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In a West Bank refugee camp, Israel’s raids fuel the militancy it tries to stamp out

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NUR SHAMS REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — An Israeli army raid in April set off a near three-day gunbattle with Palestinian militants. By the time it was over, homes had been blasted to rubble and many residents had fled.

The raid wasn’t in Gaza, where Israel is at war with Hamas, but more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away in the Nur Shams refugee camp in the West Bank — a territory that has been under Israeli military rule for over a half-century.

The persistence of Palestinian militancy in the West Bank, and its surge since the war in Gaza began, shows the limits of Israel’s military might as the decades-old conflict grinds on with little prospect of a political settlement.

Israeli leaders portray the southern Gaza city of Rafah as Hamas’ last bastion, suggesting that a long-elusive victory in the war ignited by the militants’ Oct. 7 attack may be at hand. They have vowed to maintain open-ended security control over Gaza and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In the West Bank, that approach has been met with waves of armed struggle over the years. The battered streets of Nur Shams are testament to a low-level but stubborn insurgency and offer a vivid illustration of what Gaza might be like after the war.

A THREE-DAY RAID

Nur Shams, in the northern West Bank, is one of several urban refugee camps that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in what became the new state.

The impoverished camps, scattered across the Middle East, have long been bastions for Palestinian militants. Residents of Nur Shams are used to army raids but say the Apr. 18 operation was unlike anything they had ever seen.

Gunfire and airstrikes rang out late that evening. Over the following three days, Israeli troops advanced deep into the camp, raiding homes, demolishing buildings and digging up roads and sewage pipes with armored bulldozers.

“You feel that these forces come here to train in the camp before they go to Gaza the next day,” said Qasim Nimr, a prisoner rights advocate who sheltered in his home during the raid. His nephew and his neighbor were among 14 Palestinians killed in the raid, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Nehayah al-Jundi, a community activist who runs a center for disabled children, said over 60 homes in the camp have been destroyed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, as well as one of the few recreational centers in the deprived area. She said 72 families have had to relocate.

The Israeli army said in a statement the raid targeted militants. Armed groups active in the camp said 10 of the slain Palestinian men where militants.

A military official, who was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity, said the demolition of homes and roads was to root out land mines and underground weapons caches.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says over 500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war. Most have been killed during Israeli raids and violent protests, though the dead also include innocent bystanders and Palestinians killed in attacks by Jewish settlers.

The military official said the army has stepped up operations because of a rise in attacks on Israelis, adding that it can operate with a freer hand now that it no longer has to worry as much about retaliatory strikes from Hamas in Gaza.

A HOMETOWN HERO

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group operating in Nur Shams, initially announced that its leader in the camp, known as Abu Shujaa, had been killed.

But then the wiry-framed commander made a surprise appearance at the funeral for the other militants. In a video published on social media, he is seen being hoisted into the air by a cheering crowd as nearby militants offload rounds of celebratory gunfire.

Leading militants are reticent to appear in public, but signs of their presence are everywhere.

A large black Islamic Jihad flag billows at the entrance to the camp, and the streets are lined with posters depicting slain fighters seen as martyrs to the Palestinian struggle. Young men and also children carrying walkie-talkies patrol the alleys beneath black plastic canopies hung to conceal their movements from Israeli aircraft.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three territories for a future state. The last serious peace talks broke down more than 15 years ago, and Israel’s government is opposed to a Palestinian state, partly because it fears that Hamas would end up ruling it.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank, including the camps. It cooperates with Israel on security matters but rarely confronts the militants directly, which would be seen by many Palestinians as collaborating with the occupation. Al-Jundi said Palestinian security forces have not operated in the camp since the war in Gaza began in October.

Israel has ruled out any role for the Palestinian Authority in postwar Gaza, accusing it of supporting militancy, even as the authority has become deeply unpopular among Palestinians for the security assistance it has provided to Israel.

Any local Palestinians whom Israel tries to recruit to govern Gaza are likely to face a similar dilemma.

‘THE CHILDREN ARE OBSESSED’

The refugee camps have always been among the poorest Palestinian communities, and in the West Bank their plight has worsened since the start of the war.

Israel has stopped transferring tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and suspended permits that had allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel. The World Bank estimates some 292,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have lost their jobs since the war began.

That has potentially created an army of recruits for militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are funded by Iran and other patrons, and pay their fighters.

Palestinians say the appeal goes beyond financial gain and is rooted in longstanding grievances: the generational dispossession of the refugees, decades of seemingly open-ended military rule, the growth of Jewish settlements and diminishing hopes for an independent state.

Samer Jaber, the father of Abu Shujaa, the Islamic Jihad commander, says his son has become a local celebrity, with children gathering around him whenever he makes a rare public appearance.

“The children are obsessed,” he said.

One of those killed in the raid was Jihad Jaber, Abu Shujaa’s 15-year-old cousin. Jihad’s father, Niyaz, said he tried to steer his son away from the militants, building him an apartment in the nearby city of Tulkarem and even buying him a BMW.

It was no use, said Niyaz, who had made money years earlier working in construction in Israel. “He rejected everything.”

He said Jihad Jaber was close to his cousin and incensed by repeated violent raids on the camp. Soon after the April raid began, Jihad handed his father a will and said he was going to join a group of young men fighting Israeli troops, Niyaz said.

Hours later, he was shot dead in an alley near his uncle’s home.

“He was exactly 15 years old,” Niyaz said. “It was his birthday.”

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Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

By JACK JEFFERY and JALAL BWAITEL
Associated Press

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