Palestinians fear West Bank becoming 'new Gaza' after brutal Israeli raid

A 50-hour military operation on Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarm has created new fear in the hearts of Palestinians

The National reports from Nur Shams camp in the West Bank

The National reports from Nur Shams camp in the West Bank
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A crowd of men gather in a narrow alley of Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarm in the occupied West Bank.

They are frantic as they describe a 50-hour Israeli military raid on their community that concluded the previous day, killing 14 people.

All residents The National spoke to say the operation was by far the worst they have seen.

The men in the alley only have to hold out their arms to prove their point. In a crowd of 10, half have identical 1cm-wide scars running round their wrists, which they say come from their skin being rubbed raw by handcuffs.

Some have other injuries: one man’s face is bruised all over, another has bruised ribs and a third an injury on his knee from a rifle butt.

“The soldiers took us from our homes, handcuffed us and put me in an armoured vehicle for two days,” one says.

“They gave us no water and it was boiling hot – we were like chickens in the back of a truck,” he adds.

As the men and boys pile in with their stories, another points to a wall behind them, which is splattered with the blood of Jihad Niyaz Jaber, 15, who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper from an overlooking building.

“My boy died on his birthday,” his father says, standing at the spot where his son’s body lay for hours.

“I sent him to buy things from the shop and he never came back.

“He loved life and wanted to live normally. His grandfather built him a small villa in the hills above Nur Shams to keep him out of the camp for his safety. He was even going to give Jihad a 4x4 but my son wanted to stay.”

Adding to the father’s horror are reports from people who were in the alley at the time that Jihad’s body was desecrated and kicked by the soldiers.

The men point to small dent in the ground. One scoops dust out of it, showing a crater that looks like a bullet hole.

“This is where they shot him point-blank in the head, after he already died,” one says.

Nur Shams residents are used to raids. The camp is among the most targeted in the West Bank. The last major Israeli operation there took place in January, killing eight.

Israel's military told The National that in the latest operation they "eliminated 14 terrorists in close-quarters combat, apprehended 15 wanted suspects, seized numerous weapons, and destroyed dozens of explosive devices as well as two terror explosives laboratories".

But no one was prepared for the brutality of this latest one. Everyone The National spoke to in the camp on Monday said the conduct of the Israeli soldiers had reached unprecedented levels of aggression and cruelty.

“Nur Shams became a little Gaza,” says Umm Ibrahim, 60, who lives on the alley.

It is a grave comparison to make but one that many in the camp believe is accurate.

Israel’s response in Gaza, featuring heavy bombardment and a ground invasion, has killed about 34,200 people, mostly civilians. But the West Bank, too, is experiencing its worst violence for years, with about 500 killed since the Gaza war erupted.

By contrast, 300 people were killed in the West Bank in the whole of 2023, which was then one of the most violent years since the intifada against the Israelis in the early 2000s.

In Nur Shams, people say the treatment of captives, the injured and the dead are the new military tactics that made this raid different.

“The soldiers used to come in first and only then fire heavy missiles,” one man says.

“Now, like in Gaza, they bomb heavily first and only then come in with soldiers and dogs.”

Another who was handcuffed in an armoured vehicle said an Israeli soldier told him “I’m the commander from hell” and that “the only good Arab is a dead Arab”.

The Israeli army said 10 of those killed in the operation were members of armed groups, although they failed to kill or capture Abu Shuja, the militant leader in the camp, who The National saw walking in the open on Monday.

At least 10 others could be seen roaming the alleys, carrying M16 rifles and some clad in body armour.

“This operation will not deter us,” one 20-year-old militant belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad says. “It will only create more fighters.”

But not all are so determined after the raid, which sent shock waves throughout the West Bank.

In a house just down the alley from where Jihad Niyaz Jaber was killed, a young, smartly dressed couple, both with tears still in their eyes, struggle to come to terms with the death of Abu Fahim, a militant who ran into their house after being shot in search of medical aid.

“He asked us to forgive him but we were the first people he could find to help him,” says Rinad, who did not disclose her full name for security reasons.

“It was my duty to help him. I tied tourniquets, gave him water and covered him with blankets.”

Abu Fahim lay there for hours, as the couple tried to stop the bleeding from his legs.

Rinad’s husband, Mohamed, then describes the moment Israeli soldiers entered the house in pursuit of Abu Fahim.

“They told all of us to leave and then they killed him. I was hoping they would take him alive,” he says, crying.

“I don’t want young guys to become militants.

“I want to tell them their life is more important than that. I know these boys. I know that we’re in a fight but I don’t want them to die for nothing. What did they achieve?”

The couple have a young child who they say cannot face going home to where Abu Fahim was killed.

A number of children in the camp are similarly traumatised. The parents of one three-year-old say their child has regressed to saying only “mummy” and “daddy” after the raid.

His parents say he also keeps picking up objects from the ground and then starts mimicking a soldier shooting a weapon.

Residents were scrambling to rebuild their lives on Monday, repairing the destroyed electricity and water supply, clearing rubble of buildings and roads torn up by bulldozers or tending to residents most traumatised by the raid.

But the cost of reconstruction will be as much as 50 million shekels ($13.2 million), one senior Palestinian Authority official estimated.

As the day came to a close, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa’s large convoy approached the camp but did not turn inside.

The senior politician, who represents an administration increasingly at odds with ordinary West Bank residents, particularly those in refugee camps, was not welcome to many.

In a sign of quite how much the PA is losing control of its people, The National heard one senior militant grant permission for the Prime Minister’s convoy to enter the vicinity of the camp.

It was yet another sign on Monday, along with the damage, trauma and rage in Nur Shams, that while the war in Gaza continues, the situation in the West Bank, even with less attention, is fast deteriorating.

Updated: April 26, 2024, 12:26 PM