‘Who are the terrorists?’: How a new Palestinian generation is fighting occupation

Lubna al-Amouri and her husband Mahmoud stand beside a photograph of their son, Jamil al-Amouri (MEE)

David Hearst

Middle East Eye  /  October 10, 2022

From the farmers of the South Hebron Hills under attack by Jewish settlers to the armed groups of Jenin Camp facing nightly raids, a new wave of West Bank resistance is building.

The village of Letwani is the end of the road. Literally. Behind it lies a settler road which starts in Jerusalem and ends in the South Hebron Hills.

In front of it is the Masafer Yatta, an area of 30 square kilometres which Israel declared as a military firing zone in the 1980s.

Masafer Atta’s 2,500 residents are involved in daily pitched battles with Jewish settlers and soldiers.

The morning I arrived in Letwani, Asharaf Mahmoud Amour, aged 40, looked calmly at a pile of breeze blocks. It was the remains of his house. A bulldozer had demolished it a few hours before. To his amazement, the soldiers had left standing the shed to the left and the chicken house to the right, both under demolition orders.

“I will tell you where we are sleeping tonight – with the chickens and the goats,” Amour said.

 “All they want is to make us leave. Destroying the houses, blocking us from fields, terrifying us all the time with the soldiers and settlers around, invading the houses, arresting us. And we know that what they want from this is to push us out. This is the challenge we accept,” the father of five children said.

“They are trying to present to the world that we are terrorists. Who are the terrorists? We are trying to stay in our homes. They are the ones who are terrorizing us. I will stay here even if I have to sleep under a stone.”

Two placards stand just a few yards back up the dirt track. The first is a sign which reads “Humanitarian Support to Palestinians at Risk of Forcible Transfer in the West Bank”, with the logos of 11 European Union government aid agencies.

This expression of international support had little value as a deterrent for the settlers, for above it is displayed a portrait of Harum Abu Aram, aged 26.

Today Abu Aram lies paralyzed in hospital after trying to defend his patch of rock.

Another farmer, Hafez Huraini, was lucky to get away with two broken arms.

Five masked settlers, armed with metal pipes and accompanied by an off-duty soldier firing a gun into the air, attacked Huraini as he was tending to his land. Huraini defended himself with a hoe.

Sami, his son, said: “It was five against one 52-year-old man. When I got to him, my dad was bleeding from his right hand and holding his left. More villagers came behind me, and more settlers and police came.”

The police then said they would arrest the injured man.

“That moment we started to get very angry. Settlers stood in front of the ambulance. We put my father inside the ambulance. The settlers started stabbing the tyres of the Red Crescent ambulance and so it could not move,” Sami recalled.

“The army became very harsh and stormed us. We were chased from the scene and they continued after that. Then they transferred my father inside a military ambulance.”

Thus began 10 days of detention for Huraini, the victim of the settler attack.

He was transferred to Ofer Prison. Arrested on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm to the settler who attacked him, a military court was all set to sentence him to more than 12 years in jail. Miraculously, the prosecutor’s case fell apart.

A video showing the whole incident was produced in court. The judge criticized the police for delaying for more than a week the interrogation of the settlers. 

Huraini’s lawyer, Riham Nasra, suggested that this was done to make the evidence unusable in court. He said: “The plot that was hatched against Hafez Huraini was disproved as soon as a video documenting his attack by armed and masked settlers reached the police and the public.

“The ten days of his detention were only intended to obscure the truth and preserve the false narrative created by his accusers. This is why the police refrained from investigating his attackers with a warning for nine days, thus contaminating the investigation for which they are responsible.”

Still, military justice had a sting in its tail. Releasing Huraini, they ordered him to pay bail of 10,000 shekels ($2,800) and stay away from his land for 30 days, pending further investigation into the incident. The settlers who carried out the attack and the off-duty soldier who fired six rounds into the air, walked free.

Sami is one of a new generation of farmers and activists determined to resist the predations of the Israeli state in all its forms – settlers, soldiers, policemen, and courts.

Sami started up a group called the Youth of Sumud. You hear this word a lot in the South Hebron Hills. It means steadfastness.

“We were living in a cave when we were evicted from our village. We fixed our cave, established walls, connected it to the water from our village. The occupier made us pay a high price. I had bones broken. The settler violence is at a high level.” Sami said.

