JENIN, West Bank – The Israeli drone watched an empty roundabout in the Jenin Refugee Camp at 2.00AM as 28-year-old Abu Daboor stepped out of his car and casually pulled out a pistol. He drew back the slide to clear the chamber and then tucked the gun back into the waistband of his black tracksuit bottoms.
Abu Daboor – not his real name – is a member of the local Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement’s armed force known as the Jenin Brigade, and is at the centre of a spreading rebellion in the Israeli-occupied West Bank fuelled by young Palestinians rising up against Israeli military rule and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Surrounded by makeshift barricaded narrow streets, Abu Daboor proudly declared the camp to be free of Israeli control, for now. This patch sees battles between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers conducting military raids nearly every day. “For us the camp is a liberated area,” he said under the watch of the drone. What he really meant is that Israeli forces can’t raid the camp without a forceful armed response and that the PA – the government body that exercises limited control over parts of the West Bank – has no presence here at all.
As election-weary Israelis head to polls for the fifth time in four years on Tuesday, a new generation of Palestinians with no say in the Israeli government increasingly see resistance as their only answer to Israeli occupation.
Firefights between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers have been regularly erupting since the Israeli military started escalating raids in the Northern West Bank in the spring, in response to attacks against Israelis by Palestinians linked to militant Islamist groups.
After Israel called yet another election this summer, those raids have intensified. And, in a new phenomenon, PA security forces involved in raids at Israel’s request have also been shot at.
It’s why for both armed Palestinian fighters and a Palestinian public regularly going on strike across the West Bank, Israel’s elections are simply an exercise in other people choosing Palestinians’ occupier.
Unlike most Palestinian fighters, Abu Daboor doesn’t care if his identity is made public, but VICE World News has changed his name for security reasons. He is related to one of the men who led a bloody attack in downtown Tel Aviv in April that killed three Israeli civilians, and after two years on the run from Israel, he knows that the army knows where he is and he expects them to come for him. The attack was part of a string of sudden violent incidents by Palestinians in March and April that killed 15 people.
He believes the intensifying military action against Palestinian areas is “all for the election.” Raids first became a regular occurrence in Jenin in March, after the attacks on Israelis began, but are now nightly events across the West Bank neighbourhoods, regularly occurring in the cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
The raids follow a familiar pattern. Israeli army jeeps and APCs show up unannounced, usually in the middle of the night, and surround the house of people they are targeting. If the people inside don’t resist, soldiers will usually ransack the house before carting mostly young men off to military prison.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be in the area could find themselves covered with the red dots of laser rifle sights or be detained by the army. If the Palestinians do resist, it usually ends in a gun battle. More than 125 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year and, according to UN Middle East Envoy, Tor Wennesland. This year is on track to be the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2005.
“It is so [current Prime Minister Yair] Lapid can win,” Abu Daboor told VICE World News.
The centrist Lapid campaign has denied that the government's months-long campaign of widespread army raids and military closures around the West Bank has been to win votes for his Yesh Atid party. Lapid is in a tight race with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu’s right wing Likud party and has been trying to position itself as taking a hard line on security.
Yesh Atid blames the unrest on the PA’s failure to control the situation. Israel and the PA – which is led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – have a security coordination agreement that sees cooperation between the security forces, but the Lapid campaign accuses the PA of inaction.
“Ideally, the Palestinian Authority should keep the peace in the West Bank,” Lapid campaign spokesperson Ya’ara Disegni told VICE World News, referring to the territory Israel has occupied for 55 years. “But when they fail to do so, Israel must step in.”
The Netanyahu and Gantz campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The problem runs deeper for Aida Touma-Suliman, an Israeli parliamentarian, candidate for the left wing party Hadash in the election and a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She laments a political environment where all parties are outdoing each other in a bid to appear more right wing and more tough on Palestinians. “[All the mainstream parties] are adopting this right-wing discourse and the settlers’ discourse,” she told VICE World News.
Armed assaults on Israeli settlers – Israelis living in the West Bank on land taken from Palestinians by military force – and soldiers have become a daily occurrence. Although Palestinians being killed by Israelis, attacks on Palestinians by settlers and military closures of Palestinian communities would have prompted little Palestinian public reaction just months ago, now they spark general strikes across the West Bank. These have spread to Jerusalem, and are the biggest popular outpourings of anger seen since the Second Intifada from 2000-05. For Palestinians, unending misery of militarised segregation, ghettoisation and the role of current Palestinian leaders in maintaining the status quo is once again starting to fuel rebellion.
