Palestinian fighters in West Bank seek to emulate Hamas in Gaza

The alleys are in permanent semi-darkness, covered with black nylon tarps to hide Palestinian fighters from Israeli drones flying overhead. Green Hamas flags and “martyrs” memorial banners hang from buildings, many of them badly damaged in Israeli raids and airstrikes in an effort to quell growing militancy in the territory, fueled by the war in Gaza.

This is not Gaza or a traditional Hamas stronghold. It is a refugee camp in Tulkarem, a city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where the relatively moderate Palestinian faction Fatah has long held sway.

I recently met a local commander of these young militants, Muhammad Jaber, 25, in one of those dusty, broken-down alleys. One of Israel’s most wanted men, he and other fighters like him say they switched allegiances from the relatively moderate Fatah faction, which dominates the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to more radical groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad after the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7.

When asked what lessons he had learned from the war in Gaza, Mr. Jaber paused for a moment.

“Patience,” he said. “And strength. And courage.”

Refugee camps in the northern West Bank, such as Tulkarem, have been hotbeds of militancy for years, well before the Gaza war, when fighters opposed Israel’s ever-increasing settlement activity and the failure of the peace process to produce a Palestinian state. After October 7, Hamas urged Palestinians to join its uprising against Israel, a call that appears to have been heeded by some in these camps.

Militants like Mr. Jaber want to drive Israelis out of the West Bank, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war, and some, like Hamas, want to drive Israelis out of the region entirely.

More weapons and explosives are being produced in the West Bank, according to Israeli fighters and military officials. They say the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, is losing ground to more radical Palestinian factions, which are actively fighting Israel and getting more support from Iran in the form of money and weapons smuggled into the territory.

Fatah recognizes Israel's right to exist and cooperates with its army. But some of the militants affiliated with Fatah, part of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that were crucial to the second intifada of the early 2000s, have never respected the Palestinian Authority and its compromises with Israel and the occupation. Some, like Mr. Jaber, have simply declared their new allegiance to the most hardline Islamist factions.

Mr. Jaber, widely known by his nom de guerre, Abu Shujaa, meaning Father of the Brave, commands the local branch of Islamic Jihad, which dominates the Tulkarem camp. He also leads a collective of all the militant factions in that area, including the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, known as Khatiba. He left Fatah, he said, because it was Islamic Jihad and Hamas that were taking the fight to Israel to end the occupation and create Palestine by force of arms.

Mr. Jaber acquired something of a cult status in the spring, when the Israeli army announced it had killed him during a raid on the Tulkarm camp. Three days later, he emerged alive at the funeral of other Palestinians killed in the same raid, to cheers from the camp’s residents.

We met in an alleyway where the streets had been bulldozed by Israeli bulldozers, before ducking into a storefront to avoid being spotted by drones. Lean and bearded, wearing a black Hugo Boss T-shirt and a Sig Sauer pistol at his side, Mr. Jaber was guarded by six bodyguards. Some were armed with M16 and M4 rifles with full magazines and optical sights.

The day was scorching hot, dust blanketing everything, settling in layers on the leaves of the few trees. The area was badly damaged by Israeli drone strikes and armored bulldozers, which destroyed many miles of pavement in what the army said was an effort to uncover roadside bombs and other explosives.

The atmosphere was suffocating, mixed with suspicion, as observers and bodyguards looked for plainclothes Israeli soldiers, who sometimes arrived dressed as city workers, garbage collectors or street vendors pushing carts of fruit and vegetables.

Even before October 7, Israel was battling a growing threat from Palestinian militants like Mr. Jaber in refugee camps in northern West Bank cities and towns, such as Tulkarem, Jenin and Nablus. Militant groups were establishing footholds in the camps, which were originally established for refugees from the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war but later became impoverished urban settlements.

In the months before the Gaza war, Israeli troops were raiding West Bank camps to root out weapons, find explosives factories, and arrest or kill leaders like Mr. Jaber. There was a major Israeli raid on Jenin nearly a year ago, among other operations.

The Palestinian Authority and police no longer control these refugee camps, where militants threaten to shoot officers if they try to enter, according to militants, some Israeli military officials and some Palestinian officials, including Jenin Governor Kamal Abu al-Rub.