This generation is different: confident, determined, connected to the internet and fluent in English.

“Israel expects the old to die, and the youth to stop but the opposite is happening,” Sami said.

“We are not under any orders to start the struggle. We have no leaders and we belong to no faction. We start the struggle on our own.”

Sami is optimistic: “Anyone in this situation would think of leaving but we continue to exist, to smile, to show we are living, to show we are not giving up. That is what is special about our people, to show we are amazing.”

Jamal Juma’a, the veteran Palestinian political activist, is less so: “The Israelis are literally turning the West Bank into a network of native reserves. They are designing the geography and demography of the West Bank to ensure they have lasting domination and control of it.”

The settlers now have a firm grip on the topography of the West Bank. Before Oslo, the settlers had to cross the Green Line to 1948 Israel to get work. Now they have 19 industrial zones, with more under construction, as well as agricultural areas.

With winsome names like Desert Gate and Cherry Plantation, they grow everything from grape to livestock.

For the indigenous farmers on this land, life is very different. The dirt track roads are all but impossible because of Israeli military patrols. 

Juma’a said: “It will be back to caves and donkeys.”

Paralysis in Ramallah

Hani al-Masri is one of Palestine’s leading journalists and political commentators. 

The director general of Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, Masri once considered himself a Fatah insider and a confidant of President Mahmoud Abbas.

No more. “The last time he saw me, he became angry before I even had a chance to speak,” Masri said.

The reason for Masri’s fall from grace is clear. Masri became one of Abbas’s most acerbic, but also best-informed critics.

“There has been no leadership in Ramallah for a long time. In the beginning Abu Mazen [Abbas] boasted that Israel would give him more than they gave Yasser Arafat, because he [Abbas] was moderate, anti-violence. But in reality, he failed more than Arafat,” said Masri.

“His response to each failure was ‘more negotiation’ but his problem is that Israel is not interested in negotiation. Without negotiation, his legitimacy collapses, not only because he does not have a national program but because all the sources of his legitimacy have dried up.”

Almost three decades since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the 87-year-old president presides over the wreckage of the Palestinian proto-state.

“There is no Fatah, no PLO, no elections, no authority, no civil society and no independent media,” Masri said.

Nor is he surprised that Abbas has alighted on Hussein al-Sheikh as his successor. Sheikh was catapulted into the key position of secretary general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in May. 

Masri revealed why Abbas chose Sheikh. “He was asked why he chose Sheikh and he [Abbas] replied: ‘Because he is clever. I asked the central committee to choose and they could not agree. So I chose the clever one among them.’”

But, came the reply, Sheikh has no popularity. “I have no popularity,” Abbas replied, according to Masri.

With that candid reflection, Masri agreed. According to opinion polls over several years, anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of respondents want Abbas to resign.

Abbas is not wholly wrong about the central committee. The heavy hitters in Fatah – Nasser al-Qudwa (in exile), Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud al-Aloul, Mohammed Dahlan (in exile) – are fighting their own battles.

Hamas, whose leadership in the West Bank has been decimated by nightly arrests, refuses to take any part in the battle for succession, as do the other Palestinian factions. They regard this as a matter for Fatah only.

Masri said: “I advised them to work together. But they don’t. Abu Mazen is clever in one thing. He knows how to divide them. He told a member of the central committee, ‘You are my successor’. Each of them thinks he can be the one to do that. There is an expression in Arabic: ‘When you don’t have a horse, you have to saddle up a donkey.'”

Whether Sheikh fits the description of donkey is as yet unclear. Sheikh believes he has earned his place in the sun, having done time in an Israeli jail himself. Others are less convinced.

Responsible for relations between the PA and Israel, Sheikh has already earned himself the dubious honour of being “spokesman for the occupation”. Collaboration is another word increasingly being used to describe security co-operation between PA and Israeli security forces.

There is an unwritten agreement between him and PA security chief Majed Faraj, the only other Palestinian official likely to be considered acceptable by Israel and in Washington.

For all his power as head of the PA’s Preventive Security Service, Faraj could not get elected on to the PLO central committee.

An opinion poll carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June put Sheikh’s popularity rating at three percent – with a margin of error of plus or minus three percent.

Masri said: “They need each other. One is a channel to Israel, the other a channel to the US. Israel as yet is not prepared to put their eggs in one basket.”

