A New Generation of Palestinian Fighters is Rising up in the West Bank

NABLUS, West Bank – A Palestinian militant named Mohammad Abu Dhraa strode boldly through this city’s roughest refugee camp last week with an assault rifle on his shoulder, an entourage of young men following in his path.

The day before, Abu Dhraa had taken part in an hours-long gun battle with Israeli soldiers who raided Nablus’s city center, one of the deadliest confrontations here in years.

Fighters like Abu Dhraa are not tied to a party or a political ideology. But they have easy access to guns and are committed to the fight. In their youth and independence, they represent a new kind of threat – not only to Israel but to an ever-weaker Palestinian Authority, run by unelected men in their 70s and 80s.

In earlier generations, Palestinian political factions ran the brigades during street fighting against Israel. Now, cells of teenagers and young men in their early 20s from the neighborhood are calling the shots.

“The names aren’t important,” said Abu Dhraa, speaking of the various brigades who fought with him during the Feb. 22 raid in Nablus. “We are resisting the Israeli occupation. It’s not important a person’s faction. What’s important is they are a soldier on the ground.”

Over the past year, the Israeli military has carried out increasingly lethal near-daily raids across the occupied West Bank, targeting Palestinian militants it says are responsible for, or planning, attacks against Israelis. Under the most far-right government in Israel’s history, sworn in late last year, the raids have escalated, taking a heavy toll on civilians. The cycle of gun battles and funerals in Nablus, Jenin and elsewhere have inspired revenge attacks, and appear to be fueling the growing militancy rather than containing it.

Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed more than 60 Palestinians so far in 2023, the highest rate in years; Palestinian attacks have killed at least 14 Israelis, seven of them in a shooting outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem in January.

It has been nearly 20 years since the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising. And while the dynamics have changed, observers say, the fundamentals are the same – occupation, despair and relentless violence.

Across the West Bank, “the widespread public frustration and desperation is there” for another Palestinian uprising, said Tahani Mustafa, an expert with the International Crisis Group. “I think it’s going to be a lot bloodier, far more diffused, far more fragmented.”

In the decaying alleys of Nablus and nearby refugee camps, mourners gathered last week to praise those killed in the raid – six militants, most in their 20s, and at least four civilians, including a 16-year-old boy.

“We have chosen our path,” Abu Dhraa said. “There is no going back.”

The armed groups popping up are decentralized – but when the army raided Nablus, fighters from Jenin came to their aid, Abu Dhraa said. As the dust settled that night, a new brigade in Tulkarem, farther north, announced its formation on Telegram and TikTok.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that it “operates in a complex operational reality” in the West Bank “and faces violent riots and acts of terrorism daily,” including “explosive devices, molotov cocktails and stones.” The military said it uses “riot dispersal means, and when necessary – live fire.”

All the while, a succession crisis is brewing over who will replace the ailing Palestinian president, 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, whose role in a failing U.S.-led peace process has left him with limited rule over the West Bank.

“What unifies these splinter groups,” Mustafa explained, “is their frustration with the occupation and a divided Palestinian leadership.”

– – –

The new generation

Over the past year in Nablus and Jenin – traditional hot spots of militancy – new groups such as the Lions’ Den and the Balata Brigade have amassed followers in the streets and on social media. They fight the military during raids and fire at soldiers at checkpoints, but also attack Israelis in Jewish settlements and inside Israel.

And they are inspiring others. In January, five friends from the Aqbat Jabr refugee camp formed an armed cell in Jericho, a normally sleepy town considered a stronghold of the Palestinian Authority and its dominant Fatah party.

The young men, four of them cousins, all in their 20s, were wanted by Israel in connection with a failed shooting attack at a restaurant in a nearby settlement.

The five friends had spoken often about “martyrdom and resistance” against the occupation, said Saadiya Awadat, 70, the grandmother of brothers Refat, 21, and Ibrahim Awadat, 27, and their cousins Adham, 22, and Thaer Awadat, 28.

Ibrahim had started building a second floor to his father’s cramped home, which he needed to get married. But the cousins and a school friend, Malik Lafi, 22, were simultaneously stockpiling assault weapons, according to the Israeli military. The weapons won out.

During a 10-day manhunt for the fighters, Israel put Jericho in a state of lockdown, setting up checkpoints that brought business and traffic to a standstill.

On the eighth day, Feb. 4, the military launched the largest raid on the camp in decades, shooting up the Awadats’ homes and firing shoulder-launched missiles at the house of a relative. In the darkness of night, residents said, soldiers ordered men to strip down in the rain and arrested dozens from the extended family.

The fighters escaped. The incursion, like so many before it, left locals feeling angry and helpless.

Hours after the raid, a sleepless Jamal Omar, chair of the administration committee for the Aqbat Jabr refugee camp, was at his wits’ end. He had tried to calm tensions. But like all parents, he worried that his son “could be out in the street and be shot and killed.”

Aqbat Jabr is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank, built for Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948. Israel captured the Palestinian territories in 1967. The 1993 Oslo peace accords created the Palestinian Authority as a step toward statehood, but polls show that most here have given up on a two-state solution to the conflict.

Israeli settlements and agricultural outposts, illegal under international law, now dominate much of the West Bank. Palestinians in the territory are subject to military rule and have no political recourse: The Palestinian Authority has not held elections in 17 years, while Hamas, the extremist militant group, controls the Gaza Strip.

Two days after their first raid targeting the Awadats and Lafi, Israeli forces raided Jericho again before dawn on Feb. 6. They killed all five fighters, hiding in a shack, and took their bodies. Hours later, green Hamas flags flew over the houses where the Awadat family had gathered to mourn. A Fatah flag flew at Lafi’s home.

