Inside a Palestinian militant cell in the West Bank


Zoufi, the commander of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the Balata refugee camp, sits in a local barbershop in the West Bank city of Nablus. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The man in the black Adidas tracksuit sat in the crowded barbershop and took yet another phone call.

He had been awake for more than 24 hours and his eyes were red-rimmed as his teenage attendant held a cellphone to his ear, allowing him to lean forward wearily, hands crossed in his lap.

The man, known by his childhood nickname of Zoufi, listened for a moment, murmured a few words and turned to two other black-clad men in the shop.

Two families were fighting, and guns were involved, a common crisis in Nablus’s Balata refugee camp — a tightly packed community of more than 30,000 impoverished Palestinians and no proper police force. The man named a location. “Go,” Zoufi said. “Take your weapons.”

“Yes, abuna,” one said as they hurried out the door carrying assault rifles, using the Arabic term for “our father.”

“Everyone here is calling me ‘father’ now,” said Zoufi, 37, leaning back and cradling a modified M16 assault rifle on his knees. A young boy reached out to touch the gun. “I am forced to be the policeman, the father, the guard.”

Zoufi is the commander of the camp’s branch of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is listed as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. He founded the armed militant cell just over a year ago as Israeli military raids spiked across the West Bank.

The Washington Post spent time with him and some of his 15 fighters, as well as with militants in two other Palestinian refugee camps — Jenin and Askar — over three days in July. The visits, agreed to on the condition that full names and specific locations be withheld, afforded a rare window into the lives and actions of fighters on one side of the worst violence to grip the West Bank in decades.

The toll is grim and growing. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed since January, most in Israeli military raids; at least 22 Israelis have died in shootings, stabbings, car rammings and other attacks by Palestinians. Last month, Israel sent hundreds of soldiers, backed by air cover, into Jenin’s refugee camp, a show of force not seen in the West Bank in 20 years.

Israel says the raids are essential for breaking up terrorist cells and protecting Israeli citizens. As the mayhem has spread, though, hundreds of Palestinians like Zoufi have jumped into the fight. Some are aligned with organized cells — al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad. Others act alone or with loosely organized groups such as the Lions’ Den in Nablus.

Many say they were compelled to take up arms because the Palestinian Authority has stayed on the sidelines. Limited in power, sapped by corruption and largely absent from these lawless camps, Palestinian leaders and the security forces they command have mostly stood by as the Israel Defense Forces have made more than 1,340 arrests across the West Bank this year.

Israel, which depends on the Palestinian Authority to keep order in the occupied West Bank, accuses Palestinian officials of letting militants operate freely and of allowing thousands of smuggled or homemade weapons to flood the territory. In turn, many Palestinians see their government as another arm of the occupation, sharing intelligence with Israel and arresting fighters from rival political factions to shore up its diminishing power.

‘Guns are everywhere’ in Israel, occupied territories as violence spikes

The resulting vacuum has turned the camps into outposts of armed anarchy. Militant groups often are the only authority.

“We are not connected to the P.A.,” Zoufi said, referring to the Palestinian Authority. “They are corrupt and affiliated with the Israelis. They drive fancy cars; you see how we live.”

Making contact with Zoufi and his fighters meant navigating a clandestine network of intermediaries inside the camps. After being handed off by a string of trusted escorts — walking along narrow lanes laced with sagging electric cables and papered with posters of slain fighters — the Post reporters were led to a room deep inside Balata Camp.

Several men there were eating mana’eesh, a flatbread with za’atar. Weapons rested in their laps or against the walls.

“Welcome. Yalla, join us,” said one man, known in the camp as Goblin.

Zoufi has been an on-and-off fighter, his life mirroring the rhythm of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

He was active in the second intifada as a teenager and served more than six years in Israel’s Megiddo Prison for shooting and wounding a Jewish settler. He was released in 2008 and joined a branch of the Palestinian Authority security services for several years. But he found he could make more money at building sites in Israel.

He bought his M16 for $20,000 with the money he earned working construction in Tel Aviv. That life ended last year when he started the Balata cell of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, making him a target for Israeli snipers, a rogue irritant to the Palestinian Authority and an unlikely elder in the refugee camp, which he seldom leaves.

He and five friends began offering logistical support to fighters at the end of 2022 as IDF raids heated up. They started wielding their own weapons as a formal unit after a major Israeli incursion into Nablus in February that killed 11, including someone close to Zoufi.

“When you kill a friend, a fighter is born,” Zoufi said, handing a half-eaten chunk of ka’ak — a Palestinian sesame bread — to the attendant always nearby with an M16 of his own.

The 19-year-old subordinate, nicknamed Sheamus, nodded. He joined the brigade after seeing his best friend shot to death by Israeli soldiers as the two were throwing rocks, he said. “Before that, I was normal.”

An Israeli military official said the army was monitoring the new Balata cell, part of a surge of younger Palestinians who Israeli authorities have observed taking up arms over the past year. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the wave is being driven by the feebleness of the Palestinian Authority, social media fervor and the availability of illegal weapons.

“They call themselves the ‘sons of the camp,’” said the official. “They are fighting the IDF, but they are not really identifying with any of the big terror organizations, not really identifying with the Palestinian Authority. Their goal is to turn the camp into a fortress.”

