Killing of Young Gunman Highlights Shifts in Fast-Changing West Bank

NABLUS, West Bank — The short life and bloody death of Ibrahim al-Nabulsi encapsulated why both Palestinians and Israelis fear that a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank will not end soon.

Mr. al-Nabulsi, 18, was the son of a senior intelligence officer in the Palestinian Authority, the body that administers parts of the West Bank in close coordination with Israel.

But the younger al-Nabulsi took a different path, taking up arms against Israel instead of quietly working with it. Last month, the young gunman was killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers, one of more than 80 Palestinians, as well as two Israeli army and police officers, killed in the West Bank this year.

“As a father, it was hard for me to tell him not to get involved in this,” said his father, Col. Alaa al-Nabulsi, 53. “What else could I tell him? That it’s OK to live a life of humiliation?”

The death of the younger al-Nabulsi, a well-known figure in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, came amid the deadliest violence in the territory since 2015.

To Palestinians, the escalation is the result of a surge in Israeli raids in the West Bank since March that have led to the arrest of over 1,500 Palestinians — and, more generally, an inevitable outcome of the entrenchment of the occupation since the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. Israelis say the military actions are a necessary response to a surge in attacks by Arabs that killed 19 Israelis and foreigners this spring.

A fire broke out during skirmishes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in the Old City of Nablus amid overnight raids by the Israeli military in July.Credit…Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Both Palestinian and Israeli analysts, however, agree that the escalation also reflects shifts and tensions in Palestinian society. The increasingly authoritarian behavior of the Palestinian leadership, coupled with its inability to dislodge the Israeli occupation and further the cause of statehood, has alienated and frustrated many young Palestinians — and led to friction within the leadership itself.

Those tensions are apparent in splits from and divisions within Fatah, the secular party that controls the Palestinian Authority — as well as in the growing unpopularity of the authority’s leaders. That has made the government body more wary of intervening against Palestinian militants like the younger al-Nabulsi, giving them greater leeway to attack Israeli targets. And it has led to the formation of new alliances of militants operating independently of traditional Palestinian chains of command.

Underlying all of those tensions are growing frictions among Palestinian leaders as they jockey to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, the authority’s 87-year-old president.

For years, analysts have predicted that Mr. Abbas’s death or departure might herald a new wave of violence, not only against Israelis but also among Palestinians as they fight for power.

A senior Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing army protocol, said he believed that such instability had already started, even while Mr. Abbas is still in office.

A Palestinian flag flutters in the heart of the Old City of Nablus, where Mr. al-Nabulsi’s armed group was based.Credit…Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some of these dynamics were illustrated by the life of Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, who was born into a family of Fatah members. His father had spent his career helping to crack down on outlaws like the one his son later became. As part of that work, Colonel al-Nabulsi’s intelligence service regularly coordinated with Israeli counterparts — an unpopular arrangement that the authority’s leaders nevertheless saw as a necessary means of maintaining Israel’s trust, ending the occupation and securing future statehood.

The younger al-Nabulsi grew disillusioned with that approach, Colonel al-Nabulsi said. The occupation remained in place, and the Palestinian Authority increasingly seemed like an arm of the Israeli security forces, rather than a state in waiting.

At 15, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi joined a network of fighters aiming to take on Israel, Colonel al-Nabulsi said. An armed group linked to Fatah later claimed him as their own, but the reality was more complex.

This summer, Mr. al-Nabulsi helped found a separate armed group, based in the Old City of Nablus, and linked to a rise in local violence. The number of drive-by shootings at Israeli military checkpoints near the city — some of it led by Mr. al-Nabulsi himself — has more than doubled since last year, according to Israeli military records.

The group is named Arin al-Asoud, or Den of the Lions. In interviews this month, fighters said the group included those from Fatah families, like Mr. al-Nabulsi — but also those with connections to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group whose Gaza wing in August fought in a brief conflict with Israel. Traditionally a rival of the secular Fatah, Islamic Jihad has become more appealing to some dissidents from secular backgrounds because of its opposition to the Palestinian Authority, analysts said.

Palestinian militants at the funeral of Mr. al-Nabulsi last month. Next to the rubble at the safe house where he was hiding, militants have made a makeshift memorial.Credit…Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

The alliance of secular and Islamist young people reflected Fatah’s weakening grip on the Palestinian street. A similar dynamic exists in Jenin, another city in the northern West Bank, where fighters said in an interview that young Fatah supporters had joined forces with militants from Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip.

