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West Bank: Armed Palestinian resistance building in refugee camps over Israeli raids

Nur Shams in Tulkarem is the latest refugee camp to form brigades as Israeli incursions become a regular feature in Palestinians' lives
Anonymous members of the Tulkarem brigade in Nur Shams refugee camp (MEE/Leila Warah)
By Leila Warah in Tulkarem, occupied West Bank

A handful of young men, three with guns casually strung across their bodies, stood outside a supermarket. They stared warily at anyone who was unfamiliar entering the refugee camp, on the watch for undercover Israeli forces who could invade at any moment.

The scene could easily be mistaken for one in Jenin or Nablus, two Palestinian cities in the north of the occupied West Bank that have received international attention for their armed resistance against Israel's occupation. 

While the young men are from the north, they are from neither Jenin nor Nablus. They are from the Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem, further to the west, and are members of a newly emerged armed resistance group in the area. 

In a back alley of the camp, the 24-year-old leader of the Tulkarem Brigades, Mohammad, told Middle East Eye he believes Israel's occupation has left the West Bank's youth with no choice but to turn to armed resistance. 

"[The Israeli occupation] are the enemies of God, and so I fight to get back our land in the name of God," he said. "Our problem is not that they are Jewish, it is that they are occupying our land.

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"If you come to us with violence, our only option is to respond with violence. The occupation doesn't leave us any space for negotiations, only guns."

'A harsh reality and a dark future'

The Tulkarem Brigades emerged in February and are headed by the Al-Quds brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement. 

They are made up of 15 fighters from Nur Shams camp between the ages of 16 to 25 who are committed to "defending themselves" against Israel's military occupation through armed resistance. 

"We are at the start of the resistance. Everything that has happened is only the beginning. New generations are coming, and freedom will be in their hands and be made by them," said Mohammed. 

Locals say the Nur Shams refugee camp experiences near-daily Israeli military incursions, including five large-scale operations this year. 

The Nur Shams refugee camp, 3km from Tulkarem (MEE/Leila Warah)
The Nur Shams refugee camp, 3km from Tulkarem (MEE/Leila Warah)

"This generation was born into a harsh reality and a dark future. Every day the occupation raids the camp and arrests their fathers. They kill their friends and destroy everything," Ibrahim Al-Nimr, 51, an activist who works for the Palestinian Prisoners Society, told MEE. 

The group set up checkpoints at all the entrances to the camp and keeps them closed between midnight and noon to counter the frequent incursions and weed out undercover Israeli officials. 

Niya Jundi, a resident of Nur Shams, said the community "encourages the efforts of the young, resilient generation that aims to live in a free country".

"Of course there are drawbacks to the resistance. It makes our access to services more difficult, but it is our right to bear arms until we are free from occupation."

A network of armed resistance

Locals say the Tulkarem Brigades' existence was spurred on by the "martyrdom" of Nur Shams resident Saif Abu Libda.

Born and raised in the camp, Abu Libda joined the Jenin Brigade and hoped to one day bring armed resistance to his home in Nur Shams, which would complete the northern "triangle of resistance" between Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem. 

Israeli forces ambushed and killed him along with Saeb Abahra, 30, and Khalil Tawalbeh, 24, while they were driving in Jenin on 2 April 2022. All three were members of the Al-Quds Brigades, but reportedly weren't engaged in armed confrontations at the time.

"All the resistance groups in the West Bank are in contact with each other. We all have the same goal," said Mohammed. 

Jamal Huweil, a political science and international relations professor at the American Arab University in Jenin, said that, like Abu Libda, people from all over the West Bank - including Tubas, Nablus, Balata and Hebron - went to Jenin to learn about the armed struggle.

'All the resistance groups in the West Bank are in contact with each other. We all have the same goal'

- Mohammad, Tulkarem Brigades

With the increase of armed resistance in the West Bank, Israel publicly initiated the Break the Wave campaign in March 2022, enabling near-daily military raids across the West Bank and an escalation in Israel's shoot-to-kill policy, resulting in mass arrests and the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied territories since the Second Intifada two decades ago. 

Huweil believes Israel named the operation after Jenin, where the "wave" began.

"Israel considers the Jenin refugee camp as an incubator of resistance. The wave continues and has reached Nablus, the Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem and Aqbat Jabir refugee camp in Jericho. Jenin is the source of Palestinian resistance and, in turn, a problem for Israel," he told MEE. 

Even with the growth of the armed resistance, Huweil pointed out that the power dynamics between Israel's world-class military and the young fighters are highly disproportionate. 

"There is no comparison when they have Apache helicopters, observation planes and special units against a group of fighters with the bare necessities," he said.

As Palestinian armed resistance expands, Israeli leaders have called for "Operation Defensive Shield 2", referencing a large-scale military invasion of the West Bank in 2002 during the Second Intifada. 

"There are internal discussions on whether Israel should expand their operations, but I suspect, if they go forward with it, the resistance will only become stronger and fiercer," said Huweil. 

Palestinian and Israeli security coordination

Palestinian and Israeli officials have met twice this year, in Aqabat, Jordan and Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss the Palestinian economy, de-escalating the violence and the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in dissolving armed resistance in the West Bank. 

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However, many Palestinians are disillusioned by peace talks and diplomacy between officials and look down on the PA's security coordination with Israel to suppress the armed resistance, which has caused tensions to rise in places like Nur Shams. 

"[PA President] Mahmoud Abbas doesn't believe in armed resistance. He meets with Israeli political people to discuss the security situations and the economy because these are factors that help people revolutionise," Huweil said. "They are scared of the Jenin camp wave spreading and reaching all over the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon."

Mohammed told MEE "that the political speeches do nothing. We've tried them and they result in arrest. The only way to get back our freedom is by force."

"While the PA put pressure on the armed resistance here, trying to offer them money to leave the armed resistance and join the police, it will not make a difference," he said.

"The Israeli army doesn't go by international rules, they aren't ruled by anything."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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