This article aims to analyze the reality of resistance in the West Bank and how it interacts with the Al-Aqsa flood and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. It also sheds light on the development of resistance, especially armed resistance, in the West Bank over the past two years by examining its strategies and challenges. It also examines resistance’s interactions with the Palestinian Authority and the challenges the authority faces given the nature of its relationship with Fatah and the repercussions of the Al-Aqsa flood. By highlighting these aspects, this paper considers multiple scenarios regarding resistance in the West Bank following the Israeli war on Gaza.
The West Bank is at the heart of the Al-Aqsa flood. Muhammad Al-Deif, Commander-in-Chief of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, explained in a statement launching the operation that it came in response to Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque, settler and army violence in the West Bank, increased repression of prisoners in Israeli jails, and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Al-Deif called on West Bank residents to attack settlements, saying anyone with a gun should take them out, referring to the need to unify against Israel.
Israel responded by launching a massive bombardment of Gaza, closing off the West Bank, and setting war goals of wiping out Hamas and restoring deterrence. It committed the Al-Ahly Hospital massacre, killing over 500 initially per reports, mostly children and women. This sparked protests and clashes with Palestinian Authority security forces in Ramallah after demonstrators chanted against the PA and demanded its overthrow.
This article examines resistance in the West Bank and how it interacts with the Al-Aqsa flood and subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. It sheds light on resistance development, especially of armed groups, in the West Bank over the past two years by examining strategies and challenges. It also examines resistance interactions with the PA and challenges it faces given its relationship with Fatah and Al-Aqsa flood repercussions. By highlighting these aspects, this paper considers multiple West Bank resistance scenarios following the Israeli war on Gaza.
The West Bank reacted directly to the Al-Aqsa flood
Marches supporting the operation and Gaza took place in Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. The Nablus-based Lions’ Den group also called for armed attacks on Israel and preparing to confront settlers. Notably, Lions’ Den comprises Al-Aqsa Brigades gunmen affiliated with Fatah and Al-Quds Brigades members from Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Armed groups soon attacked settlement entrances in Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, and Qalandia camp, with Al-Qassam Brigades announcing the West Bank flood’s start and operations against military sites.
Meanwhile, Israel completely closed off the West Bank, separating cities, neighborhoods and villages to control residential areas and prevent escalation or operations against settlers or the army. Israel began a massive arrest campaign targeting hundreds of Hamas leaders and members.
Additionally, Israel followed flexible shooting rules toward protesters and marches, raising the first week’s martyr count to over fifty. This coincided with increased settler attacks, emboldened to shoot and kill Palestinians unchecked, as in Qasra village where settlers killed a father and son among six dead. Israel announcing distributing thousands of weapons to settlers, who already own over 165,000, indicates violence will likely rise as settlers commit mass killings to push out Palestinians.
This escalation supports the continuing accumulation of army and settler attacks on Palestinians since the May 2021 Sword of Jerusalem battle focused on Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah. By late September 2022, Israel had killed 242 Palestinians, while 36 Israelis died in resistance operations.
Conditions are worsening with increasing settler violence, up to over 726,000 settlers in 2022 across 176 settlements and 186 outposts, 10 established in 2022. A plan presented to Prime Minister Netanyahu in August 2022 aims to increase settlers to one million and establish new cities and infrastructure in the West Bank.
Increased settler violence and reactions prompted Israel to double West Bank military forces to eliminate groups like Nablus’ Lions’ Den and protect areas where settlers and soldiers are targeted. This may have reduced border forces while motivating Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Flood operation, planned for years.
There is a widespread belief among Palestinians, and armed groups particularly, that Israel was preparing a major West Bank operation against groups like those in Nablus and Jenin. Hamas deputy political bureau chief Saleh Al-Arouri said the Al-Aqsa flood was preemptive against an Israeli campaign.
Indeed, armed group activities increased noticeably in the West Bank over the past two years, which Israel began to see as a security threat, launching extensive campaigns against them in Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, and Jericho. While 28 shooting incidents against Israeli targets occurred in 2019, this declined to 23 in 2020 but increased sharply to 173 in 2021 and 841 just in the first half of 2022. This sharp increase indicates greater organization and planning, continuity, and operational capabilities.