“Without a political solution, no place will remain quiet,” Omar said.

– – –

A political void

The IDF labeled the Jericho group a “Hamas terrorist squad,” referring to the Iran-backed militant group in Gaza that has called for Israel’s destruction, but declined to disclose its evidence.

On the ground, the picture is one of shifting affiliations and alliances of convenience, members of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad told The Washington Post. Some fighters raise or pool money; others get guns or funds from the traditional armed groups. Exactly who is supporting whom – and why – is difficult to determine.

Ultimately, “you can find groups of militants who come from different ideological backgrounds. Some are even not affiliated at all. They’ve just joined forces for the same mission,” said Noa Shusterman, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank in Tel Aviv.

These new groups may participate in shootouts against Israeli forces entering their camps or seek “mostly military targets,” such as checkpoints, “although we do see sometimes also civilian targets,” she said.

The most well known of the new groups is the Lions’ Den, which started in Nablus’s Old City among disaffected young men, many from Fatah families, said Jamal Tirawi, a Fatah leader from the adjacent Balata refugee camp.

After Friday prayers, people offered donations to the fighters, he said. Over time, the extremist group Islamic Jihad, based out of Damascus, Syria, offered financial support, and Hamas followed, he added.

“The Lions’ Den takes money from several factions,” said Mahdi Sharqawi, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad in Jenin. “But in the end, they don’t belong to any political organization.”

Over the past year, Israel has killed key members of the Lions’ Den. But new cells keep forming. And when the Lions’ Den calls on social media for strikes or protests, many Palestinians follow.

Sharqawi said Islamic Jihad’s boycott of politics and focus on fighting Israel make it attractive to young Palestinians who have “lost faith in the political process.”

“Islamic Jihad gives money to Fatah groups,” Sharqawi said, because “if someone wants to resist on the ground, it’s the same project as ours.”

Fatah formally disbanded its armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, at the end of the second intifada, in the mid-2000s. Recently, however, some former fighters have taken up arms independent of the party leadership, said Abu Mujahid, 39, the spokesman for the Brigades in the Jenin refugee camp. He spoke to The Post on the condition that he be identified by his nom de guerre because he is wanted by Israel.

Abu Mujahid said he still supports Fatah’s stance of diplomatic negotiations and two states. But in March 2020, he and others in Jenin “rebelled” against the party’s leadership “to protect” the movement, he said.

“When you see crimes daily and there’s no protection … we started to rise up again,” he said.

He accused Hamas of trying to “exploit” frustrated young men, secretly arming cells to stir up violence and intensify Fatah infighting.

As he spoke in a salon of a family home, his 5-year-old son competed for his attention. Abu Mujahid said he had not been home for two months, fearing an Israeli raid.

The father showed his son his new U.S.-made M16 assault rifle, smuggled in from Jordan. He paid $20,000 for it.

Coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces is one of the pillars of the Oslo accords still in place, and is loathed by most Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority security officials called Maha Awadat, 47, the mother of Jericho brothers Ibrahim and Refat, while her sons were on the run, she said. Such calls are one of the only de-escalation tactics the officials have left: They offer a job or money to fugitives who surrender.

Most don’t take the deal. The Awadat family ultimately dismissed the overture, the mother said.

– – –

The next uprising

In January, an Israeli sniper fatally shot Adham Jabarin, 26, a fighter with the Islamic Jihad-affiliated Jenin Brigade, during an early-morning raid in the camp. Weeks later, posters of Jabarin holding an M16 decorate the family’s salon. His three brothers are wanted by Israel; one left holding an assault rifle before Post journalists were allowed in.

Jabarin’s father, Mohammed, 54, is a longtime Fatah member. He was jailed or in hiding during Adham’s childhood, he said, and cannot get a permit to work in, or travel to, Israel. He’s afraid at checkpoints and rarely leaves Jenin.

The Jabarin sons all served time. In prison, they affiliated with Fatah, the family party. Later, they allied with the Islamic Jihad.

“The national movements used to be political,” the father said. “Today, it’s become resistance.”

Adham’s older sister, Hanan, 28, said her dead brother had no plans to marry and “no hope in the future.”

“What do you want from a generation that when it opened its eyes there were incursions, the army coming through its door, fathers and brothers being martyred,” she said.

The sniper who shot Jabarin also killed a beloved high school teacher, Jawad Bawaqna, his family said. The Israeli military said it was “examining the circumstances” surrounding his death.

The 57-year-old teacher had heard Jabarin’s cries as he lay dying on the family’s doorstep. One of Bawaqna’s daughters first stepped out to pull him inside; the father, still in his pajamas, ventured out to help and was shot twice, said his son Farid Bawaqna, who was steps away.

“It was very clear that we were helping,” said Farid, “that we weren’t armed.”

Saja Bawaqna, 30, one of Jawad’s daughters, said her father was more friend than patriarch. She keeps videos of him dancing on her phone.

“Yesterday, I went to his grave, and some of his students were standing around it … They lost a friend,” Farid said.

Majd Oweis, 17, was one of those students. His family nickname is “the doctor,” his dream profession. But he knows what becomes of dreams here. “The occupation prevents us from everything,” he said.

As he spoke, the sound of bullets rang out. He didn’t flinch. “Training,” he said, referring to the militants who have effectively become the camp’s protectors, with round-the-clock patrols and an alarm for Israeli incursions.

As a Palestinian, Oweis believes he has a duty to resist: “If it’s with education, or throwing stones or firing a gun or clashing, all of these forms anger the occupation,” he said.

He plans to stick with his studies, though some of his peers have already been killed or arrested. His family lives near the cemetery where fighters are buried, and a cafe where militants hang out.

“This path is known,” he said.