Israel’s hunt for one elusive militant brings Gaza tactics to West Bank

An empty lot remains where the Abu Shalal home stood before it was destroyed by Israeli bombardment.
An empty lot remains where the Abu Shalal home stood before it was destroyed by Israeli bombardment.

Summary

Airstrikes, drones and ground troops targeting militants are turning Palestinian territory into another war front.

BALATA CAMP, West Bank—Residents dove into their homes here as gunfire rang through the crowded warren of apartment buildings in June. Soon word got out: Undercover Israeli forces had arrived and were again trying to kill Abdullah Abu Shalal.

The firefight between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces, which went on for hours during a Wall Street Journal reporting trip to the camp, left one Palestinian dead and nine injured, according to a United Nations report. Abu Shalal got away—one of the five times the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade commander escaped Israeli attempts to kill or capture him, his relatives said.

“Every time he would hear the military entering the camp, he would just get out and run away and go into hiding," an Israeli military official said.

The cat-and-mouse game came to a fiery end on Jan. 16, when an Israeli drone strike killed Abu Shalal and four militants as they drove just outside of the Balata camp, in the West Bank city of Nablus, an Israeli military official said.

Israel is deploying wartime tactics against militants in some of the 19 refugee camps that still dot the West Bank over 75 years after Israel’s founding displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians. The camps are now dense urban environments marked by poverty and longing by residents to return to family homes in what is now Israel.

The Israeli military sees the camps as cauldrons of militancy from which many of the attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers are orchestrated. Israel has employed airstrikes, near-daily ground incursions and looser rules of engagement in the camps since Oct. 7, the Israeli military official said, creating a battlefront alongside the war in Gaza.

Recent events have highlighted how quickly the territory can descend into chaos. Settler attacks on Palestinians erupted earlier this month after a teenage Jewish Israeli boy went missing and was later found dead in the West Bank. Settlers attacked more than 17 villages—shooting weapons, burning cars and homes and killing at least five Palestinians, according to rights groups and Palestinian officials. Over the weekend, Israeli troops killed at least 14 Palestinians during a West Bank raid. The military says those killed were combatants.

The military conducted about 40 drone strikes in the West Bank from October to March, the official said. In the roughly 20 years before Oct. 7, there had only been a handful of such strikes.

Israeli forces have killed more than 435 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Oct. 7, according to the U.N. About 4,900 Palestinians in the West Bank have been injured since then, either by Israeli forces or settlers, the U.N. said.

The deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in nearly two decades was 2023, even before Oct. 7, when a surprise attack by Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials. Israeli forces killed more than 190 Palestinians from January to Oct. 6 last year, the U.N. said.

The Israeli military says about 80% of the people killed in the West Bank since Oct. 7 were armed. Palestinian officials say many were civilian bystanders or were shot for throwing a rock toward soldiers.

West Bank militants are overwhelmingly young, some of them teenagers, with no allegiance to well-known groups such as Hamas.

“They bear no loyalty to anyone or anything but to the camp around them," the Israeli military official said.

Abu Shalal’s escape-artist mystique gained him a following in Balata, where he is now venerated—and his killing shows how Israel’s West Bank tactics could incite more militancy.

Posters paying tribute and bearing Abu Shalal’s face are plastered on walls, some bullet-ridden. Such posters can be seen adjacent to a rare empty plot of land: the site where the Abu Shalal home stood before an Israeli strike destroyed it.

“The killings of civilians and militants have only led to more people taking up arms and a cycle of more people getting killed," said a 30-year-old Balata militant who was close to Abu Shalal. “Abu Shalal’s killing created 10 new militants."

The Israeli military said it set its sights on Abu Shalal after his unit carried out a shooting attack in an Israeli settlement that injured two people in April 2023. He also led an attack against Israeli soldiers, injuring one, the Israeli military said. He belonged to the Balata cell of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a loosely arranged coalition of militant groups that was associated with the secular Fatah party during its leadership under the late Palestinian figure Yasser Arafat. The U.S. and European Union have designated Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade as a terrorist organization.

The Israeli military bombarded Abu Shalal’s home and targeted him with at least one other drone strike and ground raids before he was killed. To avoid detection, he slept in different places and changed his clothes throughout the day.

Last year, before his death, Abu Shalal told The Wall Street Journal that he was resentful about frequent Israeli military raids, land taken from Palestinians to create Israeli settlements and the vast, austere wall erected in his youth that separates the West Bank’s Palestinian communities from Israel.

“I cannot live under this oppression," Abu Shalal said. “Our life is episodes of humiliation."

Abu Shalal’s mother, Jameelah Abu Shalal, said her son’s interest in violent resistance against Israel was formed growing up during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005, when she said Israeli soldiers killed his brother. The raids, fighting and suicide bombings of that period killed about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

Israel first arrested Abu Shalal in 2010, when he was a teenager, his relatives said. He was in and out of prison until the late 2010s.

He then tried to move into mainstream society, his relatives said, completing a training course in 2022 for the General Intelligence Service of the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous governing body for parts of the Israel-occupied West Bank.

But he quickly became disillusioned with the Palestinian Authority’s security coordination with Israel, which often resulted in Palestinians getting arrested or killed. “He saw it as part of the problem," his mother said.

Abu Shalal decided to join Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade as violent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians escalated and military raids increased, his relatives said. By 2023, in his late 20s, he was commanding a unit and was older than most of his comrades, many of them teenagers.

His base was Balata, a camp of about 60 acres—roughly the size of a large shopping mall—packed with a registered population of more than 32,000. It was established in 1950 and originally intended to house 5,000 Palestinian refugees. A collage of posters plastered along Balata’s walls underscores the short lives of young men here. In one, what appears to be a teenage boy points his gun toward the camera and is lauded as “a martyr, a hero, a fighter."

Young men and teenage boys linger in the streets, including one carrying a “Carlo," a homemade firearm common in the camps. The gun bore stickers depicting dead militants.

West Bank militant groups are much smaller, less organized and more poorly equipped than Hamas in Gaza, analysts say. Their ranks are generally composed of secular nationalists hostile to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“They are ad hoc, ragtag, young armed men and teens," said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington. “Their primary objective is disrupting the occupation by creating a cost, attacking soldiers and occasionally settlers."

They are equipped with light arms smuggled by Iran through Jordan as well as guns illegally procured through dealers in Israel, according to analysts.

While Balata has been a bastion of militancy, new localized armed groups have sprung up in refugee camps in the desert tourist destination of Jericho and in Tulkarem, which straddles the wall separating Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Israel.

From October to March, about 20 people were killed and dozens injured, including Israeli security forces, mostly in Israeli settlements and Palestinian towns in the West Bank as well as Jerusalem, in hundreds of incidents that Israel’s internal security agency said involved combatants armed with firebombs, rocks and small arms.

Israel’s military has responded with raids. Casualties have included people uninvolved in militancy. Civilians have been detained and faced interrogations. Homes and neighborhoods have been torn apart, displacing hundreds.

“The refugee camp needs a refugee camp," said AbdelHakeem Abu Safia, director of Tulkarem’s municipal emergency department in charge of assessing damages.

Muath Bani Shamsa, 17, was shot and killed by Israeli forces during a military raid in February in his home village just outside Nablus, said his mother, Nura. She said he was a straight-A student uninvolved in militancy.

“He didn’t pose a threat to anyone, let alone the soldiers in their armored vehicles," she said.

The Israeli military said its troops were responding to a riot and shot at “terrorists [who] hurled Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint bottles."

The Israeli military once relied more on the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to take on the refugee camps’ militants. Israel now says it is acting more decisively in part because the Palestinian Authority is failing.

But the unpopular authority fears a heavy-handed approach could lead to revolt.

“Naturally, the people will explode if they feel we are against them, on top of the occupation," a senior Palestinian Authority security official said.

In the weeks before Abu Shalal was killed, he was thinking of surrendering, his mother said, though he never did.

“He was tired of living between the ground and the sky," she said, “awaiting death."

Shayndi Raice contributed to this article.

Write to Omar Abdel-Baqui at omar.abdel-baqui@wsj.com

An Israeli drone strike killed Abdullah Abu Shalal in January.
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An Israeli drone strike killed Abdullah Abu Shalal in January.
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