Young Palestinians are “no longer waiting for their leaders’ decisions,” said Tayseer Nasrallah, a veteran Fatah leader in Nablus who supports Mr. Abbas. “We told them Oslo would get us a state, reduce settlements, win back Jerusalem,” he said. “But the settlements increased. Jerusalem is surrounded. Why would they listen to us?”

Mr. al-Nabulsi’s rise also reflected the growing reluctance of the Palestinian Authority to intervene against fighters like him.

In 2018, the authority detained Mr. al-Nabulsi for several months.

Four years later, the authority would not arrest him again, even after Israeli officials passed on information about his activities, the senior Israeli military official said.

Instead, Mr. al-Nabulsi and his group were able to establish an almost autonomous zone within part of the Old City of Nablus, a labyrinth of narrow limestone alleys and archways, according to observations by two reporters for The New York Times during several recent visits.

The authority has long struggled to maintain total control over parts of Nablus, including the Old City. But today, its sway in the quarter appears more tenuous than ever.

On a recent weekend, Times reporters saw militants from Mr. al-Nabulsi’s group patrolling the alleys of the Old City, carrying assault rifles and pledging to fire on the authority’s police force if it tried to enter the quarter. Police officers stayed several blocks from the area, even as roughly 60 masked militants with rifles held a noisy rally on a cordoned-off street.

Asked why the Palestinian police has avoided confronting militants in the Old City, the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said that the authority did not want to needlessly inflame tensions for the sake of bolstering Israeli politicians’ election campaigns.

“One funeral generates another funeral,” he said in a brief telephone interview.

But analysts say that the authority is wary of intervening against gunmen with family connections to Fatah because that would risk aggravating the organization’s internal crisis.

“These are manifestations of deep internal problems within Fatah,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, the head of the Horizon Center, a political research firm in the West Bank.

“If they move against it, they’re moving against their own backbone of supporters,” Mr. Dalalsha said. And that, he added, “could lead to even wider confrontations not only with the gunmen, but also with their families.”

Many analysts say that Islamic Jihad and Hamas are helping to fund groups like Mr. al-Nabulsi’s.

Palestinians searched for bodies of those killed by Israeli troops during the raid on the house where Mr. al-Nabulsi died last month. Palestinians say the recent escalation in the West Bank is the result of a surge in such raids.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

But some also say that the group is backed or even armed by dissident factions within Fatah, who are seeking to build up private militias ahead of a post-Abbas power vacuum.

“Now it’s a race to get the most weapons, so that they can be the strongest after Abu Mazen dies,” said Mohammad al-Emsame, a senior member of a more established armed group that has long dominated a separate neighborhood in southern Nablus, referring to Mr. Abbas by a nickname.

In interviews with The Times, several Fatah dissident leaders denied knowledge of such a plan. But one powerful Fatah leader in Nablus known for his criticism of Mr. Abbas, Jamal Tirawi, said that individual Fatah members might have donated small amounts of money to the militants after attending Friday Prayer at mosques in the Old City.

“You see a donation box, and you give 100 shekels,” or roughly $30, said Mr. Tirawi. “Little by little, that number increases.”

With the authority reluctant to get involved, elite Israeli soldiers raided the Old City in Nablus early on Aug. 9, some of them disguised as house painters, witnesses said. The witnesses declined to give their names, citing fear of reprisals.

After an hourslong standoff, the soldiers broke into the limestone safe house where Mr. al-Nabulsi was hiding, forcing their way in with shoulder-launched rockets and killing him.

But while it quelled one threat to Israel, the young militant’s killing may inspire others in the future.

Today, the ruined safe house has become a shrine to Mr. al-Nabulsi. Next to the rubble, the militants have made a makeshift memorial from what they said was Mr. al-Nabulsi’s last meal — a bag of bread, two packets of chocolate and a bottle of banana and strawberry juice that now has mold floating on its surface.

On a recent weekend, a steady stream of young Palestinians paid their respects, taking selfies next to the moldy food and a sheet stained with what residents said was Mr. al-Nabulsi’s blood. Outside, teenage militants wandered the alleys with their guns, photographs of Mr. al-Nabulsi hanging from their necks.

One said he hoped he would be next.

“Let them come,” he said of the Israeli soldiers. “We want them to come.”

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Nablus, West Bank, and Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem.

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