Still, Sheikh is keen to register on Washington’s radar. Already Sheikh is raising the spectre of the breakup of the PA and the possibility of clashes between rival armed Fatah clans as an argument for continuing the PA.

“If I were to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, what is the alternative?” Sheikh told The New York Times in July.

“The alternative is violence and chaos and bloodshed,” he added. “I know the consequences of that decision. I know the Palestinians would pay the price.”

But if Oslo is dead and the PA moribund, surely the practice of only electing candidates whose prime function is to make Israel’s occupation as easy as possible is defunct too.

Mustafa Barghouti, the leader and founder of the Palestinian National Initiative and the man who came second to Abbas in 2005, thinks so.

”It’s a very dangerous moment and those who think they can impose certain people on Palestinians will have to be very careful, because what remains of legitimacy and respect will be gone if we don’t have a due democratic process and consensus among Palestinians,” Barghouti said.

The PA is crippled by three crises: the failure of its state-building program; an inability to present an alternative strategy; and the creation of internal division and the killing of elections.

Barghouti said: “They’ve killed the very little democratic process that we have by cancelling elections. And by doing so, they’ve eliminated the process of participation, they’ve eliminated the right of the people to choosing their leaders and they’ve blocked completely the road to the younger generation. How can a young person in Palestine be influential in politics? How?”

The day before we saw Masri, Nablus had gone up in flames. Armed clashes broke out between protesters – many of them Fatah – and the PA security forces after the arrest of a high-ranking Hamas man, Musab Shtayyeh, wanted by Israel.

In the gunfire, a 53-year-old Palestinian, Firas Yaish, was killed and another critically wounded. 

Gunmen targeted the PA’s district headquarters with bullets in protest against the authority’s policies. To calm the city, the PA said they were holding Shtayyeh for his own protection. He has since gone on hunger strike and the PA has twice denied him access to his lawyer.

“Without Israel’s support the PA would collapse within a few months. You see what happened in Nablus, all the areas of Nablus were on fire, not only the old city but all neighbourhoods,” said Masri.

“This means the majority support the fighters who are against the PA. If the PA goes back on its promises to free Shtayyeh, and treat him as a national case, not as a criminal, I think the movement will be bigger.”

Masri added: “Our problem is this. We need change, but the conditions for change are not yet ripe. I am afraid of the chaos scenario, not the change scenario.”

Resistance in Jenin camp

Israeli night raids are gathering pace across the West Bank, as are all the indices of occupation under the coalition of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Peace Now, the Israeli pressure group advocating for a two-state solution, compared the occupation under this coalition to that of Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in terms of planning of settlements, tenders, construction starts, new outposts, demolitions, settler attacks and Palestinian deaths.

Every category was up. There was a 35 percent increase in house demolitions, a 62 percent jump in construction starts, a 26 percent increase in plans for housing units. Settler violence had increased by 45 percent.

According to United Nations data, at least 85 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank between the start of the year and 11 September compared to a yearly average of 41 under Netanyahu – and the figure has already increased into triple figures for the year in the month or so since, setting 2022 on course to be the deadliest year of West Bank violence in more than a decade.

Lapid’s image as a moderate on the international stage camouflages an unrelenting wave of state violence against Palestinian civilians.

Many die in shooting incidents, where the exact details are not clear and never independently examined.

In one recent incident, two young Palestinians were shot dead and another wounded on Monday after Israeli forces opened fire on a vehicle near Jalazone refugee camp, north of Ramallah.

The Israeli army said it had “neutralized” two “suspects”, claiming they had “attempted to carry out a ramming attack against IDF soldiers”. The army said it killed two and wounded a third. 

The dead were named as Basel Basbous and Khaled al-Dabbas, both from the Jalazone camp. But the PA’s prisoners’ committee said they visited a hospital in Jerusalem where they saw Basel Basbous who was wounded and receiving treatment.

Israeli authorities have long since stopped confirming who is dead, who is alive, let alone return the bodies of the dead to their families for burial.

Yehia Zubaidi learned his brother Daoud had died of his injuries in Haifa hospital from the Israeli media. But the hospital has refused to release the body.

Zubaidi fought in the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, and spent 16 years in prison between 2002 and 2018. His brother Zakaria was one of six prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison in September 2021, all of them subsequently recaptured.

