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West Bank fighters say Israel war on Gaza inspires more resistance

Tulkarem, occupied West Bank – Tea, coffee, and assault rifles lie on the table outside Maysa’s* front door in the Nur Shams refugee camp in the northern Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Every once in a while, she emerges with more trays of beverages and biscuits for the small group of young Palestinian fighters gathered in her alleyway under rows of fabric canopies covering the spaces between the camp homes.

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“These are our sons, our souls. All they want is a dignified life,” says Maysa, a 40-something-year-old woman with a glowing face and warm smile.

“People all over the world, all countries, claim to be democratic and want to live free. What about our youth?

“They have no other option but the path of armed resistance,” she says, standing behind the seated fighters. “There are no more lands left – the occupation took everything.”

The fighters of the Nur Shams refugee camp are part of a wider phenomenon of re-emerging Palestinian armed resistance to decades of Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Centred in the northern areas, it began in the Jenin refugee camp more than two years ago in June 2021 before spreading to Nablus, Jericho and Tulkarem among other places.

The development saw the rise of armed groups made up of young men aged 17 to 35, with the majority in their early 20s. With limited capabilities, the groups are focused on defence during Israeli military raids on the camps and attacking Israeli military checkpoints and illegal settlements.

With his rifle strapped across his chest, Ziad*, a senior leader of the Tulkarem Brigades, is a man of few words. “It is our right to defend ourselves,” the fighter, who is in his mid-20s, tells Al Jazeera.

Israel’s ongoing war on the besieged Gaza Strip, where more than 18,200 Palestinians, including over 7,000 children, have been killed, only “encourages more men to join the resistance”, he adds.

The latest Israeli assault began on October 7, when the Gaza-based Hamas armed resistance group launched a surprise operation on Israeli territory just outside the Strip, during which about 1,200 people were killed and some 200 taken captive.

Intensifying raids

Over the past two years, Israel severely intensified its deadly raids on the northern occupied West Bank and has killed dozens of fighters in drone attacks and targeted assassinations. This seriously hampered some of the resistance groups’ ability to continue.

But armed resistance in Tulkarem remains, particularly in the Nur Shams refugee camp, one of two camps in the city, collectively home to over 34,500 Palestinians who were expelled by Zionist militias from their homes in Haifa, Jaffa and Caesarea during the 1948 Nakba.

Despite many deadly raids on both camps during the past two months, which saw dozens of civilian and fighter casualties, Israeli forces have been unable to enter Nur Shams on foot, deterred by obstacles and a significant number of improvised explosive devices.

While smaller, hand-thrown canisters are typically more common, the past two years have seen a spike in the production of larger canisters filled with flammable powder. These handmade bombs, used across the northern occupied West Bank, are intended to slow the army’s raids down and can damage Israeli armoured vehicles, even rendering them inoperable.

“The occupation army thinks a thousand times before they enter Nur Shams,” says journalist and Tulkarem resident Sami al-Sai.

“They do not enter it on foot. They bring in the bulldozers because the amount of explosive canisters in Nur Shams is unprecedented,” he tells Al Jazeera.

During a 30-hour raid on both camps on October 19 and 20, the Israeli army killed 13 Palestinians, including five children, and injured 25 others.

“The army used unmanned drones – they killed seven people in one hit. The rest were killed by snipers, including some of the children,” says al-Sai.

Growing support for armed resistance

Israeli army raids have more deeply impacted Tulkarem’s other camp, which has sustained heavy damage to roads and infrastructure. Because the army has not been able to enter Nur Shams on foot, and there have been no attempts in several weeks, the fighters think a raid is imminent.

“We expect them to come at any moment. They might come while we are sitting here talking,” says Ziad, adding that the “fighters are ready”.

For Ziad and other fighters, the past three decades of Israel’s intensifying military occupation and illegal settlements, as well as fruitless negotiations, means that “armed resistance is the only solution”.

“What was taken by force can only be retrieved by force,” says Ziad, quoting a well-known speech by late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. “It is useless to engage in negotiations,” he adds.

Popular support for armed resistance has increased across the occupied West Bank over the past two years with many slain fighters emerging as symbols of resistance and thousands attending their funeral processions.

Sitting across from Ziad, is Laith*, another senior fighter in his late 20s.

“Despite the lack of capabilities, there is armed resistance in the West Bank that is hurting the occupation,” says Laith. “Even if we are killed, 10 more will appear,” he tells Al Jazeera.

The young men are well aware of their mortality, knowing they may soon be killed, he adds, but they are willing to give their lives for the cause. “Nothing happens overnight,” says Laith. “It requires a lot of sacrifice and we have to work hard, so the next generation can pick up where we leave off and lead us to liberation.”

Israeli and PA pressure

Two armed resistance groups were formed in Tulkarem in less than a year.

In Nur Shams, fighters began to come together after 25-year-old Saif Abu Libdeh was killed by the Israeli army in Jenin on April 2, 2022.

Abu Libdeh had been laying the groundwork for the formation of an armed resistance group in the camp. He spent time in Jenin learning from the fighters there and appeared in press conferences and military parades with his face covered.

Following several large-scale Israeli army raids on Nablus, Jenin and Jericho in January and February this year, the Tulkarem Brigades-Saraya al-Quds armed group, which is loosely affiliated with the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), began to emerge more prominently.

Months later, a second group was formed after the killing of fighter Ameer Abu Khadija on March 23, the Tulkarem Brigades-Fast Response is affiliated with the Fatah political party’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

One of the key factors contributing to the formation of the armed resistance groups over the past two years was fighters from across the Palestinian political spectrum coming together despite longstanding internal strife at the leadership level of their parties – including Hamas, Fatah, the PIJ, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and others.

The groups’ ability to unite younger fighters – who are affiliated with the traditional armed groups but often do not take orders from them – has made them a target for both the Israeli occupation and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA), which has pressured many fighters to accept bribes and amnesty in exchange for turning in their weapons.

On several occasions during funeral processions for slain fighters, PA security forces have turned violent. They have fired tear gas at crowds, carried out preemptive arrests of event participants, forcefully confiscated Hamas, PIJ and PFLP party flags, and fired live ammunition into the air.

The PA also cracked down on popular protests in the occupied West Bank on October 17 against Israel’s bombing of the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, killing a 12-year-old Palestinian girl in Jenin.

Mehraj Shehadeh is the father of senior fighter Jihad, who was killed on November 6 in a targeted assassination along with three other fighters. Sitting in his living room in the Tulkarem refugee camp, Shehadeh says his son and others “sent a strong message to all the leaders – from [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas to Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh”.

“They said: ‘We are the ones who unite the people on the streets – not you.’ They united people with their rifles and their blood,” he told Al Jazeera. Despite working in the PA security services himself, Shehadeh does not agree with all PA policies, particularly against the fighters.

“If they had 30 bullets, they would split them between one another,” he continues, describing the fighters as a “school”.

“There were more than 17,000 people at their funeral. It was one of the largest funeral processions in Tulkarem’s history.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of residents and fighters.

Source: Al Jazeera

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