The Cradle
The Kalashnikov has not yet found its way into the West Bank
West Bank Palestinian resistance fighters are back in the spotlight as clashes with occupation forces intensify. But how organized is the fight, where do they get their weapons, and are there sleeper cells waiting for a spark to light?
October 01 2021
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There are weapons in the West Bank, but the Israeli narrative that the Palestinian resistance is awash with them is merely an excuse to hunt down young men.

Photo Credit: The Cradle

At dawn last Sunday, the Hebrew media broadcast a series of photos taken during Israel’s latest West Bank military operation. The pictures showed an array of weaponry, next to which lay a small Quran and a few packs of cigarettes.

Carlo, a machine gun, and an M-16 make an appearance in the images, but the Kalashnikov – a rare sight in the West Bank, though rife in Gaza – is missing from the line-up of arms.

This does not mean that Kalashnikovs do not exist in the West Bank – they do. But these popular automatic weapons of Russian-design remain exclusively in the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security services. It is almost impossible to find Palestinian resistance fighters handling Kalashnikovs in the West Bank.

On that night, the Israeli occupation forces announced the killing of five Palestinians: three of them members of Hamas, one a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) resistance organization, and the other, a lone civilian.

By the following morning, the two parties had put aside their differences to mourn each other’s martyrs and share condolences. Hamas, though, aimed its anger at the PA’s security coordination with Israeli forces, which helped Israeli occupation forces to locate its cell and kill its members. Tensions swelled between Hamas and the PA, which is led by the Fatah party.

Israeli leaders – from the prime minister and security minister down to other security sources – proclaimed they had “thwarted a Hamas plot to attack Israel.” They also admitted to being unable to catch all the members of the network, and said the operation will remain in effect until all members are apprehended.

What became apparent soon after, however, is that the operation had not been as smooth sailing as claimed. An Israeli officer and soldier were critically injured in the armed clashes. The Israeli media framed the incidents as “friendly fire,” but there was no Palestinian confirmation of that narrative.

The clash took place on two fronts: the first, between the West Bank capital of Ramallah and the Palestinian capital of Jerusalem; the second, in the northern West Bank’s Jenin governorate. Jenin is once more at the forefront of the confrontation, especially in terms of armed groups and utilization of weaponry. But this time, Ramallah joined those frontiers.

This notable development raises questions about the accuracy of Israeli estimates of armed groups in the West Bank, the extent of their proliferation, the methods by which they acquire weapons, the types of arms procured, and the amount of support they enjoy.

Palestinians speculate that the Israelis deliberately exaggerate and amplify narratives about armed groups, with calculated intent. For starters, the Occupation manipulates this storyline to justify murdering Palestinians, infiltrating their units and networks, and embarking on raid rampages in any areas they choose, by invoking a “security threat.”

The narrative is also part and parcel of Israel’s intimidation campaign to inspire fear in Palestinians for even thinking of taking up arms in the West Bank. In addition, it helps paint the PA in Ramallah as incompetent Israeli security partners, and lays the ground for Tel Aviv to insist on working on its own in internationally-designated areas for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Regardless of the reasons behind Israel’s amplification of the ‘armed groups’ narrative, there remain some serious questions: What is the story behind the Hamas cell targeted by Israel in the West Bank last week? Were they a sleeper cell, as is being claimed? How many armed fighters are there in the West Bank, and in Jenin specifically? Why weren’t the resistance fighters in Jenin able to protect the Palestinian prisoners – Ayham Kamamji and Nidal Nufay’at – while the occupation forces were raiding the area two weeks ago? How do these young fighters obtain M-16s, or Carlo and Tavor assault rifles used by the Israeli special forces?

From Jenin to other West Bank cities, The Cradle reached out to a number of Palestinians who have some answers.

Are there sleeper cells or not?

For obvious reasons, the sources we spoke to are reticent about answering this question. Between the lines of their hesitation, it is a yes. What we learned is that all Palestinian factions have sleeper cells and they are activated when absolutely necessary. The battle of the Sword of Jerusalem last May was clear evidence of this.

Factions in the West Bank will go to great lengths to preserve and protect their fighters. But if, for instance, occupation forces were to storm the Jenin refugee camp to put an end to the arms it claims to have, resistance factions in the Gaza Strip will demonstrate a clear response. Other sources in Gaza endorse this premise.

The sources, whose identities cannot be disclosed, say that despite the differences Hamas and PIJ have in their approach to Jenin and its link to Gaza, the two movements share a common purpose; and that if the Israelis think they can attack the Jenin refugee camp, they’re wrong.

Any attack on the Jenin refugee camp will result in an attack from Gaza, and everything else is just detail. The sources, however, rule out any Israeli raid of this kind, except in one case: if operations spill from Jenin into other cities, especially the 1948 occupied territories.

Today, there is no clear answer or full account as to why the two escaped Palestinian prisoners were apprehended by occupation forces in Jenin, other than the simple fact that they were outside the camp. This interpretation aside, Palestinian resistance fighters hunted down occupation soldiers in more than one location and opened fire at them.

Sources of weapons

According to the West Bank sources, resistance fighters are not armed with Russian weapons like the Kalashnikov for a number of reasons. The first and foremost is that such weapons are exclusive to official Palestinian security institutions. PA-controlled forces receive arms support from the United States, and grants from Arab armies. However, every weapon crossing over the West Bank borders is monitored and ‘roll-called’ in the security stations as well as during missions as though it were a human soldier. It is for this reason that such weapons cannot easily pass into the hands of resistance fighters or become a black market commodity.

