 11 days earlier, the Israeli army had committed a massacre in Jenin refugee camp as part of its year-long effort to eradicate armed Palestinian resistance, dubbed “Operation Break the Wave.”
The February 6 assassination
“At 10:30 or 11:00 at night, the special forces came and arrested two men, Ameer Hmeidat and Ahmad Hmeidat,” a community member in the camp, 23-year-old Sondos Dama, tells Mondoweiss as she stands at the site of the assassination.
Two pools of blood stain the concrete with splatters, barely visible. “At 3:00 in the morning the armed confrontation began,” Sondos recalls, her eyes holding back tears.
“The neighbors saw [Malek Lafi] near the windows,” Sondos continues, recounting the stories that have since been traded by community members about the resistance fighters’ final days. “He was there, trying to see his mother in front of her home.”
“[His mother] said that she felt he was near the house,” Sondos says. “But he still couldn’t see her.” The smile on the 23-year-old’s face vanishes.
Not only did Lafi’s mother lose her son, but her second son, Mohammad Lafi, was also arrested that morning, along with Adham Oweidat’s father Majdi, Rafaat and Ibrahim’s brother, Abed Al-Hafith, and Thaer Oweidat’s brother, Muhammad.
“They were assassinated here, in this spot,” says Sondos , looking around herself as she points, as though searching for something to show after her statement. She then looks back at me apologetically and says, “their bodies were taken, you see.”
The Israeli practice of punitively confiscating the bodies of slain resistance fighters is as old as it is brutal and illegal. The bodies of the five resistance fighters of Aqbat Jabr have been added to the 127 other Palestinian corpses that are being denied burial. What’s more, the cameras that documented the crime were either confiscated by the Israeli army or destroyed during the invasion.
By 10:00 a.m., news of the killing in the camp had spread. Cities in the West Bank declared a general strike as political movements called for confrontations in light of the Israeli army’s invasion of Jericho that morning.
That evening, the alleyways of Aqbat Jabr refugee camp seemed to be teeming with children, teenagers, and adolescents. The targeting of men and youth in the camp meant that it remained at risk of incursion. The younger generation was out in the streets, keeping watch and ready to defend their home.
The week before
During the ensuing ten-day manhunt, the two men were unable to make contact with their families out of fear for their security — and for good reason. On the same day of Ra’fat and Malek’s attempted shooting operation on January 28, Israeli forces had invaded the camp and injured at least six Palestinians.
In the following ten days, the Israeli army launched several incursions into the camp and imposed a siege on the Jericho district, punitively demolishing the family homes of the suspected resistance fighters and arresting over 35 Palestinians, including two children, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society.
Two days before the February 6 assassination, the army launched a massive raid on the camp on February 4, which ended in the army’s failure to locate the fighters.
“There were almost 70-100 jeeps,” a 14-year-old boy standing guard at the entrance of the camp tells Mondoweiss.
Still on the hunt for the two men later identified to have been Ra’fat Owedat and Malek Lafi, Israeli troops had swarmed into the camp with bulldozers, firing teargas and live ammunition.
“Soldiers everywhere,” the teenager continues in a firm yet horrified voice. “Everywhere you looked, it was soldiers.”
After conducting several interviews with residents of the camp, it becomes clear that the young boy’s words are no exaggeration.
On that day alone, more than 18 Palestinians from the refugee camp were arrested, with the intention of either luring the resistance fighters out of hiding, or gathering information that might lead to their whereabouts.
Most of the detained were either direct relatives or close friends of the suspected fighters. According to family members, those detained were interrogated by Israeli intelligence in conjunction with the military. Many of them were placed under duress and subjected to mistreatment, while denying them access to a lawyer. Adham’s father, Lafi’s brother, and Rafaat and Ibrahim’s third brother, all remain in Israeli custody as of the time of writing, after their detainment was extended for an additional six days on Wednesday, February 8.
“Putting the killing of my children aside, just look at what happened [on February 4],” Wael Oweidat tells Mondoweiss. “With no one in the homes, look at what they did to the homes,” he gestures towards the alleyway that leads to four homes, all either riddled with bullets or partially damaged.
Without confirming the specific identity of the men, Israeli forces targeted several homes belonging to the Oweidat and Lafi families and their neighbors, riddling the homes with bullets.
“If anyone was home, they’d have been dead.” Yahiya Oweidat, a cousin of Thaer Oweidat, tells Mondoweiss. “No one was home, thankfully,” he says, covering his body with a green Bedouin winter coat that belonged to one of the martyrs. The homes had been evacuated by force, as children were snuck out by family members during the military invasion.
“They just kept shooting and shooting and shooting, and the bulldozer destroyed this room specifically,” Yahiya says, pointing at what remained of a living room’s furniture, not exposed to the rubble of what was once a wall.
“Do you understand?” He asks with a pained smile. “There was no one inside the home, but they kept ripping it apart, as if in revenge.”
Staring at the pipe rod still standing outside the window of a partially destroyed living room, Yahya smiles again. “Rafat used to do pull ups on that pipe,” he says.
The community left behind
The bullet-riddled wooden trailer where Ra’fat Oweidat and Malek Lafi had been in hiding is located just outside the camp, near the newly-developing Rawnaq villa complex.
“We just came from Malek’s mother’s home, and straight here,” Sondos says as she stands next to her mother, both not yet having processed the loss. “There are no words,” she sighs.
