Hamas and Islamic Jihad seen importing Gaza military tactics to the West Bank

Report shows terror groups have been replicating tactics in the Jenin-Nablus area: manufacturing weapons, building tunnels, launching rockets and, perhaps most of all, cooperating

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An undated image of members of the Jenin Battalion, a terror group comprising members of different Palestinian armed factions, most prominently Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (Telegram/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
An undated image of members of the Jenin Battalion, a terror group comprising members of different Palestinian armed factions, most prominently Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (Telegram/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been exploiting the power vacuum in the northern West Bank to strengthen their military presence and replicate the fighting tactics against Israel that they developed in Gaza, according to a new report.

The analysis, published last week by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), highlights the various indications pointing at a new military infrastructure emerging in the Jenin and Nablus areas — resembling what already exists in the coastal enclave ruled by Hamas since 2007 — thanks to the dwindling control of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority over the area.

Among these indications are local manufacturing of weapons and advanced explosive devices; excavating tunnels; launching rockets; and fostering cooperation among different terror organizations, similar to the “Joint War Room” they set up in the Gaza Strip.

Like in Gaza, the main actors on this new terror front are Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Both groups enjoy significant financial and military support from Iran, and both groups regularly thank Iran publicly for the aid it sends to Gaza and the West Bank. For instance, in a June 30 interview with the Iranian Arabic-language newspaper Al-Vefagh, PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhaleh said that armament of the West Bank has been taking place in accordance with instructions issued in 2014 by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who put forth a plan to “smuggle arms into the area, or buy them from the Israelis themselves.”

In recent months, however, it appears that explosive devices have been increasingly developed in the West Bank itself, and are more powerful than in the past. For example, the report mentioned that a large explosive device that was detonated on June 19 against an IDF armored vehicle on its way out of Jenin weighed 80 kilograms (176 lbs), and was allegedly produced by the engineering unit of the Jenin Brigade, a cross-factional group that emerged in September 2021.

Other terrorist groups have been boasting of their weapons-manufacturing capabilities. For example, the engineering unit of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, posted a series of videoclips showcasing the explosive devices it produced, including a new type called Shuwaz 1, with alleged armor-penetrating capabilities.

Screenshots from videos posted on Instagram by the “engineering unit” of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades in Jenin. Left reads: “Continuing with Allah’s help… July 6, 2023”; Right: New type of armor-penetrating explosive device, the Shuwaz 1 (courtesy: MEMRI)

Developing new military capabilities is not always a smooth affair. On June 21, the Telegram channel of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades reported that two young men had been killed in a “work accident” in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus while preparing an explosive device. A month later, on July 18, another Telegram channel reported that a blast shook Jenin during experiments with explosive devices.

Tunnels and rockets from the Gaza playbook

Another tactic that terror groups are trying to import from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank is the use of tunnels. Excavated by Hamas in and out of Gaza for years to smuggle weapons and merchandise from Egypt, and to attempt to penetrate into Israel, tunnels recently made their appearance in the Jenin area, as exposed during the IDF military operation “Bayit Vagan” in early July.

The Israeli army located and neutralized extensive underground infrastructure, including weapon storage rooms, such as one under the al-Ansar Mosque, which was used as a fortified compound by the Jenin Brigade. An Al Jazeera journalist who entered the tunnels the morning after the IDF withdrew said they were about 10 meter (33 feet) deep and 100-150 meters long, and “likely took months to dig.” The Qatari news outlet claimed that many terror fighters managed to escape from the mosque through the tunnels during the Israeli raid.

The MEMRI report also highlighted the increasing launch of rockets from the Jenin area against Israeli settlements, the latest attempt taking place on Tuesday morning toward the Shaked settlement, west of Jenin. The projectiles have been fired by a Hamas-affiliated group called “al-Ayyash Brigade,” apparently named after a notorious Hamas bombmaker killed by Israel.

In recent months, supporters posted on Telegram at least six instances of rockets fired by the group, including Tuesday’s launch, in attempted attacks against settlements. The rockets used are Qassam-1s, the analysts noted, a relatively primitive type of weapon that was first used by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2001.

The Hamas leadership maintained ambiguity regarding the launches, with the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades allegedly denying involvement, and Hamas political bureau deputy chairman Salah Al-Arouri claiming responsibility in an interview.

Cartoon published on Instagram on July 11. 2023, by Gazan cartoonist Bahaa Yaseen, known for his ties to Hamas, praising the launching of rockets from the Jenin area toward Israel (courtesy: MEMRI)

Increasing cooperation between factions

Further evidence of the fact that terror groups are replicating the Gaza model in the West Bank is the increasing military cooperation between armed Palestinian factions, the analysts said. The model in this case is the Joint War Room in Gaza, an umbrella organization that is mainly activated during rounds of fighting with Israel.

One example of such inter-factional cooperation is the Lion’s Den, a terror group that emerged in the Old City of Nablus in August 2022 and initially comprised around 100 young terrorists from the post-Second Intifada generation, affiliated with Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine (PFLP). The group also included disaffected members of Fatah, who reject their party’s official opposition to armed struggle against Israel.

A larger and more structured emulation of the Gazan Joint War Room is the “Jenin Brigade,” also known as “Jenin Battalion,” established in the northern West Bank city in 2021. Divided into independent cells, the group is dominated by the al-Quds Brigades, the PIJ’s military arm, but also includes members from Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the PFLP’s military wing, Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades.

In an interview given shortly after the Israeli operation in the Jenin refugee camp on July 3-4, Hamas deputy chief al-Arouri reportedly declared that “there is more unity between factions on the battlefield than among the official echelons,” and praised the Jenin campaign as a “paradigm of victory” – even though 12 terrorists were killed and large amounts of weapons seized by the IDF – that, if emulated elsewhere, would allow Palestinian fighters to “expel the occupation from the entire West Bank.”

PIJ secretary-general Ziyad Al-Nakhaleh likewise reportedly praised the Jenin model as a success story to replicate throughout the West Bank. In a July 9 interview with the Iranian state news agency IRNA, the terror leader said that armed factions “are acting in all seriousness to spread these brigades in all the Palestinian cities, and they are becoming a fact on the ground, [albeit] to a different extent in each city. This is despite the many obstacles, primarily the shortage of weapons and difficulty to supply them.”

Al-Nakhaleh also stressed that the Jenin Brigade is a model of cooperation that in some ways is even more successful than  the Joint War Room in Gaza, since members of different brigades share everything – money, arms, and even food.

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