Unlike the early 2000s, however, this is not an organised uprising. For the fighters VICE World News spoke with, successfully overthrowing the occupation is not their aim – they are fighting for a sense of control over their areas. This new fighting generation is rooted in urban working class communities and refugee camps for Palestinians forcefully displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants.
The local fighters, many of whom are teenagers, feel alienated by political organisations dominated by older people who do not share their world view.
“What brings us together is fighting,” said Abu Daboor. “When you are going to die fighting, there are no factions.” The belief that traditional Palestinian leaders are out of touch binds these young fighters together.
This is what helped forge the Lions’ Den, a new armed group that Israel is targeting aggressively, despite the fact it’s only been active since September. The independent group is made up of young fighters from working-class areas of Nablus’ old town that come from across the Palestinian political spectrum. Israeli raids targeting the Lions’ Den have increased hugely over the last month. Its most dramatic and recent raid was on the 25th of October, where the army stormed the old city killing five people, including three of the group's militants, who were picked off by rooftop snipers. Protests erupted the next day.
Most of the fighters in this new wave are Gen Z guerillas, young men whose first memories were of the Second Intifada. They are the first generation to grow up cut off by Israel’s separation wall, and while the number of settlers occupying hilltops above them swelled to beyond half a million, they learned to drive on segregated roads.
Abu Mujahed, a fighter with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – the armed wing of the secular nationalist Fatah movement that governs the West Bank – is a bit of an anomaly. He was old enough to fight in the second Intifada, and did
VICE World News met him in a stuffy two-room stucco safehouse in Jenin’s camp.
“The bullet is the new stone,” said Abu Mujahed referring to the young Palestinians who pelt the Israeli army with rocks when they raid their neighbourhoods. It’s a display of resistance that originated in the First Intifada in 1987, meant to send a message to the occupiers that they are not welcome. What he means is that now, when the army comes into their neighbourhoods, they get bullets instead.
Abu Mujahed uses a nom-de-guerre out of fear of being targeted by Israel or the PA. He is a comrade of Zakaria Zubedi, a famed Second Intifada fighter from Jenin who became a legend in the early 2000s for evading Israel while being its most-wanted fighter. Zubeidi was arrested in 2019, but broke out of jail last year from an Israeli prison with five Islamic Jihad fighters from Jenin, inspiring Palestinians and embarrassing Israel. Abu Mujahed notes that while the uprising in the early 2000s had the support of the Palestinian leadership and was national strategy, now it is small groups of local fighters that support each other as they can.
He describes how Jenin fighters responded to the call to join the gun battle on the 25th of October in Nablus between invading Israeli soldiers and the Lions’ Den. On that evening, Israeli troops stormed Nablus old city and got into a shootout with unsuspecting Palestinian security forces who had not been warned by Israel to leave the area. A bigger battle then ensued as Lions’ Den fighters fought back while being hunted by the Israeli army.
“Three fighters from Al Aqsa and a few from Islamic Jihad went from Jenin and arrived in the middle of the battle,” Abu Mujahed said about the firefight and the 44km drive between the cities, circumventing the new checkpoints Israel has encircled Nablus with.
In the years since 2005, the Palestinian security forces have become loathed by many for cooperating with the Israeli security forces, and are seen as a subcontractor for the occupiers by the fighters. Palestinian fighters from Jenin, including those part of Abu Mujahed’s Al Aqsa, have attacked the PA governor’s home and PA buildings on several occasions in the last year. As the armed rebellion spread to Nablus this summer, so did clashes with PA forces.
On the 20th of September, the PA arrested Hamas member Musab Shteya in Nablus at the request of Israel. Shteya was strong supporter of the Lions’ Den and PA security forces found themselves embroiled in armed clashes with Palestinian fighters and being pelted with stones by young Palestinians, who treated them the same way they treat the Israeli army.
