Palestinian arrests surge in West Bank as Israel expands its crackdown

Residents search the ruins of the Al-Ansar mosque in Jenin Refugee Camp, West Bank, after an Israeli airstrike killed two people. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

JENIN, West Bank — A group of young Hamas fighters in black tracksuits walked through the rubble of a mosque, damaged by an Israeli airstrike Sunday that killed a fellow militant. The men are wanted by Israel and have sought refuge in the Jenin refugee camp, hiding from a security crackdown that has swept up thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank.

“They’re trying to save face after what happened in Gaza,” a fighter said of the Israeli strikes, raids and arrests targeting militants in the occupied territory. The man, 20, had freshly bandaged wounds on his arms and face, which he said were from a separate attack.

“It won’t work,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. “They will always lose.”

Israel’s sweeping security measures in the West Bank are an extension of its war against Hamas in Gaza, an attempt to eliminate the militant group and permanently shift the balance of power in a conflict that has raged for decades. More than 1,400 people have been arrested and more than 90 have been killed in the West Bank over the last two weeks, according to Palestinian officials.

Israel has said its “counterterrorism” operations will prevent Hamas from being able to launch another attack like its brutal assault on Oct. 7, when gunmen killed over 1,400 people in southern Israel and took more than 200 hostages.

But many Palestinians and some analysts warn the measures could have the opposite effect. Hamas’s presence is limited in the West Bank, where the rival Fatah movement holds power, but many of its aims are shared by a new generation of militant groups that have taken up arms here over the last year. The fighters are young, loosely organized and opportunistic.

West Bank protests spread over Gaza war; militants bide their time

The West Bank didn’t immediately erupt into violence after Israel declared war against Hamas, said Tahani Mustafa, the senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group. But she said militant activity has increased in response to the recent Israeli crackdown.

“Israel has always tried to preemptively use full force to try and prevent any kind of pushback,” she said. But “if the stated objective is to prevent armed resistance, then it’s very counterproductive, because if anything it often has the adverse affect of radicalizing young boys.”

The Jenin camp, home to more than 20,000 people, appears braced for a fight. Most roads into the camp have been barricaded; tarps and sheets are strung from the roofs of tightly packed homes, stretching across narrow streets to obstruct the view of drones.

The ruling Palestinian Authority is practically invisible here; the militants are the ones who call the shots. Residents and local fighters said wanted men from neighboring towns and further afield have moved into the camp, where it’s more difficult for Israeli troops to operate.

“From now, the violence will only increase,” said Abu Ali, 50, a resident who spoke on the condition he be identified by his nickname due to safety concerns. He’s lived in the camp through past escalations and fears this will be the worst one yet.

He and others have received text messages in Arabic from the Israel Defense Forces warning of increased operations in the camp. One message instructed people to “distance yourself, your children and families,” from militants.

“This doesn’t affect the spirit of the camp’s residents,” said Alaa Au Abed, whose cousin was also killed in the Jenin airstrike. “We don’t give it any consideration. We’re steadfast.”

But other families feel trapped in the middle. Salam Subhi Abu Jabal, 50, said her husband was dragged out of their bedroom in the middle of the night.

“They are just taking anyone with any connection to Hamas,” she said. Her husband, Juma Saad, nearly 60-years-old, had been active in Hamas’s political wing, but left the group years ago after an injury from a previous round of clashes cost him a leg.

He had been arrested many times before, his wife said, but never like this. “This time was different, they came in violently,” she said, her husband was hauled off so quickly that she wasn’t able to give him his prosthetic leg. She fears she may never see him again.

Others described similar late night operations where relatives were pulled from their homes by Israeli forces with no explanation.

Security camera footage from a neighbor’s house showed the moment soldiers kicked in the door to Mahmood Fayed’s apartment on the ground floor.

“When they were leaving, they broke the screen, the middle table, and turned the sofa set upside down,” said his sister, Amani Fayed. The noise woke her and she could hear her brother screaming “I don’t know” as he was taken away. He was an administrator at an elementary school, she said, and had no connection to any militant organization.

“They are taking anyone who is a religious man,” she said. “They want revenge because of Gaza.”

The arrests have been executed under Israel’s expanded “anti-terrorism” law, according to a statement from Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners rights organization.

“Activists, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and artists” are among those arrested over the past two weeks, according to the group. Several lawmakers have also been arrested, including Aziz Dweik, the former speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a member of Hamas’s political party.

Even before the latest violence, 2023 had been the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians in two decades. And over the past week, funerals are increasingly transforming into rallies for armed resistance.

Masked gunmen marched along mourners outside the Nur Shams camp near the Palestinian town of Tulkarm, chanting “revenge,” after a raid Thursday killed more than a dozen people, including children, residents said. In Bethlehem, neighbors and relatives of a slain teenager demanded a new battle against occupying forces.

At the cemetery outside Jenin where one of the men killed in the airstrike was buried, militants gathered alongside relatives in a show of support.

“We are not sad by the way in which our sons were martyred,” said Au Abed. “It’s a source of pride for us to die the way [people] in the Gaza Strip die.”

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