Two decades ago, in 2002, the Israeli military was in the midst of violently repressing a Palestinian uprising, the Second Intifada, in a campaign that took place in the occupied West Bank. The military caused massive destruction in the city of Jenin, and to the Jenin refugee camp in particular, prompting international outcry. The Israeli military at the time spoke of Jenin as a “hornet’s nest” of activity and sought to deal a major blow to fighters from the city and the camp.
Twenty years later, the Jenin refugee camp is once again in the spotlight as Israeli military raids continue to target the city. The various Palestinian factions that are active there, together with the refugee camp’s managers recently began working in a joint operations room to coordinate defense efforts. Representatives from several different factions gathered together behind a podium to give statements to the media, wearing masks to conceal their identities. The sign on the podium read: the Hornet’s Nest.
Palestinian fighters who have been killed in Jenin in recent months are generally in their late teens or early twenties, which means that they were not yet born during the Israeli Army’s siege in 2002, or were too young at the time to remember. Yet the legacy of that siege and the brutal repression of the Palestinian uprising has carried on.
Palestinian fighters who have been killed in Jenin in recent months are generally in their late teens or early twenties, which means that they were not yet born during the Israeli Army’s siege in 2002, or were too young at the time to remember.
The phenomenon of young armed collectives in the West Bank is not limited to Jenin. Another group active in the West Bank city of Nablus, one that has gained even more notoriety, took the name “the Lion’s Den.” The group’s modus operandi is similar to that of the Hornet’s Nest, in that it brings together fighters affiliated with different Palestinian factions. Its epicenter, however, is not a refugee camp, but rather Nablus’ old city, where many Palestinian fighters died. Still, similar to Jenin’s collective, the Lion’s Den is locally based and is focused on defending the community from Israeli raids. One thing that has set the two groups apart was the Lion’s Den’s success in communicating via social media. Meanwhile, stirrings of similar collectives seem to be beginning in Tulkarem and Hebron as well.
Reflecting the Palestinian Public
These various collectives, which have fiercely engaged the Israeli military and faced brutal repression, represent several different expressions that reflect Palestinian public opinion at a crucial moment.
Armed Resistance: All of these collectives have committed to using armed resistance to defend their homes, as well as those of their neighbors and of neighboring towns and villages. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, “When asked about the most effective means of ending the Israeli occupation and building an independent state, the public split into three groups: 41 percent chose armed struggle, 30 percent negotiations, and 24 percent popular resistance.” Support for armed struggle fluctuates, but it has consistently gained plurality support from respondents since the collapse of the Oslo peace process many years ago. For many Palestinians, collectives that are taking up arms and fighting back against the Israeli military, including by carrying out attacks on Israeli checkpoints, reflect a core idea among many Palestinians that liberation cannot and will not come without armed struggle against the occupation.
Inter-factionalism: Few issues have been more debilitating for Palestinian politics than the split between Hamas and Fatah after 2006 and the siege of Gaza, a rift that has never healed. One important defining factor of these new collectives is the participation of members from different factions unifying under a single banner. Traditionally, different factions have sought to claim credit for unique operations as part of their claim to credibility with the Palestinian public. But the shared struggle of different factions coming together instead reminds Palestinians of the greater cause that binds them and allows them to transcend the deadlock of the factional divide, even if only briefly.
The shared struggle of different factions coming together reminds Palestinians of the greater cause that binds them and allows them to transcend the deadlock of the factional divide, even if only briefly.
Local Focus: One factor that has helped these groups don a unifying banner is their localized nature. Hamas and Fatah are national parties and have adherents in every part of Palestine. But these collectives focus on local resistance to occupation and are bound together by their experiences defending their homes, villages, and public spaces. If a neighbor falls defending a street, what matters to these groups is not the faction to which they belongs, but rather that they were a neighbor first and made sacrifices to protect that which was closest to all. This hyper-localized focus and the close bonds formed between fighters in the trenches of refugee camps and old cities has made it easier to set aside older, national divisions which meant little when in shared corridors under Israeli fire.
Youth: The younger generations of Palestinians, which not only make up the fighters in these collectives but also many of their followers on social media and in the streets, are too young to have lived through the Second Intifada and the Israeli repression of it. The severe costs of that repression and the stress under which it placed Palestinian factions and institutions limited large-scale armed resistance, even though resistance has always been present, though in spurts. But what this younger generation has seen is the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its practice of apartheid, the regular bombardment of Gaza, the growth of Israeli settlements choking livelihoods, and the ways in which people around the world are using technology to mobilize and taking up arms to fight for their freedom. The youth have also grown tired of an aging Palestinian leadership whose vision and strategy does not match their own, and who have not made tangible progress during their lifetime. The collectives forming in Jenin, in Nablus, and beyond very much reflect this spirit.