These small groups of fighters have inspired a Palestinian public long looking for inspiration. Calls for general strikes from the Lions’ Den Telegram group in response to Israeli army arrests or killings regularly lead to Palestinians shuttering their stores, restaurants, schools and factories across the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
The Lions’ Den officially emerged in September, forming in the wake of the August killing of the wanted, independent, Palestinian fighter, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi. Known as the Lion of Nablus, Nabulsi took up arms against the occupation aged 18, and escaped assassination attempts from February until a final standoff on the 9th of August with Israeli soldiers. He was wanted for shooting at several Israeli soldiers and settlers, and was killed with an Israeli rocket after an hours-long gun battle with Israeli forces.
Nabulsi grew up in a working class community on the edge of Nablus old town and dropped out of school at 16 in the wake of being arrested by the PA. His story resonated with young Palestinians who felt they had no future. Thousands turned out to his funeral the same day, where hundreds of balaclava-clad fighters pumped rounds from their rifles into the air in scenes not seen in over a decade and half. The West Bank went silent in a strike from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south. Mechanics in small villages near Israel shuttered their garages and Ramallah cafes and bars closed.
“He witnessed the peace process and saw nothing,” said Ibrahim’s father, Alah, about his son. Alah was a member of the Palestinian security forces himself. VICE World News was invited into his home, where he sat with Ibrahim’s mother, Huda, in their living room surrounded by pictures of their son as a fighter. The grief at the loss of their son was etched on their faces as they explained why their son’s choices inspired a new wave of resistance. “He witnessed the wall and saw his reality and decided to take up the gun. He was saying that he is fighting back with the same tool he’s being oppressed with.”
Israel has demanded the PA take a strong hand against groups like the Lions’ Den. The Israeli military spokesperson’s office told VICE World News that the army has arrested over 1,500 people since it started “Operation Break Wave” to crush the unrest and retaliate for a series of attacks in Israel in March. The spokesperson declined to answer further questions about the security situation in the West Bank.
The operation means that Nablus is cut off and surrounded by checkpoints for the first time in well over a decade, forcing residents of the 170,000-person city to wait in line for hours to get out. Nablus also now often has the incessant buzzing of Israeli surveillance drones overhead, a menacing warning from a government, which recently authorised the use of aerial assaults in the West Bank for the first time since the Second Intifada.
For Ibrahim Ramadan, the PA governor for the Nablus district, Israel’s restrictions and assaults only make his efforts to bring back calm more difficult. As a result the PA is trying to convince fighters to put down their arms in exchange for amnesty from Israel while also preemptively arresting security force members they are worried may join groups like the Lions’ Den.
“We are trying to dismantle this phenomenon in a peaceful way,” said Ramadan, slouched on his desk in the Nablus presidential compound and security force headquarters. Ramadan goes between trying to imply the Lions’ Den is a front for Hamas, the bitter Islamist rival of his Fatah movement, and that the fighters are well-meaning patriots that the PA is trying to protect from Israel.
Ramadan’s oscillating tone is not simply a reaction to growing public frustration at the role the PA plays in the occupation but also growing discontent in the grassroots of Fatah and emerging split loyalties in parts of the security forces.
Just downstairs from Ramadan’s office is Mazen Donbuk, 42, a former Palestinian prisoner and former fighter whose office is filled with posters of the Lions’ Den. A Fatah activist from the working class streets of Nablus’ Roman-era old town, he rallies local youth for the party and agitates in the party and PA to respond to demands from the street. He proudly showed photos of himself with leading Lions’ Den fighters, and described calling for people to join the recent general strikes from the old city minaret speakers.
“People are really thirsty for such a group,” Donbuk said. He described how when he sees the Lions put out a call on their Telegram group for a general strike, he will immediately get on the phone to both his party and community activists to make sure the word gets out. He then engages Fatah leaders to pressure them to respect the strike. However, he told VICE World News that security forces who have been perceived to be too close to the Lions have been arrested and that he has been threatened with arrest himself.
Loyalties to the PA and its leadership are being tested in the security forces amidst the crackdown. Sympathies for the fighters are strong and frustration with leadership and their own role in maintaining a status quo of unending occupation is growing.
“Abbas goes to the UN and won’t say anything,” said “Abu Jalal” a member of the Palestinian security forces, about the Palestinian president’s September address to the UN. He spoke under a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals.
“No threats, no action, just a commitment to non-violence,” he said. “These young guys [that join these new groups], what else are they going to do?” He describes the loss of Nabulsi like the loss of a brother, and doesn’t know what he will do if ordered to confront these new fighters. He just hopes he isn’t.