The Palestinian Authority, teetering on collapse, is tested in Jenin

On a couch in the alley, another fighter dozed, his right arm locked in a steel medical brace, several wounds visible. Ammar, 38, was shot multiple times during a shootout with Israeli soldiers outside the Elon Moreh settlement near Nablus in April but managed to escape. Two of his fellow gunmen were killed.

Ammar stirred. He pulled a 20 shekel note out with his good arm. “Go get coffee,” he said, spurring several boys to jump forward, eager to run the errand.

The fighters, who inspire both fear and fealty, enjoy cultlike status in the camp. There are no sports teams here. Male unemployment is nearing 90 percent. With few role models of any kind, boys collect stickers, posters and necklaces bearing images of slain militants.

They follow the living ones in the streets, vying for attention and the chance to hold one of the weapons that are smuggled into the camp, many of them stolen or purchased illicitly from Israeli armories.

“What else are they going to be, government ministers?” asked a fighter, Mahmoud, 28, whose M16 is marked in Hebrew and bears the emblem of “Hetz,” an ultra-Orthodox paratrooper company. “The young ones take pictures with me. They say they want to be like me.”

Mahmoud grew up admiring the men “who carried the weapons.” His brother, a fighter, was killed in a raid last year. He joined al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade nine months ago, after the death of his mother. He lives alone now, unemployed and rarely sleeping in the same place twice.

“I felt my life ended with hers,” he said. “Now, it is only in the eyes of the people that I feel love.”

In the daylight hours, the men rested out of the sun and watched TikTok videos, many of them showing the funerals of militants killed in recent Israeli raids.

The Balata fighters have taken part in all of the fights inside the camp since they formed last year, and some outside. They raced to the nearby Old City of Nablus in July when soldiers killed two militants. And they made the longer trip to Jenin in early July during Israel’s two-day incursion that left 12 Palestinian fighters and one Israeli soldier dead.

The different cells are loosely coordinated, the fighters said, even those affiliated with different Palestinian factions: Islamic Jihad and Hamas and the Lions’ Den, a nascent group in Nablus that has been all but demolished by raids and arrests.

“I was side by side with the Lions’ Den,” said Issam, 30, a Balata fighter who says he was shot in the back while escaping an Israeli raid in June.

The 15 fighters in the Balata brigade are all associated with the Fatah, the dominant faction in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. But they say their funding for weapons comes from individuals who give to many of the militant groups.

Goblin said: “In the end, forget about the names. We are one fighting group; we are holding the weapon against one enemy.”

As Fatah fighters, the men say, they are not as harassed by the authority as those affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. But they accuse local security forces of subcontracting their wanted status to the Israelis.

“We know guys in P.A. security,” said Goblin. “They said, ‘Be careful. They have turned your files over to Israel.’”

Well after dark, a fighter known as Udai took the Post reporters in a car out of Balata. He was heading to the nearby Askar Camp to join in the celebration for a fighter who had just been released after 21 years in prison.

As they passed a group of Palestinian Authority security vehicles with lights flashing, Udai crouched down in his seat. “We have the government with us,” he said with dread. “It is always difficult to be outside of the camp.”

‘No innocent Israelis’

The fighters’ days are punctuated by calls and messages about clashes between families. The men said almost 20 ongoing disputes — as varied as property quarrels and retaliatory violence — take time to police.

“If those families would bring their weapons and point them at the Israelis, we would be far more powerful,” Goblin said.

One local complaint involved a 19-year-old accused of soliciting money in the name of the brigade but keeping it for himself.

Goblin confronted the slim teenager, who turned and ran to the couch where Ammar was sleeping.

Goblin slapped the boy. “You will not steal again,” he yelled, striking him in the forehead with the stock of his rifle.

Other fighters grabbed Goblin’s gun. Ammar awoke with the young man cowering. “Leave him,” he told Goblin, who turned away in a fury.

Later, another skinny teen came into the room carrying a soft-sided cooler. Goblin gestured him over and pulled from the container a pipe wrapped in black tape and capped with a brass fitting and a fuse. And then a yellow orb the size of a large onion.

The “melon” bomb came from China, he said, but they make the pipe explosives here, using fertilizer and gunpowder taken from bullets. The fighters plant them at the camp entrances when they suspect a raid is coming or throw them like grenades at approaching soldiers.

Most of the fighters said they are focused on defense, shooting back at Israeli forces that enter the camps. But several said Jewish settlers in the West Bank also are considered fair targets.

They spoke admiringly of gunmen who ambushed Israeli civilians, including an attack last year outside a Tel Aviv pub that killed three Israelis and a mass shooting at a West Bank gas station that left four Israelis dead in June. They spoke of a secret “quick response” team — “Even we don’t know who they are,” Goblin said — two of whom carried out the gas station shooting.

“There are no innocent Israelis,” said a Jenin-based fighter who knew the Tel Aviv shooter. “They kill our women and children. We will do the same.”

Zoufi and the fighters he commands have no illusions about the likely end of the lives they have chosen. For most, death feels like a calling.

Goblin shrugged, a gesture of both pride and fatalism.

“We are tomorrow’s martyrs,” he said.


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