Zubaidi said: “My years in prison did not change me, but I understand my enemy well. Prison has never stopped us. I named my son Osama, which was the name of a friend of mine who was murdered. Another boy is called Mohammed, and the third Daoud after my brother.”

Resistance is indeed being passed from one generation to another.

Shtayyeh, the Hamas man arrested in Nablus, was close to Ibrahim Nabulsi, a leading member of Fatah’s armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who was shot and killed by Israeli forces in August.

Nabulsi, who was still only in his late teens, was the son of a senior intelligence officer in the Palestinian Authority.

Nabulsi’s father, the intelligence officer, said: “Ibrahim was hunting them [the Israeli soldiers], not the other way around. Whenever he heard about an Israeli army raid, he was the first to go out and confront them. This was his fate. We praise God.”

The 18-year-old son left a note that he wanted his body to be covered in the Palestinian flag, rather than the flag of his faction.

Barghouti said: “That is by itself a very important indication of a new consciousness that is growing among younger Palestinians.”

Lubna al-Amouri has turned her home into a shrine for her dead son Jamil, a young commander of Islamic Jihad in the camp who was trapped in an ambush on his way to a friend’s wedding a year ago.

When he tried to escape he was shot in the back. Two Palestinian security officers were killed in the shootout. She mixes pride in her son, who has been hailed as a local hero, with the grief of a mother.

“At school, Jamil yearned to be part of the resistance but I would not let him. I bought him a car and made him work. I wanted him to become a taxi driver, but he sold the car to buy a gun, and started by himself with no group behind him. He had not been on jihad for six months before he was dead,” she said. 

Tears well in Amouri’s eyes as she speaks.

“He was a good boy. He would give what money or food he had to families who were poorer. He was angered by events in Jerusalem, the storming of al-Aqsa. He saw what was happening in the West Bank and he could not stop himself getting involved.

“We never rest in the camp. We are always looking out for each other. No one in the camp thinks about the future. I have another two boys and they saw what happened to their brother, I am afraid for them. When I hear gunshots, everyone goes outside,” Amouri said.

I ask Zubaidi whether he thinks he will see the end of the occupation in his lifetime.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

“The occupation is going down. Year by year they are failing. We are righteous fighters. They are trying to change the land because they understand we have the rights to this land and we own it.”

Zubaidi pointed out the buildings in Jenin Camp that are painted yellow. They have been reconstructed from the ruins of the battle of Jenin in 2002 in which Israeli forces bulldozed their way through the camp. Between 52 and 54 Palestinians, and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting.

As we are talking, we are joined by a man named Mohamed who describes himself as a survivor of the battle.

Mohamed was a boy then and at home that day with his mother and father. His mother was baking bread for the fighters in the streets outside, he recalled. He remembers an explosion and then a “fog” in the room. His mother was slumped over the bread, bleeding. She went in and out of consciousness.

Mohamed said: “I fell asleep beside her. We called for the ambulance but the Israelis had stopped them getting through. In the morning I woke up to find my father putting a veil over my mother. He told me ‘She is asleep and now you are with me.’”

Mohammed said he had named his daughter Maryam after his mother.

Jenin camp is free both of the PA, which dares not enter, and the Israeli occupation. There are no settlements around Jenin, so all the armed Palestinian factions are the law.

Abu Ayman, a pseudonym, is the commander of Islamic Jihad in the camp.

He said: “All of the factions in Jenin are the same. None of us accept what Abbas is doing, but we are hardly going to accept a man like Sheikh. We don’t recognize elections, or parliament.

“We have unity. If we are facing any problem, we don’t talk to the PA to come and help us. We have everything we need, even money.

“Inside the camp, we respect each other, even different parties. People cannot live like this [under occupation] forever. The resistance will stay. We live in freedom here. It’s the feeling that everyone in Palestine wants.”

Except Jenin Camp pays a high price for its relative freedom. Every month there are bloody raids. A few days after our meeting, Abu Ayman narrowly escaped an ambush by Israeli security forces in a small forest near the camp.

“I am now on Israel’s most wanted list,” he said.

Zubaidi said: “Believing in our dignity is like believing in God. What do I need in life? I want my son to feel safe. What do you expect from this people? We are facing oppression and they want us to stay calm in our homes. What do you expect?”

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye