Palestinians carry the body of Fares Hashash during his funeral at Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, 13 June 2023. EFE/EPA/ALAA BADARNEH

Balata, another Palestinian camp caught in spiral of Israeli military activity

By Joan Mas Autonell

A Balata militiaman with a Carlo submachine gun, a common homemade weapon among Palestinian armed groups in the occupied West Bank. (issued on 14 June 2023) EFE/Joan Mas Autonell

Nablus, West Bank, Jun 14 (EFE).- Sounds of gunfire, shouting, Israeli troops entering by surprise to stop Palestinian militants, ambulance sirens, people dead and wounded and dead are commonplace in Balata, the most populous refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.

In the last 24 hours, the place has seen yet another Israeli military operation, in which another youth from the camp lost his life.

“We are used to this situation, for us it is normal,” said Walid Marahel, an 18-year-old nursing student, resigned as he looked out the window of his house in Balata to see if there was fighting going on outside.

A view of Balata camp during an Israeli military raid. (issued on 14 June 2023)EFE/Joan Mas Autonell

All this, in the midst of an incursion of the Israeli Army on Tuesday at noon, which EFE was witness to.

The operation was a part of a prolonged escalation of violence in occupied Palestinian territory that has only been aggravating in 2023, the deadliest year of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Second Intifada (2000-2005), with the north of the West Bank and places like Balata being daily friction points.

Marahel, a young Palestinian, looks out with his brother cautiously at the window of their house amid fighting in Balata. (issued on 14 June 2023) EFE/Joan Mas Autonell

In cities such as Jenin or Nablus, where the Balata camp is located, armed clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces carrying out forceful raids continue to increase, drastically impacting the lives of residents.

Balata – a stronghold of the Palestinian armed resistance – has witnessed five major Israeli raids this year, which has resulted in a total of 12 dead, the most recent of them on Tuesday which apparently involved a civilian without links to armed groups.

“We live one day at a time, we cannot be sure of anything else,” Walid told EFE, adding that the Israeli forces “do not differentiate between civilians and militants” when they enter the camp.

Some 33,000 refugees live within the 0.25 square kilometers of the Balata camp, making it one of the most densely populated places in the West Bank.

The windows and a room in Walid’s home were already shattered during a rain in May, in which his neighbor Abdallah Abu Shalal’s house was left in ruins.

Shalal is one of the commanders of the camp militias that Israel has not yet managed to stop despite trying three times, said his mother Um Riyad Abu Shalal amid the cracked walls of the house.

According to Palestinian sources, undercover agents on Tuesday entered the camp camouflaged in a truck of a Palestinian ice cream brand to arrest another commander, Isam Salakh.

The Israeli forces surrounded the house where he was with three companions. The troops threw projectiles at the building, which was left destroyed, but the militants managed to escape.

The causes of the violence are many: Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank – in force since 1967 – is gaining ground, and tension with hardline settlers is growing in the north.

Economic uncertainty among Palestinian youth is also evident, and it is aggravated in refugee camps such as Balata or Jenin, where “the situation is explosive” and could lead to a worse scenario, according to Mohamed Tirawi, a community leader.

“We have no future. Young people take up arms because there is no other option,” said Tirawi, a former member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked in the past to the Fatah party that was created in Balata during the Second Intifada.

The group now operates in the so-called Balata Battalion, which brings together all the militants of the camp created a year ago, in a context of the emergence of new local militias throughout the West Bank that act autonomously and without being under the tutelage of the conventional Palestinian factions.

A similar group, the Lions’ Den, also emerged in Nablus, hit by many Israeli offensives this year that killed many of its members, now leaving the Balat Battalion as Israel’s main target in the area, according to locals.

Tirawi said that another problem was “frustration” against the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), an organization with power in small areas of the West Bank and increasingly less legitimized among Palestinians – especially young people – who see it as corrupt and authoritarian, and a puppet of Israel.

“The PNA neglected the refugee camps to continue in the same cycle of violence,” while many boys buy guns on the black market or “make them quite easily.”

In Balata, between bullet-hit walls and posters with photos of Palestinians killed in combat, a young man carrying an M-16 rifle rode on the back of a motorcycle from which he looked out for suspects.

Another walked with a Carlo submachine gun, handcrafted and cheap and very common in the Palestinian territories.

They are among dozens of militants active around the clock in the field, prepared to confront Israel when necessary. EFE