AP / March 3, 2023
JABA, West Bank – The stuttering blasts of M-16s shattered the quiet in a West Bank village, surrounded by barley fields and olive groves. Young Palestinian men in Jaba once wanted to farm, residents say, but now, more and more want to fight.
Last week, dozens of them, wearing balaclavas and brandishing rifles with photos of their dead comrades plastered on the clips, burst into a school playground — showcasing Jaba’s new militant group and paying tribute to its founder and another gunman who were killed in an Israeli military raid last month.
“I’d hate to make my parents cry,” said 28-year-old Yousef Hosni Hammour, a close friend of Ezzeddin Hamamrah, the group’s late founder. “But I’m ready to die a martyr.”
Similar scenes are playing out across the West Bank. From the northern Jenin refugee camp to the southern city of Hebron, small groups of disillusioned young Palestinians are taking up guns against Israel’s open-ended occupation, defying Palestinian political leaders whom they scorn as collaborators with Israel.
With fluid and overlapping affiliations, these groups have no clear ideology and operate independently of traditional chains of command — even if they receive support from established militant groups. Fighters from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other organizations attended last week’s ceremony in Jaba.
In near-daily arrest raids over the past year, Israel has sought to crush the fledgling militias, leading to a surge of deaths and unrest unseen in nearly two decades.
While Israel maintains the escalated raids are meant to prevent future attacks, Palestinians say the intensified violence has helped radicalize men too young to remember the brutal Israeli crackdown on the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago, which served as a deterrent to older Palestinians.
This new generation has grown up uniquely stymied, in a territory riven by infighting and fragmented by barriers and checkpoints.
More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the start of 2023, after Israel’s most right-wing government in history took office. About half were militants killed in fighting with Israel, according to an Associated Press tally, though the dead have also included stone-throwers and bystanders uninvolved in violence.
At least 15 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks in that time, including two Israelis shot Sunday in the town of Hawara, just south of Jaba. In response, Jewish settlers torched dozens of buildings — a rampage that also left one Palestinian dead.
“It’s like the new government released the hands of soldiers and settlers, said now they can do whatever they want,” said Jamal Khalili, a member of Jaba’s local council.
At the recent memorial service, children with black militant bands on their foreheads gathered around the gunmen, eager for a glimpse of their heroes.
“The outcome is what you see here,” Khalili added.
Last week, an Israeli military raid in the northern city of Nablus sparked a shootout with Palestinian militants that killed 10 people. The raid targeted the most prominent of the emerging armed groups, the Lion’s Den.
Israeli security officials claim the military has crippled the Nablus-based Lion’s Den over the past few months, killing or arresting most of its key members. But they acknowledge its gunmen, who roam the Old City of Nablus and pump out slick Telegram videos with a carefully honed message of heroic resistance, now inspire new attacks across the territory.
“The Lion’s Den is beginning to become an idea that we see all around,” said an Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence assessment. Instead of hurling stones or firebombs, militants now mainly open fire, he said, using M-16s often smuggled from Jordan or stolen from Israeli military bases.
The official said the army was monitoring the Jaba group and others in the northern cities of Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem. But he acknowledged the army has difficulty gathering intelligence on the small, loosely organized militant groups.
The Palestinian self-rule government administers parts of the West Bank, and works closely with the Israeli military against its domestic rivals, particularly the militant Hamas group, which runs the Gaza Strip.
With young Palestinians increasingly viewing the Palestinian Authority as an arm of the Israeli security forces rather than the foundation for a future state, Palestinian security forces are loathe to intervene against the budding militias. Palestinian forces now rarely venture into militant strongholds like the Old City of Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp, according to residents and the Israeli military.
Jaba militants said the Palestinian security forces have not cracked down on them. Residents said the group, founded last September, has rapidly grown to some 40-to-50 militants.
Hammour described Palestinian leaders as corrupt and out of touch with regular Palestinians. But, he said, “Our goals are much bigger than creating problems with the Palestinian Authority.”
With the popularity of the PA plummeting, experts say it cannot risk inflaming tensions by arresting widely admired fighters.
The PA “is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy,” said Tahani Mustafa, Palestinian analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There’s a huge disconnect between elites at the top and the groups on the ground.”
Palestinian officials acknowledge their grip is slipping.
“We fear any of our actions against (these groups) will create a reaction in the street,” said a Palestinian intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
With the Israeli military stepping up raids, the West Bank’s power structure faltering and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land, frustrated Palestinians say they are not in pursuit of any Islamist or political agenda — they simply want to defend their towns and resist Israel’s 55-year-old occupation.
For 28-year-old Mohammed Alawneh, whose two brothers were killed in confrontations with Israeli forces, two decades apart, the Jaba group is a “reaction.” He said he could support peace if it meant the end of the occupation and the formation of a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For now, he said, it’s clear Israel doesn’t want peace.
Hamamrah, the Jaba group’s late commander, threw stones at the Israeli army as a teen and later joined an armed offshoot of Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to his mother, Lamia. After 10 agonizing months in Israeli prison, he became religious and withdrawn. He spoke of taking revenge.
After his death, Lamia discovered he had helped form the Jaba group and that Islamic Jihad had supplied them with weapons, including the gun Hamamrah fired at Israeli troops on January 14.
The army chased him into Jaba, killing Hamamrah along with another gunman, Amjad Khleleyah. Their crushed and bloodstained car now sits in the center of Jaba like a macabre monument.
At his funeral, Lamia said Hamamrah’s friends urged her to show pride in a son who became a fighter and inspired the whole village.
But Lamia wept and wept. Her 14-year-old daughter, Malak, now wants die a martyr, too.
“I’m just a mother who lost her son,” she said. “I want this all to stop.”