This transformation is significant compared to the decade of stagnation after the 2007 Palestinian divide, sometimes punctuated by brief confrontations like 2015’s knife intifada. After Israel and the PA dismantled its structures, Hamas retreated but Al-Aqsa battle activation of its and Islamic Jihad’s West Bank armed groups emboldened them to increase and officially adopt operations. This also encouraged cooperation between some Fatah-affiliated groups with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, indicating potential strategic goal convergence and effective resistance groups in cities like Nablus, Jenin, and Tulkarm.
These West Bank resistance groups have several characteristics enabling continuation and potential growth:
Local roots: Groups rely on local roots to sustain strength within an embracing social environment. Without this, resistance cannot survive immense pressure from Israel and sometimes PA security. Activities concentrate in Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, Jericho, and Hebron, reflecting a strategy based on local geography and alliances. This spatial focus adds a strategic layer facilitating mobilization, information gathering, and local support.
Decentralized structure: Resistance has a decentralized structure led by flexible young activists. This flexibility enables unprecedented adaptability, making them highly effective and difficult for PA security or Israel to contain. Interlinked relationships with overlapping traditional factions like Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad add a new dimension to their composition, effectiveness, and public presence. While ideological legitimacy stems from factional affiliations, operational independence enables quick adaptation, making West Bank resistance reactions extremely difficult to predict, especially if Israel invades Gaza. Combining performance freedom with affiliation preservation adds a new cross-faction cooperation dimension to jointly confront Israel.
Increasing popular cover: Israel’s suppression attempts and Al-Aqsa and settler attack increases have actually strengthened armed groups’ popularity. Palestinians have completely lost faith in the two-state solution. Lions’ Den mobilized widespread 2022 protests despite limited resources, confirming broad support. A June 2022 poll showed increasing support for armed groups, with 71% backing attacks on settlers. A March 2022 poll showed 71% support armed attacks on settlers, reflecting growing perception of armed resistance as a legitimate response to unchecked settler violence that 75% see as Israeli policy.
The Palestinian Authority: Multiple Challenges
Resistance path and fate in the West Bank, especially post-Al-Aqsa flood, cannot be assessed without examining PA relations. At least three basic challenges overlap and interact between the PA and West Bank armed group dynamics, especially given the Al-Aqsa flood:
First: Al-Aqsa flood and legitimacy crisis
The current Gaza war and fallout pose existential challenges for the PA’s future. The PA is trying to take a middle ground, an equation it will likely fail to manage amid increasing Israeli, American and international pressure to condemn Hamas. Many Palestinians view the PA’s president and political approach rejecting armed resistance as complicit with Israel and the US.
The confidence crisis in Palestinian leadership is not new, rather dating back years, but now has greater scope regarding armed group support. A June 2022 poll showed Palestinian distrust of the PA and categorical rejection of its control over armed groups, with 80% opposing disarmament and 86% saying the PA cannot arrest members. This reflects a feeling these groups play more preventative roles against Israel than PA security mechanisms, which rarely confront army or settler incursions, maintain Israel coordination, and arrest or harass fighters.
Second: Political project and internal structure.
The failed Oslo Accords, still defended by the PA, cast a shadow over the PA’s record and its intertwined relationship with West Bank resistance. Rather than delivering statehood, Oslo led to stalemate and extensive Israeli control. The PA’s project failed to achieve anything, yet policies like security coordination with Israel remain, causing accusations of Israeli collusion. With declining institutional and security capacity, the PA is increasingly unable to maintain order even in its own areas, further weakening its legitimacy and increasing security chaos and clan weaponization. Three decades after Oslo, half of Palestinians believe the PA’s collapse or dissolution is in their interest, per a June 2022 poll.
Exacerbating PA legitimacy is political stagnation, with elections unheld since 2006 and growing West Bank-Gaza divide. President Abbas’ term expiration in 2009 created a leadership vacuum fueling instability. The ambiguous post-Abbas transition, given his advanced age, further darkens the scene. His absence would likely spark intense conflicts among PA security leaders competing for control.
Third: Fatah fragmentation
Successive crises have put Fatah on the brink, increasing possibilities of its fragmentation and armed resistance attractiveness among some members, especially those dissatisfied with the PA’s failure to contain them. A major contributing factor is Fatah’s poor performance in Palestinian university elections, like its loss to Hamas at Birzeit University in May 2022. This caused shock and resignations despite repression of Hamas members, eroding Fatah’s claim to represent Palestinian society and politics and increasing armed resistance attractiveness.
Pressures grow with an emerging semi-official structure within Fatah closely linked to the PA, seeking to impose central control over the movement. This caused polarization and leadership mistrust, prompting demands to separate the PA and Fatah. The ineffective PA alliance is increasingly seen as a betrayal of Fatah’s revolutionary ideals, fueling the feeling that armed approaches may be necessary. Fatah armed groups are thus not marginal, but rather translate deep frustration with the political leadership.
Scenarios in the West Bank
With Israeli escalation in Gaza, the West Bank remains in flux with possible scenarios affected by Gaza developments:
Large-scale confrontation: Escalating West Bank tensions indicate the situation could slide into expanded military resistance and protests. Multiple factors make this more likely than before. Gaza war will likely motivate attacks on Israel and military groups to intensify West Bank activities, especially in the north where groups are active. Tension points throughout the West Bank may escalate into sustained, violent clashes constituting fertile ground for an uprising. Growing numbers within Fatah also appear critical of the PA’s stance, possibly increasing armed action attractiveness. However, Fatah’s West Bank positions will largely determine sustained mass movement fate given its great influence.
Increased settler violence: Increased Al-Aqsa flood settler violence reinforces the above scenario, potentially catalyzing West Bank confrontation expansion and operations. Settler attacks on Palestinians, often with impunity and army protection, have markedly increased since Gaza war began. Evidence suggests the Hilltop Youth behind many attacks, estimated at hundreds across some 50 settlements, are from extreme right-wing factions supported by government ministers. By intensifying attacks, they aim to avenge Jews, deter Palestinians, prevent a Palestinian state, and displace Palestinians to establish a religious Jewish state. With the current extremist Israeli government, they enjoy political and security protection and have doubled down on extremism in rhetoric and actions. Laxity among most Israelis and encouragement from some like Finance Minister Smotrich fuels this phenomenon and tensions.
Hamas’ future in the West Bank: Despite Netanyahu announcing a goal of wiping out Hamas, past years show Israel and the PA cannot eliminate it, thanks to deep ideological and social structures built up over years. Hamas’ bases were majorly attacked after the 2007 split but it survived, maintaining popularity and legitimacy. Al-Aqsa flood bolstered its support, possibly reflected in increased military West Bank action. It may carry out operations against settlers, army, or within Israel and Jerusalem.
PA weakening or collapse: The PA faces a widespread legitimacy crisis, with declining public support. Inability to achieve tangible progress on issues like statehood, justice, and security has fueled growing discontent. If coupled with comprehensive West Bank confrontations, now more expected than ever given settler and army violence increases and Gaza war escalation, fears of West Bank displacement to Jordan, the PA could weaken to ineffectiveness or fully collapse. As credibility declined, ability to enforce law and maintain order sharply dropped, creating fertile ground for alternative regionalist and tribalist governance models and strengthening flexible, decentralized armed groups. Making this scenario likely are the PA’s current financial difficulties, expected to worsen as European countries reconsider aid after Al-Aqsa flood, further weakening security apparatuses heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Status quo maintenance: Though escalation scenarios remain most likely so far, some factors could prompt status quo maintenance. Israel may seek to prevent West Bank escalation given Gaza and possible northern fronts, depleting military resources, especially personnel. West Bank security challenges on multiple fronts would reduce ability to deploy forces, opening loopholes for armed groups. This Israeli interest may coincide with PA policies also avoiding uncontrollable escalation threatening its structure and future. Halting financial aid could push the PA to take harsher stances against protests and operations to control situations, prevent escalation, and preserve regional and international ties, especially security coordination with Israel.
Growing West Bank discontent over settler and army attacks creates an environment supportive of armed groups and protest action. It is a cycle where army and settler violence boosts resistance legitimacy and momentum, which then further inflames tensions potentially catalyzing a new uprising. Much of West Bank resistance developments will depend on Gaza situation evolutions.
Dr.. Mahmoud Jarabaa, a researcher specializing in Palestinian affairs and its regional intersections. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. Jarabaa is currently a researcher at the Erlangen Institute for the Study of Islam and Law in Europe, and previously worked in a number of research centers such as the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the Max Planck Institute for Anthropological Research, and the Bavarian Academy for the Humanities.REFERENCE
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