The Israeli actions are aimed at combating what a senior Israeli military official called the terrorist infrastructure – command centers, explosives labs and underground facilities – that militants were trying to set up there with the help of Iranian money and weapons.

Over the past two years, West Bank camps have become safe havens, the officer noted, because the Palestinian Authority no longer operates there. The officer requested anonymity in accordance with Israeli military rules.

When the Israeli army attacks Tulkarem or Jenin, residents say, the Palestinian Authority security forces remain in their barracks in the city centers and do not confront them.

Although Mr. Jaber insisted he had no war with the Palestinian Authority, he condemned those “who have weapons and stand in front of Israel and do nothing.”

“The liberation of our lands is our religion,” he said. “This is not my conflict, but the conflict of the people, a war for land, freedom and dignity.”

On Sunday, an Israeli drone strike on a house in the camp killed a relative, Saeed Jaber, 25, a wanted militant who had also defected from Fatah to Islamic Jihad.

The governor, Mr. Abu al-Rub, does not deny that the authority's security forces remain outside the refugee camps, but he blames Israel. “If Israel does not come, there is no problem,” he said. “Israel is constantly working to create divisions among us, because if they kill people they can take the land.” It is Israel, he said, “that causes chaos, that enters our refugee camps for no reason, killing our young people, to weaken the Palestinian Authority and make sure that people lose respect for their government.”

In the alleys of another impoverished refugee camp in Tulkarm, a young man appeared, dressed in trendy black with North Face and Under Armour logos. The 18-year-old said he had been wounded several times and would identify himself only as Qutaybah, his nom de guerre, named after an Arab general more than 1,000 years ago. He belongs to Hamas, which dominates his camp.

Qutaybah has a long scar on his left arm, another on his abdomen, and was wearing a black patch over his left eye, which he said he lost in a drone strike on December 19. He said his previous injuries were in May 2023, when Israeli soldiers dressed as municipal workers entered the camp.

He said he was seriously injured in the raid, which also killed two others. His relatives later corroborated his story, but it could not be confirmed directly with Israeli authorities.

Qutaybah was carrying an M16 with an optical sight, one of two weapons he said he stole during an attack in May on Bat Hefer, an Israeli village bordering the West Bank. That attack rattled many Israelis and appeared to make a quiet part of Israel less secure, foreshadowing further military moves to counter Palestinian fighters.

“No one comes to you and tells you to join the resistance,” Qutaybah said. “What is there for us here, anyway? We live in a prison.”

He and his friends learned some lessons from Gaza, he added.

“We see the Israelis killing our innocent women and children. Their plan is to commit genocide here,” he said. Gaza will at least “encourage more people in the West Bank to resist.”

Qutaybah scuffed his black sneaker on the broken pavement of the alley.

“There's a bomb down here,” he said. “When the Israelis come.”

Bodyguards and fighters stationed at the camp's entrances work in shifts. They carry walkie-talkies to warn of Israeli incursions and any foreigners who dare enter.

Most of those fighters, like Hassan, 35, have been in Israeli prisons. Hassan has three daughters, but he wouldn’t talk about them, their future, or his last name, only his mission.

“Every entrance is blocked and guarded,” he said. “Israelis can enter at any time.”

Also in the alley was Ayham Sroudji, 15, who was born in the refugee camp. He is not a member of any militant group and says he does well in school, when it is not cancelled due to violence.

Did he want to become a teacher and help his people that way? “Become a teacher?” he replied. “There is nothing like that here. What have I seen in my life but Israeli soldiers invading my camp?”

When asked about his dreams, he said, “I want to see a beach. I've never seen a beach in my life.”

Next to him was Ahmed, 17, carrying an M4 rifle. “Isn't there anyone who doesn't want to see the beach, the land that they took from us?” Ahmed said.

“I dream of seeing Jerusalem liberated,” Ayham added. “The Israelis live and enjoy our land, and we want to force them out of what they stole.”

Then he pointed around him to the dust, the rubble, the weapons.

“Look what we wake up to,” he said. “Do you even see a sidewalk? Sometimes I dream of smooth pavement and a sidewalk.”

Rami Nazzal contributed reports from Tulkarm and Jenin, and Nathan Odenheimer from Jerusalem.

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