West Bank militants bide their time as Palestinian Authority loses control

NABLUS, West Bank — News of the deadly strike on Gaza City’s al-Ahli Hospital rippled through the crowd in Nablus, where Fatah party supporters were marching late Tuesday in solidarity with Gaza. A voice from a loudspeaker called for a “day of rage.”

Within hours, protests erupted across the West Bank. Demonstrators and armed men clashed with Israeli soldiers and security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority, resented by many here as complicit in the Israeli occupation. Scenes of carnage from Gaza have led to deepening anger at the Western-backed authority and increased local support for its longtime rival, Hamas.

The militant group’s Oct. 7 rampage across southern Israel, which killed at least 1,400 people, and the intensifying war in Gaza have united Palestinians across political and geographical lines — leaving their leaders in the West Bank struggling to maintain control and contain calls for violent resistance.

With all eyes on Gaza war, violence is quietly mounting in the West Bank

“We are all Palestinians,” said a 30-year-old man on the sidelines of Tuesday’s march in Nablus, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety. “We are fighting two governments, Israel and the [Palestinian] Authority.”

Protesters at the march chanted, “We will die for you, Gaza” and in support of Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. A few openly waved Hamas flags and wore the group’s signature green attire — a previously unthinkable show of support on Fatah’s home turf.

On Wednesday, protesters clashed again with Israeli and Palestinian security forces in cities across the West Bank, including Jenin, Nablus and Hebron. Israeli forces responded with live fire, tear gas and stun grenades. At least two Palestinians were killed in a town outside Ramallah.

Palestinian officials were quick to label Tuesday’s hospital strike an Israeli “massacre,” though Israeli officials blamed the blast on an errant rocket from Palestinian militants. Current U.S. intelligence has found that Israel was “not responsible,” a White House National Security Council spokesperson told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

But those findings will carry little weight here. More than 3,000 Gazans have been killed in Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

Over the same period, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed more than 60 Palestinians in the West Bank and injured more than 1,300, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israel has also locked down parts of the West Bank, closing roads and putting up checkpoints to prevent Palestinians from moving between towns and cities.

More than 440 Palestinians have been arrested by the Israeli military, which says about half of them are affiliated with Hamas, and settler violence is surging.

In response to the hospital strike, 88-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut short a visit to Amman, Jordan, where he was supposed to meet Wednesday with President Biden, and returned to Ramallah, the authority’s de facto capital.

In a statement, Abbas said the explosion was “a heinous war crime” and called on the international community to intervene in Gaza. “We will not allow a new Nakba in the twenty-first century,” Abbas said, referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians following Israel’s creation in 1948.

But Palestinians have criticized Abbas for what they see as his muted presence over the past 10 days — as Washington and the authority’s other Western backers have rallied around Israel.

How Hamas’s carefully planned Israel attack devolved into a chaotic rampage

“For years they’ve been saying, ‘We are supporting the Palestinians, we want a two-state solution, an independent viable Palestinian state,’ and now I think the mask went down,” said Ayman Shakaa, who leads a community center in Nablus.

Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967. Under the Oslo accords, brokered by President Bill Clinton in 1993, those territories were meant to form a Palestinian state. But the U.S.-led peace process has been dormant for years. Israeli settlements in the West Bank have expanded. Members of Israel’s current government, the most far-right in its history, have called openly for annexation.

Since 2007, when Hamas violently ousted the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip, Abbas has cracked down on supporters of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group in Gaza, as well as on his own critics. Long-promised elections have never been held. Despair has deepened in the impoverished refugee camps that still dot the West Bank.

Over the past two years, camps in Nablus, Jenin and elsewhere have become incubators for a new generation of armed groups that have carried out deadly attacks against Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians. Israel has responded with massive military raids across the West Bank, making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians here since the end of the second intifada in 2005.

“It’s time to unite,” said Shakaa, who said Abbas must adapt to the new reality, or lose all semblance of authority. “Even [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was able to create a new coalition. We shouldn’t keep the same political situation as before.”

“It’s clear we are going towards the darkest moment in our modern history,” he added. “It’s very hard not to tell a young man not to do something stupid.”

In a narrow, run-down alley in Nablus’s tightly packed Balata refugee camp, Zoufi, the commander of a local unit of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — listed by Israel as a terrorist group — sat Tuesday on a faded couch surrounded by other fighters and teenage attendants, some with M16 rifles.

“The worst is yet to come,” said the 38-year-old militant, a father of three, speaking on the condition that he be identified by his childhood nickname to protect his security. Zoufi said he awoke on Oct. 7 to the news of Hamas’s rampage and asked his wife to slap him to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then he laughed with joy.

Zoufi’s groups, and others like it, have been relatively quiet so far. But he says the calm won’t last: “We are a part of this war.”

Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad have “sleeping cells” across the West Bank, he said, “observing and preparing,” waiting for the Israeli army in the West Bank to become overstretched.

“Israel will pay the price,” he said, “and the price will come from here.”

‘Tomorrow’s martyrs’: Inside a Palestinian militant cell in the West Bank

Zoufi is affiliated with Fatah but opposes the Palestinian Authority’s nonviolent approach. He founded his militant cell last year. Balata is home to some 30,000 people and has no proper police force. The same is true in other camps in Nablus and Jenin and throughout the northern West Bank. In these communities, the militants are the ones in charge.

“When the people go out [to the streets], the PA will have no control,” he said. “They are not taking the lead. So, if they don’t back the resistance, it will be their end.”

Ibrahim Badrasawi, a 53-year-old trader in the nearby Askar refugee camp, said he felt an uprising had already begun. He was injured by Israeli fire during the second intifada in the early 2000s and was in and out of Israeli jails for years.

“The resistance [to the Israeli occupation] is everywhere,” he said. “But the PA is holding the middle of the stick, trying to retain power while not supporting Hamas.”

The center can’t hold for much longer, he said.

“If Israel will do a stupid thing like the ground invasion, war will break out not only in the West Bank and inside Israel but also around the Arab world,” he said. “We want liberation, not bloodshed. … I hope it will stop before it comes to that.”

Mohamed Hamdan, the secretary general of Fatah in Nablus, defended Abbas and his efforts to revive peace negotiations. He said the authority was doing its best to maintain order and rein in weapons on the street. But the international community had “betrayed” the Palestinians, he said.

“We see our children dying before us in Gaza,” he said. “We see Israeli settler violence … and violations against al-Aqsa Mosque, for which Hamas rose up.”

This time felt different for him, too, he said, and he was not sure the anger could be contained. “We see people want open clashes with the Israeli occupation.” He continued, “The people are approaching the end.”

Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the Palestinian Authority president. He is Mahmoud Abbas. The article has been corrected.

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