Palestinian Authority security forces are working to prevent a new armed group from operating in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm, a senior Palestinian official said on Monday.
Members of the new group, Tulkarm Battalion-Rapid Response, made their first public appearance two weeks ago after the Israeli security operation against gunmen belonging to the Nablus-based Lions’ Den.
Similar armed groups have been operating over the past year in Nablus and Jenin under the names of Nablus Battalion, Balata Battalion and Jenin Battalion.
Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, is located at the southern entrance to Nablus.
The three groups in Nablus, Balata Refugee Camp and Jenin consist of a few hundred gunmen, most of whom are affiliated with the ruling Fatah faction, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
The armed group in Tulkarm worries some locals
The emergence of the armed group in the relatively quiet city of Tulkarm has worried some local residents and Palestinian officials in Ramallah.
At this stage, however, it appears only a handful of gunmen have joined the Tulkarm Battalion-Rapid Response group.
The new group, according to local residents, is named after Raed al-Karmi, a prominent Fatah militant from Tulkarm who was assassinated by Israel in 2002. Karmi was accused of involvement in a series of terror attacks that claimed the lives of at least 10 Israelis during the Second Intifada.
Karmi’s friends in Tulkarm used to call him “Rapid Responder” because of the speed in which he used to carry out attacks in retaliation for the killing of some of his associates by the IDF.
He was responsible, among other things, for the abduction and killing of two Israeli men who entered Tulkarm shortly after the IDF killed Thabet Thabet, the Fatah leader in the city.
Since the IDF's four-hour operation in Nablus, which resulted in the killing of 11 Palestinians, including a number of gunmen, the Tulkarm-based group has claimed responsibility for three shooting attacks against soldiers and military installations. No one was hurt.
The group has also posted a number of communique and videos on social media pledging to pursue the fight against Israel.
Palestinian security forces moving quickly to prevent the group from growing
But unlike the situation in Nablus and Jenin, where the armed groups continue to operate freely, the Palestinian security forces have moved quickly to stop the members of the Tulkarm gang from establishing a foothold in the city and its surroundings, especially the Tulkarm and Nour Shams refugee camps.
PA security officers have raided the home of a suspected leader of the group who appeared in one of the videos with a mask covering his face. The suspect, however, managed to escape. According to a source in Tulkarm, Israeli security forces also made an unsuccessful attempt to apprehend the man.
The senior official told The Jerusalem Post three other men suspected of standing behind the new armed group were arrested by the PA’s Preventive Security Service in the past week.
“We will not tolerate scenes of anarchy and lawlessness in Tulkarm,” the official stressed. “Anyone who breaks the law or threatens the residents and the Palestinian security forces will be arrested and punished.”
In response to the crackdown, the Tulkarm-based armed group issued a statement that contained a direct threat to the PA security forces.
“Don’t be the first to betray [your people],” the statement, addressing Palestinian security officers, cautioned. “We don’t want a confrontation with you because you are our brothers and cousins. Stop chasing and following us. We’re not calling into question your patriotism, but we have no confidence in your leadership.”
While some residents expressed satisfaction over the PA security forces’ clampdown on the gunmen in Tulkarm, others lashed out at the Ramallah-based leadership for “collaboration” with Israel.
“We don’t want to become like Jenin and Nablus,” said Ala’ al-Sharif, a Tulkarm shopkeeper. “The armed groups in the two cities have caused great damage to the economy. Thousands of Arab Israelis who used to do their shopping in Nablus and Jenin are now coming to Tulkarm because the situation here has been calm. The merchants in Nablus and Jenin are crying."A senior Tulkarm Municipality official told the Post that several merchants and businessmen have expressed concern over the possibility that their city could end up witnessing major IDF raids because of the presence of the new militia in the city.
“Of course, people here are worried,” the official said. “We don’t want to provide an excuse for the Israeli army to storm Tulkarm and kill people. We also don’t want the Arab Israelis to stop visiting Tulkarm. That would be very bad for the economy. Look what's happening in Nablus and Jenin; it's a disaster."
Not all locals are happy with PA crackdown
But not all residents are happy to see the PA security forces go after the local gunmen.
In the past few days, dozens of residents of Tulkarm and the two nearby refugee camps took to the streets to protest the crackdown.
PA officers used tear gas to disperse the protesters, some of whom were briefly detained by the Palestinian security forces, witnesses said.
The protesters accused the PA of “betraying” the Palestinians by going after the armed group in Tulkarm. Others claimed the crackdown was in the context of a new US security plan to get rid of all the armed groups operating in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank.
“Many people are very angry with the Palestinian Authority leadership,” said Yusef Ismail, a Fatah activist from Tulkarm who previously spent 3 years in Israeli prison for security-related offenses.
“Instead of defending the people against the crimes of the Israeli army, our leaders in Ramallah are sending the Palestinian security forces to arrest the young men who want to defend us. We believe the Palestinian Authority reached secret understandings with Israel and the US at the recent summit in [the Jordanian Red Sea resort of] Aqaba. There’s a conspiracy against all the armed factions in the West Bank, and we shouldn’t allow it to pass.”