Despite Israeli extrajudicial killings and continuing collective punishment, the recent expansion of armed resistance to the south of the West Bank demonstrates that it is not to be deterred. If anything, with every loss, the urgency of confrontation only seems to impress itself further upon Palestine’s youth, who have grown up having experienced the loss firsthand.
“Malek and Ra’fat were also classmates, always playing football together,” Yahya says, laughing and momentarily interrupting the silence of the mourners.
The young men and boys that had gathered around him — most of them family members of at least one of the slain — begin to recollect the last football games. “Malek is FC Barcelona, no compromise,” Yahya says, and this time everyone else also laughs.
The entrance of Ibrahim and Rafaat’s home was full of plants, their color a vibrant contrast against the golden dust of Jericho’s mountains. In the first raid of the camp two days before the assassination, a line of Israeli snipers had positioned themselves on that same mountain. Right underneath them were the letters spelling out “Al-Qassam,” in reference to the Hamas military wing.
Rafaat had carved those letters in stone during the COVID-19 pandemic almost two years ago, according to youth from the camp.
The blood stains and bullet holes quickly become the only visible testament to the assassination and to the ferocity of the battle that preceded it, as the resistance fighters made their last stand against the full might of the Israeli army.
Near the bloody scene, two cars park with tinted windows, three men in each. They monitor the visitors, mostly media or mourners from the camp. “Don’t step on the blood,” one of them reprimands from his open window.
The protectiveness with which everyone in the community treats the site of their martyrdom speaks volumes, betraying a fierce loyalty to those among them who have decided to take up arms.
This was made clear when a relative of one of the slain men looked at me and refused an interview, instead pointing at the blood on the ground. “That blood is holy. That blood is all we have right now,” he said.
Just this morning on February 9, Israeli forces continued their incursions into Aqbat Jabr, invading the refugee camp yet again. Sa’ed Fakhr Oweidat, the brother of one of those who were injured during the February 6 raid, was arrested.
The rise of new armed groups
Several meters away from the scene of the assassination, and closer to the homes of the slain men, a mourning hall is being held. Wael Oweidat is receiving the condolences of the community.
“What makes these boys go out and fight?” Wael asks rhetorically. “Every year there are more crimes [committed by Israel],” he says, as a group of men and boys nod their agreement.
Those crimes have pushed an entire generation to pick up arms. While most of the armed resistance of 2022 was concentrated in the districts of Nablus and Jenin, a new armed brigade has taken shape in Aqbat Jabr refugee camp this year, calling itself the “Aqbat Jabr Brigade.”
News reports have associated this new armed group with the Izz al-Din al-Qasam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, yet the Telegram account of the Aqbat Jabr Brigade labels itself somewhat differently. On the same afternoon of the assassination, the account released a statement to the public mourning “the leader and hero Thaer Khaled Oweidat Muqaiti, the cofounder of Saraya al-Quds–Aqbat Jabr Brigade.”
Saraya al-Quds, or the Al-Quds Brigades, is the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement (PIJ). Thaer Oweidat was known among camp residents as belonging to the PIJ. For his family, however, Thaer was simply known as Abu Muhammad, a father of four.
“Thaer’s phone was full of images of martyrs,” says Yahya, as two of his cousins nod in agreement. One of them begins to recite the names of the martyrs whose photos he saw on Thaer’s phone. Most of the names are of martyrs from last year.
In that year, two armed resistance groups had taken shape in Jenin and Nablus — “the Jenin Brigade” and the “Nablus Brigade.” They were both initially considered local branches of the larger Saraya al-Quds organization. As the year progressed, however, both groups would morph into cross-factional formations.
The Jenin Brigade retained its original name but became an umbrella organization, while the Nablus Brigade rebranded itself as the Lions’ Den following the assassination of one of its founding members, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi.
The new armed group that Thaer co-founded in Aqbat Jabr seems to be adopting the same cross-factional identity as its predecessors from last year; speaking with residents of the camp, most people appeared to use both “Saraya al-Quds” and the “Qassam Brigades” interchangeably when referencing the Aqbat Jabr Brigade.
But then again, many camp residents had not even heard of the Brigade until after the assassination on February 6.
Standing near a large wooden container that had harbored the resistance fighters during the ten-day manhunt, Sondos and her mother point at the bullet holes that marked the large wooden trailer. “This Brigade is a new phenomenon,” Sondos’s mother explains to Mondoweiss. “We only found out about it as it rose [to prominence] after the recent operation,” she says.
Yet the community members are rallying in support of the nascent group all the same. The throngs of mourners spilling into the refugee camp’s narrow streets is a testament.
The Aqbat Jabr Brigade recognizes it. In a Telegram statement, it hailed the “steadfast and patient people in Jericho.”
“Our weapons are legitimate and our jihad continues in all arenas,” the statement continued.
When asked which of the slain men is his children, Wael Oweidat throws up his hands in the air and says “all of them,” echoing the common sentiment displayed by the youth at martyrs’ funeral processions, who erupt into chants addressing the martyrs’ parents: “for the mothers and fathers of martyrs, do not fall to grief, we are all your children.”
After recounting the bloody morning, Wael still has hope for something different.
“We just need to put our hands together, as Palestinians,” he tells Mondoweiss. “Where there is will, there is power. Every person that loves Palestine is Palestinian. All of it represents Palestine. What other barrier is there to bringing us together?”
He pauses for a moment, before finally giving his answer.
“It’s the occupation. That’s our only obstacle.”
Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss