Hamas and a number of Palestinian armed groups vowed on Monday to avenge the death of five gunmen killed by Israeli security forces during a raid on Aqbat Jaber Refugee Camp, located on the outskirts of Jericho.
The five, identified by Hamas as Malek Lafi, 22, Ra’fat Oweidat, 21, Ibrahim Oweidat, 27, Thaer Oweidat, 28, and Adham Oweidat, 22, belonged to the group’s armed wing, Izaddin al-Qassam.
Palestinian sources said the gunmen operated in the camp under the name of a group called Aqbat Jaber Camp Battalion.
A new armed Palestinian gunmen group has formed in Jericho
The new group, the first of its kind in the Jericho area, is seen by the sources as part of an attempt to imitate similar militias that have been operating in the northern West Bank over the past year: Jenin Battalion, Nablus Battalion and Balata Refugee Camp Battalion, as well as the Lions’ Den and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
While these groups consist mostly of members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the ruling Fatah faction headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the slain Aqbat Jaber cell members all belonged to Hamas.
Two of the gunmen were involved in a shooting attack on January 28 against an Israeli-owned café at Almog junction, located only a few kilometers away from Aqbat Jaber Refugee Camp. No one was hurt.
Since the attack, the IDF has imposed strict security measures in the Jericho area, a move that badly hurt the local economy, which relies mainly on local tourism.
The camp is located across the street from the Oasis Casino, the first gambling facility in the West Bank. The casino has been shut since the start of the Second Intifada more than 20 years ago. Some of the camp residents previously worked in the casino and a nearby hotel.
Last year, unconfirmed reports claimed that Israel and the Palestinians were discussing the possibility of allowing the casino to reopen. The reports revived hopes in Aqbat Jaber camp in particular and Jericho in general that the local economy would be strengthened once the gamblers, most of whom were Israeli citizens, returned to the casino.
Despite the closure of the casino, Jericho has over the past few years witnessed an unprecedented boom in local tourism as dozens of luxurious villas have popped up in and around the city. In addition, many foreign tourists have returned to the city in recent years.
The villas, owned by Arab Israelis and residents of east Jerusalem, are offered for rent on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Most of the clients are Palestinian families from east Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as Arab Israelis.
“The streets of Jericho were empty after the shooting operation [at the Almog junction],” said a resident of east Jerusalem who owns two villas in Jericho. “Many people couldn’t go to Jericho because of the Israeli checkpoints. People rent the villas for private events, including birthday parties and weddings.”
He and other Palestinians who own businesses in Jericho expressed fear that the phenomenon of armed groups and anarchy would spread from Jenin and Nablus to their city. They revealed that some activists from Jenin and Nablus moved to Jericho over the past year.
Jericho: Once a "sleepy town" with stability despite violence in the West Bank
Once described as a “sleepy town,” the situation in Jericho has been generally stable over the past year, despite the significant upsurge of violence in the northern West Bank. The calm allowed many Arab investors from Israel and the West Bank to purchase relatively cheap land and build villas as vacation homes for themselves and to put on the booming short-term rental market.
The calls by Hamas and other Palestinian groups for avenging the killing of the five Aqbat Jaber militants indicates that the security situation in the Jericho area could further deteriorate in the coming days and weeks.
In a statement published shortly after the armed clash in the camp, Hamas praised the “heroic resistance fighters” and said that the “confrontation with the enemy confirms once again that our people are on the path of resistance and liberation and won’t be intimidated by the crimes of the occupation.”
The Aqbat Baber Camp Battalion also pledged to retaliate for the killing of its men, although it remains unclear whether the group has more members operating in the camp and other areas of Jericho. What is certain, however, is that the Hamas members operated inside a camp located only a few hundred meters away from the main headquarters of the PA security forces in the city. It is also located not far from the notorious Jericho Prison, where the Palestinian security forces often hold Palestinians suspected of being affiliated with Hamas and PIJ.
The PA leadership, which recently decided to halt security coordination with Israel in response to the killing of nine Palestinians, mostly gunmen, during a similar Israeli security operation in Jenin Refugee Camp, on Monday condemned the “new crime” in Aqbat Jaber camp. In a statement issued by Abbas’s office, the PA accused the Israeli government of continuing its “crimes” against the Palestinians.
Hours before the incident in Aqbat Jaber camp, Abbas chaired a meeting of the commanders of the Palestinian security forces and discussed with them the ongoing tensions and violence, especially in the West Bank.
At the meeting, Abbas reportedly reaffirmed the Palestinian leadership’s decision to end the security coordination with Israel. In the same breath, he also instructed the Palestinian security services “to assume their role in preserving the rule of law, public security and civil peace.”
This was not the first time in recent months that Abbas has issued such instructions to his security forces.
Yet, despite the instructions, the PA security forces have failed to take significant action against armed groups and gunmen in Jenin and Nablus, who continue to operate freely in areas under his control and carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. And there’s no reason whatsoever to think that these security forces will now take meaningful measures to stop Jericho from joining Jenin and Nablus as terror hubs in the West Bank.