“I would hate to make my parents cry,” said 28-year-old Yousef Hosni Hammour, a close friend of Ezzeddin Hamamrah, the group’s late founder. “But I am ready to die a martyr.”
Similar scenes are set in the West Bank. From the refugee camp in northern Jenin to the southern city of Hebron, small groups of disillusioned young Palestinians are taking up arms against Israel’s indefinite occupation and defying Palestinian political leaders who despise them as collaborators with Israel.
With fluid and overlapping ties, these groups have no clear ideology and operate independently of traditional chains of command – even when receiving support from established militant groups. Fighters from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other organizations attended the ceremony in Jaba last week.
In near-daily arrests over the past year, Israel has sought to crush the fledgling militias, sparking a wave of deaths and unrest unseen in nearly two decades.
While Israel insists the escalated raids are designed to prevent future attacks, Palestinians say the intensified violence has radicalized men too young to remember Israel’s brutal crackdown on the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago, which served as a deterrent. served elderly Palestinians.
This new generation has grown up uniquely thwarted in an area torn apart by power struggles and fragmented by barriers and checkpoints.
More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since early 2023, after Israel’s right-wing government in history took office. About half were militants killed in clashes with Israel, according to an Associated Press tally, though the dead include stone-throwers and bystanders not involved in violence.
Palestinian attacks have killed at least 15 Israelis during that time, including two Israelis shot Sunday in the town of Hawara, just south of Jaba. In response, Israeli settlers set fire to dozens of buildings – a frenzy that also killed one Palestinian.
“It’s like the new government has let go of the hands of soldiers and settlers and said they can do what they want now,” said Jamal Khalili, a member of the Jaba City Council.
At the recent memorial service, children with black militant bands on their foreheads gathered around the gunmen, longing for a glimpse of their heroes.
“The result is what you see here,” Khalili added.
Last week, an Israeli military incursion into the northern city of Nablus sparked a firefight with Palestinian militants that left 10 people dead. The raid targeted the most prominent of the emerging armed groups, the Lion’s Den.
Israeli security officials claim the army has crippled the Nablus-based Lion’s Den in recent months, killing or arresting most of its key members. But they recognize that the gunmen, who roam the ancient city of Nablus pumping out slick Telegram videos with a carefully honed message of heroic defiance, are now inspiring new attacks across the territory.
“The Lions’ Den is becoming an idea that we see everywhere,” said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence investigation. Instead of throwing rocks or firebombs, militants now mainly open fire, he said, using M-16s that have often been smuggled out of Jordan or stolen from Israeli military bases.
The official said the army was monitoring the Jaba group and others in the northern cities of Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem. But he acknowledged that the military has difficulty gathering intelligence on the small, loosely organized militant groups.
The Palestinian self-governing government controls parts of the West Bank and works closely with the Israeli military against its domestic rivals, especially the militant Hamas group, which controls the Gaza Strip.
With young Palestinians increasingly seeing the Palestinian Authority as an arm of the Israeli security forces rather than the foundation for a future state, the Palestinian security forces resent intervening against the nascent militias. Palestinian troops now rarely venture into militant strongholds such as the old city of Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp, according to residents and the Israeli military.
Jaba militants said Palestinian security forces have not cracked down on them. Residents said the group, which was formed last September, has quickly grown to some 40 to 50 militants.
Hammour described the Palestinian leadership as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary Palestinians. But, he said, “Our goals are much bigger than creating problems with the Palestinian Authority.”
As the PA’s popularity plummets, experts say it can’t risk stirring up tensions by arresting widely admired fighters.
The PA is “experiencing a crisis of legitimacy,” said Tahani Mustafa, Palestinian analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There is a huge gulf between elites at the top and the groups on the ground.”
Palestinian officials acknowledge that their grip is slipping.
“We fear that all our actions against (these groups) will trigger a backlash on the streets,” said a Palestinian intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
As the Israeli army ramps up its incursions, the West Bank’s power structure falters, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government expands settlements on occupied land, frustrated Palestinians say they are not pursuing any Islamist or political agenda — they just want to defend their cities and defend themselves. resist Israel’s 55-year occupation.
For 28-year-old Mohammed Alaweh, whose two brothers were killed in clashes with Israeli forces two decades apart, the Jaba group is a “reaction”. He said he could support peace if it meant the end of the occupation and the formation of a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. For now, he said, it is clear that Israel does not want peace.
Hamamrah, the late commander of the Jaba group, threw stones at the Israeli army as a teenager and later joined an armed branch of Fatah, the party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, according to his mother Lamia. After 10 painful months in Israeli prison, he became religious and withdrawn. He talked about getting revenge.
After his death, Lamia learned that he had helped form the Jaba group and that Islamic Jihad had supplied them with weapons, including the one Hamamrah fired at Israeli forces on January 14.
The army chased him to Jaba and killed Hamamrah along with another gunman, Amjad Khleleyah. Their crushed and blood-stained car now stands as a macabre monument in the center of Jaba.
At his funeral, Lamia said that Hamamrah’s friends urged her to be proud of a son who became a fighter and inspired the entire village.
But Lamia cried and cried. Her 14-year-old daughter Malak now also wants to die as a martyr.
“I’m just a mother who lost her son,” she said. “I want this all to stop.”