Palestinian strife highlights lost hopes of armed youths


Nablus was a battered city. Shops gaped open to the street, their windows smashed. Street signs were overturned. Ash stained the roads. Armored vehicles roamed the city center, still pockmarked and splattered with paint from a day of protests.

The destruction resembled the aftermath of firefights between Palestinian youths and the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank's second-largest city, where posters of killed Palestinians paper the old city's limestone walls. But this time, Israel was not involved. The violent chaos on Tuesday that left a 53-year-old man dead erupted between Palestinians and their own security forces, who coordinate with Israel in an uneasy alliance against Islamic militants.

The rare outburst, coming amid the deadliest violence in the West Bank since 2016, underscored the internal divisions tearing at Palestinian society and cast a spotlight on the growing ranks of disillusioned, impoverished young men taking up arms.

Many have spent their entire lives in a territory occupied by Israel, scarred by infighting and segmented by checkpoints. They have not known a national election since 2006. They have no hope in the long-stalemated peace process. Their aging president, Mahmoud Abbas, is in his 18th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. They see his Palestinian Authority as a vehicle for corruption and collaboration with Israel.

The clashes erupted after Palestinian forces arrested two men, including Musab Ishtayyeh, a popular local militant wanted by Israel. A 26-year-old man who lives in the area said that although the sides reached a truce, further violence was likely unless Ishtayyeh is released.

"I do not recognize the presidency of Abu Mazen," he said, voicing a popular sentiment in the neighborhood. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared arrest.

"There is no difference between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," he added, saying the Palestinian security forces "want to burn the resistance and kill those who fight."

The latest violence stems from a series of deadly Palestinian attacks inside Israel last spring, which triggered a surge in nightly Israeli arrest raids across the territory. Some 90 Palestinians have been killed in the crackdown. Israel says many were militants or local youths who hurled stones and firebombs at troops, though several civilians have also died.

Experts say the escalation has deeper roots in a power struggle, as Palestinian leaders vie over the succession of the 87-year-old Abbas.

"The leadership vacuum is trickling down from the top all the way down. High-level members are trying to rally their supporters for doomsday," said Tahani Mustafa, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. "In these sorts of contexts, radicalism really thrives."

A lack of opportunity and political horizon has also fueled the unrest. Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and its military occupation shows no signs of ending.

The last round of substantive peace talks broke down in 2009, and Israel has steadily consolidated its control of the territory with ever expanding construction of settlements that are now home to some 500,000 Jews. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, along with Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, for a future state.

Widely disenchanted with the PA, young Palestinians are flocking to an array of militant groups to get weapons. Palestinian security has struggled to assert control in flashpoint cities in the northern West Bank, like Nablus and Jenin.

The instability has consequences for Israel, which depends on cooperation with Palestinian security, and for the United States and other countries that have relied on the PA to establish order in the West Bank and serve as a partner in stalled peace negotiations.

"We need the PA to operate as a buffer between us and all the (Palestinian) organizations," said Michael Milstein, a former head of the Palestinian department in Israeli military intelligence. "The test has only just begun."

Palestinian security officials declined to comment on this week's violence or the reasons for their unpopularity.

In recent months, the Israeli military has grown frustrated with what it describes as the PA's reluctance to maintain order in flashpoint cities under its control.

"The PA has the manpower, the ammunition and the arms," said one Israeli military official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with military guidelines. "In certain places, we feel they don't have the will."

The official said the army has seized 300 guns since Israel began its West Bank raids. He said the arms come mainly from small factories that make improvised pistols, or are smuggled from Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon. Some guns stolen from the military also make their way to the West Bank.

Wednesday's truce temporarily halted the fighting, but the streets still bristled with tension and an armed group vowed to continue the battle on behalf of their arrested comrades.

"We will not abandon our brother … who is wanted by the occupation forces and is currently kidnapped," the militant group, named the Den of Lions, wrote to the AP.

The group, based in the stone warren of the old city, is tied to Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a prominent militant who was killed in an Israeli raid last month. His photo is on coffee stands, graffiti, posters and necklaces worn by children in Nablus. The Palestinian security services identified him as the son of one of their own colonels — a schism that illustrates how younger Palestinians, who grew up during the searing violence of the second Palestinian intifada, have lost faith in their leaders.

Many Palestinians see their security forces as protecting Israel against Palestinian protests, not Palestinians from Israeli assaults. The forces also have faced widespread criticism over brutal tactics, like last year when riots erupted over an anti-corruption activist's death in custody.

Gangs of young Palestinian men are increasingly firing at Israeli forces during raids or shooting at soldiers manning checkpoints. The gangs operate without the backing of traditional political factions and militant groups.

Last week, two Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier at a military checkpoint in the northern West Bank before they were shot dead. One of the attackers was a Palestinian security officer.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and Cabinet minister, acknowledged there is little public faith in the Palestinian leadership. He blamed a lack of hope and repeated Israeli measures that have weakened the Palestinian Authority.

"If everybody would maintain the same attitude and practices," he warned, "we are going gradually toward the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and chaos in Palestinian society."