A Conundrum for the Palestinian Authority
Perhaps the single most important and foundational element of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and of the agreements with Israel that brought it into being, is security coordination. The PA agrees (although this is an “agreement” between an occupier and an occupied entity, and its legality is therefore dubious) to coordinate security with the Israeli military as part of its arrangement dividing the West Bank into different areas of Palestinian and/or Israeli control, labeled Areas A, B, and C. Unsurprisingly, few issues are more unpopular among Palestinians today. The PA, which is in a constant legitimacy crisis that is furthered both by a lack of elections and its inability to advance national goals, angers and frustrates Palestinians who routinely see Palestinian security forces coordinating with the Israel military to arrest Palestinian fighters.
The PA, which is in a constant legitimacy crisis, angers and frustrates Palestinians who routinely see Palestinian security forces coordinating with the Israel military to arrest Palestinian fighters.
For the Palestinian Authority, and particularly in the years since 2006 and the split that took place between Hamas and Fatah, security coordination that led to the arrest or killing of Hamas or Islamic Jihad members was easier to present as legitimate, particularly for their base of largely Fatah-aligned constituents. But the armed collectives that have formed and fought in recent years present a whole new dilemma for the PA since they are working under a non-factional banner and have become wildly popular among the Palestinian public.
The contrast could not be stronger. The PA has an aging leadership that is rife with debilitating factionalism and that has committed to security coordination with the occupation. The youth joining armed collectives, meanwhile, are shunning factionalism and cooperation with Israel, and are embracing direct armed confrontation with the Israeli occupation. Since the PA cannot simply dismiss them by using its usual tactic when confronted by potential challengers to its authority, namely portraying them as Islamists, it has a much harder time selling a potential crackdown on these collectives to the public. In many cases, some of the leaders in the collectives are Fatah-aligned, making the prospect of taking action against them even harder. And because the collectives band together and set aside factional differences, if the PA goes after Islamist-aligned members, other members speak up and push back. This was the case with the PA’s arrest of Musab Shtayyeh, which set off significant protests in Nablus.
As the Israeli military was tightening its October 2022 siege on Nablus, which was aimed at collectively punishing the city’s residents and closing the circle around the Lion’s Den, Palestinians were following the situation on the ground through both traditional and social media. And as Palestinians were captivated by the young fighters seeking to evade the Israeli military in Nablus, well known Palestinian leaders were outside of the picture all together. In fact, several were almost 2,500 miles away in Algiers, where the Algerian government was working to broker an agreement to heal the rift between Hamas and Fatah.
The moment was reminiscent of one that occurred three decades prior. At the time, Palestinians in the West Bank were rising up against Israeli occupation in the First Intifada, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Fatah is a faction, was similarly not in the picture. Partly out of desperation to remain relevant, the PLO, which was based in Tunisia at the time, formally recognized Israel and began what would come to be known as the Oslo peace process.
What This Means for the Future
Some might ask if the development of these armed collectives and Israel’s attempts to repress them means that another intifada is on the horizon. It is hard to draw definite conclusions at this stage, but this moment does provide significant indications about how Palestinian politics could take shape in the years to come.
Taking the struggle into their own hands: These armed collectives represent Palestinians in the West Bank taking the struggle into their own hands in ways that have not been seen in years. And they have managed some success in targeting Israeli occupation soldiers while also garnering significant attention from the Palestinian public. Although these young fighters have been brutally suppressed by the Israeli military that has sought to eliminate their leaders, they have offered a template for others to follow, one that reflects the anger and frustration of the Palestinian people.
Although young fighters have been brutally suppressed by the Israeli military that has sought to eliminate their leaders, they have offered a template for others to follow, one that reflects the anger and frustration of the Palestinian people.
Succession: How power transitions will be carried out within the Palestinian Authority has been an open question for the last two decades, and as PA President Mahmoud Abbas approaches the age of 90, the question not only remains outstanding, but has grown in importance. The agreement between Fatah and Hamas signed in Algiers is about as likely to succeed and produce new Palestinian elections as all the reconciliation attempts before it, which is to say, very unlikely indeed. The emergence of these localized collectives, which has involved either Fatah-aligned members or Palestinian security forces participating in actions or standing down to enable the collectives’ resistance, suggests a fraying in the PA’s control over its security apparatus in the West Bank. It is not hard to imagine this growing over time as the PA continues to fail to confront Israeli apartheid. And from there it is not a far leap to envision diverse centers of gravity in the West Bank being activated when a power struggle eventually takes place.
Confrontation: For years, security collaboration with the Israeli occupation has been a source of shame and revulsion for the Palestinians, who have watched their leaders coordinate with the Israeli military and enable its targeting of Palestinian fighters in the West Bank. These newly emergent collectives and the widespread popularity they have gained suggest that Palestinians’ rejection of security coordination is not merely a perspective, but is a priority, one that will likely lead more Palestinians to act by actively confronting the Israeli occupation with weapons and in a more organized manner.
Ultimately, it is impossible to predict what will come next in Palestinian politics. But when the next stage does come, it is very possible that the dramatic confrontations that took place between these newly emergent, organized collectives and the Israeli military in the summer and fall of 2022 will be recognized as key moments that helped shape the change that followed.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed