Three fighters sit next to their assault rifles, staring at portraits of Palestinian Authority security forces. We’re in a modest working class living room in the Occupied West Bank’s Jenin Refugee camp. And at first glance, this is a peculiar moment: The fighters are from the guerilla outfit, the Jenin Brigade, which just this week was in gun battles with the PA and the Israeli army as the Gaza war increasingly spreads to the West Bank. In other words, the forces that stand between the Jenin Brigade fighters and the Israelis and have been so unable to protect Palestinian lives — have their pictures hanging up there on that wall.
But “if [the PA] would come to protect [Palestinians],” says “Abu Mohammed,” a Jenin Brigade fighter in his thirties with roots in Mahmud Abbas’ secular nationalist Fatah movement, “I would put my gun away.”
He and his two comrades are part of a group of West Bank fighters from across the Palestinian political spectrum that has been spreading an armed rebellion against an increasingly repressive occupation. Spurred on by Israeli army raids, settler attacks, and land confiscations, their morale has been lifted by the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel and they are now responding to a war they see Israel using to expel Palestinians from Gaza and consume the West Bank.
And that anger extends to the PA’s Western-backed security force, which has helped maintain Israel’s 56 year occupation.
Looking back at the portraits of the PA security forces, he describes the debt and dependency the PA economy has trapped Palestinians in while Israel’s segregated roads, checkpoints, and settler attacks define their lives. Abu Mohammad, who uses a nom-de-guerre because of security concerns, is at the center of a widening split between a Palestinian public who see no choice but resistance and a leadership desperate to avoid it. In some ways, he embodies that split. While he’s a Jenin Brigade fighter at night, his official job is in the Palestinian security forces, wearing the same uniform as those portrayed on the wall.
Rising up initially to settler attacks and army raids in the West Bank as segregation tightened daily — since the war, settler attacks on Palestinians have spread and the army has been quick to use live fire on Palestinians checkpoint protests. Ninety Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in two weeks. For fighters and civilians alike, it just feels like a prelude.
“After Israel finishes in Gaza, you will see a big massacre in the West Bank,” Abu Mohammad tells Rolling Stone, sitting in the overcrowded camp where residents descend from refugees forced to flee Haifa during the 1948 war as part of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. “And nobody’s going to ask about us,” he says as President Biden visits Israel to pledge support.
Two weeks after Hamas-led fighters from Gaza overwhelmed Israel southern defenses, taking an estimated 200 hostages and committing massacres that killed 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers according to Israeli authorities, Israeli bombs continue to demolish homes, killing 4,385 Palestinians so far, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Schools and neighborhoods in Gaza are being destroyed while the entire strip is starved of power, water, and fuel by a complete Israeli siege. Residents of the besieged Palestinian enclave who have fled south following Israeli orders find themselves trapped while others try to take refuge around hospitals. All are bracing for an Israeli ground invasion they fear will force them into exile.
For doctors at Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital, the catastrophe finds new depths as all medications dry up and basic equipment breaks. In a hospital Israel has ordered to evacuate or face bombardment, Dr. Hammam Mahmoud Alloh depicts desperate scenes where discharged patients, often still in need of treatment, have nowhere to go. So they move from bed to floor to make way for worse cases.
“We were short of everything before [this war] started,” he says referring to the impact of 16 years of Israel’s blockade regularly punctuated by war. “And now things are getting worse and worse.”
He describes doctors having to perform surgery without anesthesia, while a tent city of 40,000 people around the hospital has been created by those desperately seeking sanctuary. Although 20 aid trucks have started to enter the besieged strip that’s deprived of water, fuel, and electricity, Dr. Alloh believes any aid is needed but that it will have negligible impact on the spiraling disaster being brought upon Gaza. Following the bombing of the grounds of the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday evening, he is worried about Al Shifa being hit, though regardless of bombing or even a ground invasion, he says evacuation is not an option.
“You can’t ask comatose and ventilated patients to evacuate the ICU,” he says while doing his rounds.
Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank have been watching Gaza in horror, fearing another expulsion in the making and that they are next. Locked into their communities by the Israeli military and unable to travel since Oct.7, West Bank Palestinians are outraged at the PA’s inability to protect them, terrified about what Israel will do next and rising up against both in response.
Within hours of the images of death and devastation from Al Ahli hospital being broadcast, young Ramallah residents were pelting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’ security forces with stones, like they were invading Israeli soldiers. The PA cracked down hard across the West Bank, shooting 12 year-old Razan Nasrallah dead in Jenin as protest-clashes spread and gun battles with Palestinian fighters erupted.
Eerily quiet when there isn’t a protest, Ramallah, the usually energetic hilltop city at the center of the PA’s limited power is cut off from Jerusalem and much of the West Bank by checkpoint closures. Generally a parade ground for PA forces to drive around, now the Israeli army makes bold daytime raids into the Palestinian-administered city while Palestinian security forces melt away. At night, young Palestinians — secular and religious — have taken to nighttime streets, marching behind Hamas flags and chanting “the people want the downfall of the President,” in reference to Abbas and calls from the 2011 Arab Revolutions. “I’m here because Israel killed children from Gaza,” says 19-year-old Mohammad Samarah, marching through Ramallah’s al Manara square on Wednesday night while people stood on the Four Lions statues in the center of the square holding green Hamas flags. “All the people in Palestine are one people and Hamas is with the people,” he says about the Islamic nationalist movement that has been a Gaza-based rival to Abbas and the PLO since the 2007 national split.
For Palestinians who are at a loss about how to respond to segregation, blockade, and unending occupation, Hamas has sent a message that Palestinians can act alone. Despite losing credibility as the new armed groups in the West Bank spread rebellion while nothing changed in Gaza, it has returned to the forefront of Palestinian struggle.
“Palestinians don’t want to be passive victims,” says Hanan Ashrawi from her Ramallah home. A leading national activist and intellectual in the Palestine Liberation Organization who resigned from the body in protest in 2020, Ashrawi sees Palestinians deciding to no longer wait for anyone to step in to secure their rights. “Demolishing homes, killing people, assassinating people. How many wars in which [Israel] destroyed buildings, families, men, women, and children?,” she asks rhetorically, explaining that, to Palestinians, the blood and tears didn’t start two weeks ago. It’s a war that she sees not as simply an act of vengeance but the way the most right wing government in Israeli history — led by Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — cements demographic change on the ground.
Describing the war in Gaza as a contemporary Nakba where 2.3 million people are being held collectively responsible for a Hamas assault, Ashrawi sees a clear message to all Palestinians from a government where expulsion is supported by leading cabinet ministers. “Either you surrender, or you accept to get killed, or you leave, and you’ll become a refugee.”
The road between Ramallah and Jenin is long and desolate these days. Antsy soldiers on checkpoints hold up the few Palestinian vehicles on the roads and nervously watch from towers guarding the settlements that dot the northern West Bank hilltops. Hawwara, a town outside the ancient Roman city of Nablus that Israel’s settler finance minister Bezalel Smotrich called to wipe off the map after settlers went on a murderous rampage last winter, is a shuttered ghost town. Settlers have regularly attacked the town since last winter and gather at the edge of the town to stone Palestinian cars. These days Israeli soldiers rule the main road unless settlers are leading armed attacks. Either way, the Palestinian residents steer clear. Side streets are filled with debris and improvised barricades from confrontations between Palestinian residents and Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Nablus, a center of Palestinian commerce whose working-class old city and surrounding neighborhoods is home to fighters of The Lions Den, is sealed off at all entrances, isolated like the days of closure during the second Intifada. Nearby Talkarm’s Refugee Camp, Nur Shams, was invaded, put under curfew, and bombed from the air while water and power were cut for 24 hours on Thursday. Gun battles between Palestinian fighters and army raged, killing 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier.
The signs of a hit-and-run war against Israel being fought in the rolling northern West Bank hills is seen in glass-covered highways where shot-out trucks with bullet-sprayed windshields surrounded by military jeeps are passed on the road at top speed. For the few Palestinians driving between junctions where settlers gather regularly to attack them, any given outing carries the fear of ending in a lynching.
“We are not killers, we’re fighting,” “Abu Hamza,” a guerrilla in his thirties who is part of the Jenin Brigade tells Rolling Stone. Sitting next to Abu Mohammad, his roots are in Hamas but he also was once an elite member of the Palestinian Security Forces. He’s inspired by the surprise Hamas attack — grizzly at it was — and believes it has resumed the leadership of Palestinian resistance. “They occupied us and we must remove them,” he says about why he fights Israel.
Jenin was razed to the ground by Israel during the 2002 height of the second Intifada. Over the last year, the rebuilt and regularly raided refugee camp has become a hub for a new generation of Palestinian fighters who have responded to escalating attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers by spreading rebellion through ambushes on Israeli army raids, settler shootings, and checkpoint attacks.
Since Oct. 7, Israel has closed the West Bank to the Palestinians living in it. The hillside camp of winding roads has become more isolated and during the day, a stillness has replaced the usual bustle. Under canopies strung up to block Israeli drone and helicopter view of the streets, twisted iron hedgehogs are pushed to the sides of the narrow roads and intersections to allow daytime traffic before being brought out and guarded by fighters at night.
Abu Mohammad, Abu Hamza, and “Abu Ahmed” — a Jenin Brigade fighter in his twenties who came out of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both a Hamas ally and rival inspired by the Iranian revolution — view Hamas as leading in the national armed struggle while noting that weeks ago people saw little from it. They still insist their organization of fighters is independent and decides its own actions and goals but all argue Hamas’ attack from Gaza will force Israel to reckon with the kind of all-encompassing warfare that Palestinians experience. They believe only exacting a price will get Israel to change course. “They are people that only understand fire and iron,” says Abu Ahmed.
Growing up in a world defined by military rule at the barrel of a gun, Abu Ahmed is realistic about the devastating cost this war is having on Palestinians, but sees little choice but to join this fight to change his circumstances. “Dying in the collective is a mercy, We’re not going to be displaced.”
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