Nablus, West Bank — Nablus was a bruised city. Shops opened onto the street, their windows smashed. Signs were knocked down. Ash stained the roads. Armored vehicles roamed downtown, still pockmarked and spattered with paint after a day of protests.
The destruction resembled the aftermath of firefights between Palestinian youths and the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank’s second-largest city, where posters of slain Palestinians line the limestone walls of the Old City. But this time, Israel was not involved. The violent chaos that killed a 53-year-old man on Tuesday erupted between Palestinians and their own security forces, which coordinate with Israel in an uneasy alliance against Islamic militants.
The rare outburst, which came amid the deadliest violence in the West Bank since 2016, underscored the internal divisions tearing Palestinian society apart and shed light on the growing ranks of disillusioned and impoverished young men taking up arms.
Many have spent their entire lives in territory occupied by Israel, scarred by infighting and segmented by checkpoints. They haven’t had a national election since 2006. They have no hope in the long deadlocked peace process. Their aging president, Mahmoud Abbas, is in his 18th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. They see his Palestinian Authority as a vehicle for corruption and collaboration with Israel.
The clashes erupted after Palestinian forces arrested two men, including Musab Ishtayyeh, a popular local activist wanted by Israel. A 26-year-old man who lives in the area said that although the sides had reached a truce, further violence was likely unless Ishtayyeh was released.
“I don’t recognize Abu Mazen’s presidency,” he said, expressing popular sentiment in the neighborhood. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared being arrested.
“There is no difference between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he added, saying the Palestinian security forces “want to burn down the resistance and kill those who fight.”
The latest violence stems from a series of deadly Palestinian attacks inside Israel last spring, which sparked a wave of overnight Israeli arrests across the territory. Some 90 Palestinians were killed in the crackdown. Israel says many were militants or local youths who threw rocks and firebombs at the troops, although several civilians also died.
Experts say the escalation has deeper roots in a power struggle as Palestinian leaders vie for the succession of 87-year-old Abbas.
“The leadership void trickles from the top down. High-level members are trying to rally their supporters for the apocalypse,” said Tahani Mustafa, analyst at the International Crisis Group. “In those kinds of contexts, radicalism really thrives.”
The lack of opportunity and political horizon also fueled the unrest. Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 and its military occupation shows no signs of ending.
The last round of substantive peace talks broke down in 2009, and Israel has steadily consolidated its control of the territory with the ever-increasing construction of settlements that are now home to some 500,000 Jews. The Palestinians are seeking the entire West Bank, as well as Israel’s annexed East Jerusalem and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, for a future state.
Largely disenchanted with the PA, young Palestinians are flocking to an array of militant groups for arms. Palestinian security has struggled to assert control in the burning cities of the northern West Bank, such as Nablus and Jenin.
The instability has consequences for Israel, which depends on cooperation with Palestinian security, and for the United States and other countries that have relied on the PA to establish order in the West Bank and serve as a partner in stalled peace negotiations.
“We need the PA to function as a buffer between us and all (Palestinian) organizations,” said Michael Milstein, former head of the Palestinian Department of Israeli Military Intelligence. “The test has only just begun.”
Palestinian security officials declined to comment on this week’s violence or the reasons for its unpopularity.
In recent months, the Israeli military has grown frustrated with what it describes as the PA’s reluctance to police sensitive towns under its control.
“The PA has the manpower, the ammunition and the weapons,” an Israeli military official said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, in accordance with military directives. “In some places, you feel they don’t have the will.”
The official said the army had seized 300 weapons since Israel began its raids in the West Bank. He said the weapons mostly come from small factories that make improvised guns, or are smuggled from Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon. Some weapons stolen from the army also go to the West Bank.
Wednesday’s truce temporarily halted the fighting, but the streets still bristled with tension and an armed group vowed to continue the battle on behalf of their arrested comrades.
“We will not abandon our brother … who is wanted by the occupying forces and who is currently kidnapped,” the militant group, named the Den of Lions, wrote to the AP.
The group, based in the stone maze of the Old City, is linked to Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a prominent activist who was killed in an Israeli raid last month. Her picture is on coffee stands, graffiti, posters and necklaces worn by children in Nablus. Palestinian security services have identified him as the son of one of their own colonels – a schism that illustrates how young Palestinians, who grew up during the searing violence of the second Palestinian intifada, lost faith in their leaders.
Many Palestinians view their security forces as protecting Israel from Palestinian protests, not Palestinians from Israeli assaults. The forces have also been widely criticized for their heavy-handed tactics, such as last year when riots broke out following the death in custody of an anti-corruption campaigner.
Gangs of young Palestinian men are increasingly shooting at Israeli forces in raids or at soldiers manning checkpoints. The gangs operate without the support of traditional political factions and militant groups.
Last week, two Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier at a military checkpoint in the northern West Bank before being shot dead. One of the attackers was a Palestinian security guard.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and cabinet minister, acknowledged that there was little public trust in the Palestinian leadership. He blamed a lack of hope and repeated Israeli measures that weakened the Palestinian Authority.
“If everyone maintains the same attitude and practices,” he warned, “we are gradually heading towards the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and chaos in Palestinian society.”
AP writers Tia Goldenberg and Eleanor Reich in Jerusalem contributed to this story.