The sources say it would be easier for resistance factions to acquire weapons from Israeli mafias than to get them from the Palestinian Authority. They reveal that even handguns are not accessible to Palestinian police officers outside their stations without special permission.

This reality ensures that the Kalashnikov – omnipresent in conflict zones around the world – remains a rare phenomenon in the West Bank. Even if it were available, a single bullet would cost over $10, meaning a resistance fighter would need about $300 to fire a magazine of 30 bullets. If a night of clashes were to call for three magazines, that would be $1,000 with no guarantee of hitting a target. That is the second reason.

The third reason relates to Jordan. There is considerable and strong cooperation between the Israeli and Jordanian armies over border control. Rarely does a week pass without the Hebrew media announcing it has foiled an attempt to smuggle in a weapon from Jordan.

Other weapons have two main sources: Israeli mafias, or occupation soldiers who admit to stealing weapons to sell them on the black market – or, as it so happens, locally-produced armaments. Yes, there are factories in the West Bank that manufacture weapons, M-16s and Carlos, most specifically. Granted, there is no comparison between the quality of the homegrown M-16s widely produced in Hebron and its original Israeli counterpart. But locally-manufactured arms are a viable option when Israeli sources are unavailable.

Through their own historical armed struggle, the Palestinian resistance are all too familiar with Israeli booby-trapped devices,  dubbed musharraka, which translates to ‘snares.’ The fighters have made a habit of inspecting weapons before buying them. When it comes to local arms, the most common complaint is that the guns can break down during firing, especially in the case of automatic rifles. In comparison to those manufactured in specialized factories, these rifles heat up quickly and are in constant need of cleaning after every use.

The Carlo, a submachine gun of  Europe provenance, was cloned in Egypt for the first time in 1956 – they called it the ‘Port Said.’ Palestinians developed a better version, and have been using it since the First Intifada. But this weapon has a short range, suffers from more breakdowns, and has seriously inconvenienced more than one failed Palestinian armed operation. The Carlo is, however, a convenient weapon: not only are they cheap, but their mags fit 25 9mm bullets used in regular handguns, which also run cheap.

The Cradle was able to obtain prices on these weapons from members of the resistance interviewed by this publication: a foreign-made M-16 costs 60,000-70,000 shekels (USD $18,000-21,000). The local made M-16, on the other hand, costs 40,000 shekels ($12,000). A Carlo, depending on its quality, costs 1,500-3,500 shekels ($450-1,100). These costs are higher than the actual weapon prices – or the costs in Gaza – per the supply issue.

Prices obviously shoot up as demand rises, as happened after the Jerusalem uprising when Palestinian resistance activities spiked. Since 2020, prices have not increased significantly. Kalashnikov prices were not mentioned by the fighters interviewed, as these are firmly outside their wishful realm of procurement.

Secrets in West Bank alleys

According to Israeli estimates, the number of weapons or armed militants monitored by the occupation forces exceed 5,000. Palestinian sources say these numbers are exaggerated, and actual figures are in the hundreds. They point to recent parades of military arms in Jenin, funerals of martyrs, and restrained armed responses to recent Israeli night raids as evidence of this.

The photographs of Palestinian fighters in the West Bank vary considerably from those in Gaza – these young men rarely don military uniforms, but are found instead wearing normal, everyday clothing; jeans and shirts.  This provides a more accurate depiction of the ‘armed cells’ that Israel finds so ‘threatening’ – as well as the kinds of funding they receive.

The Palestinian sources stress that the paramilitary scene in Jenin is not as organized as during the Second Intifada or as in Gaza today. To some degree, family and even individual initiatives constitute the support system for this assemblage of resistance fighters scattered in pockets of the West Bank.

The reason for this is due to what is known as the Security Tripartite – Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Occupation – having tightened the cordon on all sources of funding. Even family remittances of under $1,000 have come under scrutiny. Palestinians joke, without humor, that this despised trio operate from “one computer.”

The jest isn’t for nothing: many who have been arrested or held captive have been subjected to identical interrogations, in the same sequence, by Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli authorities. Sometimes, Palestinians discover their responses to one authority pops up in the reports of another authority.

On 17 September, the new Golani Brigade commander, Yair Palai, observed that many look to Jenin as “the capital of Palestinian terrorism” in the West Bank. Palai admitted that even 20 years after Operation Defensive Shield, the nucleus of armed resistance in Jenin is still stronger than anywhere else.

But as Israeli newspaper Maariv points out: “The capabilities of the militants there are still nowhere close to the capabilities of the factions on the eve of the 2002 operation, and they are certainly not as organized as they were before. However, the recent developments in the city are very worrying for the security establishment.”

As for the final question: What is outside the borders of Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, and other cities? The Palestinian sources acknowledge that there is a “jungle of weapons” in the West Bank, but claim the weapons are “disciplined,” used mostly by households or clans. They say the Israelis do not mind the use of weapons by Palestinians against Palestinians. But when they smell the slightest threat that a Palestinian might turn it against Israel’s carefully-preserved establishment, drastic measures are taken.

Weapons are hard to control – especially under colonization and chaos. In these circumstances, it is only natural for weapons to proliferate among civilians. However, there is always the possibility for surprises. The tale of the 1948 territories poses as the best evidence: in a moment, a weapon of murder had turned into a weapon of resistance.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.