How Tulkarem's Nur Shams camp became Israel's West Bank battleground

Tulkarem Nur Shams
7 min read
09 May, 2024

Tulkarem, occupied West Bank - Since the start of the war on Gaza, Israel has ramped up attacks on refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, with Nur Shams in Tulkarem experiencing the lion’s share of the violence. 

“Israel has executed 22 military operations in the camp since the war began, the first of which was on October 19. This number is notably high when compared to preceding months,” Sulaiman Al-Zuhairi, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Khadouri University in Tulkarem and a researcher on Palestinian refugee camps, told The New Arab

The surge in attacks on this particular camp is part of an overall spike in Israeli violence in the West Bank since 7 October, which the Human Rights Watch said has seen Israeli settlers and soldiers assaulting, torturing, sexually abusing, and displacing entire communities of Palestinians.

The military and societal significance of Nur Shams camp has made it an obvious target of Israel’s military. According to residents, Israel launched the largest military operation on the camp on 18 April, killing at least 14 Palestinians. 

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While Israel says it is targeting armed factions who have established a foothold there, experts and residents say that this, in effect, means vacating Nur Shams, given the societal fabric and history of the camp’s residents.

“During the Nakba in 1948, the majority of the population of northern Palestine sought refuge in an area near Jenin called Janzour. In 1952, the country experienced a violent winter, and the tents in Janzour were flooded, forcing them to relocate to three places: Al-Jabriyat, now the Jenin camp, Nur Shams, and the Far'a camp near Tubas,” Al-Zuhairi explained. 

“Nur Shams comprises refugees from 37 neighbouring villages, all related through kinship and intermarriage,” he noted. The fact that its residents come from a single geographical area makes the composition of the Nur Shams camp “a monolith,” he said.

"Since 7 October, approximately 57 Palestinians from the Nur Shams camp have been killed by Israeli forces, 130 houses have been demolished, and 1,600 partially damaged"

According to Al-Zuhairi, the combination of this social structure, an uptick in military resistance within its rundown alleys, and Israel’s goals of emptying this location have together fuelled intensified attacks on Nur Shams residents in recent months.

Since 7 October, approximately 57 Palestinians from the Nur Shams camp have been killed by Israeli forces, 130 houses have been demolished, and 1,600 partially damaged.

A kindergarten, youth centre, and official headquarters of local organisations have been bulldozed, entire streets destroyed, and all three mosques in the camp have been partially damaged.

Nur Shams, which hosts about 12,000 refugees, has become a hotspot for armed resistance against Israel's occupation. [Getty]

History of resistance in Nur Shams

Nur Shams, which hosts about 12,000 residents, and Jenin camp, home to about 24,000 Palestinians, have become hotspots for armed resistance against Israel's occupation over more than two decades, following increasing distrust in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the global community, according to experts.

However, more recently, a number of new armed groups have also sprung up in the camp, becoming more of a threat to the Israeli state.

“The struggle is no longer confined to a specific area in the West Bank. Before the attack on Nur Shams camp, there was Jenin camp, the old town of Nablus, Balata camp, Aqbat Jabr camp, and other places in the West Bank,” Director of Yabous Centre for Strategic Studies Suleiman Bisharat told TNA.

"Armed resistance came after other resistance forms fell through with the occupation over the past 20 years,” Bisharat explained, adding that Palestinians were disillusioned by the unmet promises of the international community.

"The number of active armed groups in the occupied West Bank increased between October 2022 and September 2023 as the Israeli army intensified the presence of its troops in the region"

With a marked increase in attacks by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Palestinians have sought more effective means of resistance, which has prompted the formation of new armed groups.

According to Al-Zuhairi, militancy has been present in Nur Shams Camp “since the very beginning of all faction formations”, recalling how fighters from all groups in the camp fought back during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada.

This militancy, observers note, decreased from 2005 following an access and movement agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority which promised to lift the siege on Gaza and ushered in calmer security conditions. But as Israel has escalated its operations in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in recent years, so have militant groups.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, wrote that the number of active armed groups in the occupied West Bank increased between October 2022 and September 2023 as the Israeli army intensified the presence of its troops in the region.

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Recent escalations

The study notes that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction and Hamas have, in recent years, directly engaged in violence, supported the establishment of new local armed groups, and have helped arm other factions, including Fatah-affiliated militants.

This has led “Israel’s security establishment [to] concentrate its focus on the West Bank, seemingly diverting intelligence and security resources from the border with the Gaza Strip. This gave Gazan militants an operational opportunity to launch their surprise attack,” according to the study.

According to experts, the Nur Shams Brigade was founded in 2022 following the Israeli assassination of Saif Abu Libda in April of that year, who is said to have played a key role in laying down the foundations of the group. This, according to reports The New Arab could not independently verify, was accompanied by a restructuring of other factions in the camp.  

Israeli forces have ramped up military operations in the occupied West Bank since 2022. [Getty]

Since its establishment, the Nur Shams Brigade, which is affiliated with the Al-Quds Brigades - the military wing of the Islamic Jihad Movement (PIJ) - has been spearheading various factions operating in the camp, including fighters from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with the Palestinian Fatah party and was founded following the Second Intifada in 2000, and the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. It is one of, the ACLED report said, nine newly founded militant groups in the West Bank affiliated with PIJ.

While fighters of these factions are largely known to the public, mostly young men with an average age of 26 that carry rifles with the slogan of the Nur Shams Brigade and the Al-Quds Brigades on them, Hamas fighters seldom appear without their masks, and are largely unknown to the camp’s residents. 

"Observers believe the West Bank, especially the camps, to be the future battlefield, so Israel is seeking early elimination"

Can resistance be eradicated?

Palestinian military expert Youssef Al-Sharqawi told TNA that “any attempt to eradicate Palestinian resistance in Nur Shams camp and the West Bank would mean committing genocide similar to what is happening in the Gaza Strip,” in reference to the increased proliferation of armed resistance.

After 7 October, and on the pretext of wiping out resistance groups, the Israeli army escalated its military operations in the West Bank. This included 45 separate raids in the northern West Bank camps of Nur Shams and Jenin camps, inflicting significant damage to infrastructure and homes, which is still widely visible in Nur Shams.

“Observers believe the West Bank, especially the camps, to be the future battlefield, so Israel is seeking early elimination,” Al-Sharqawi noted.

The military expert said that despite the modest weaponry and structure of Palestinian armed factions in the West Bank, including a lack of training, armaments, equipment, and experience, these new groups have nonetheless successfully withstood Israeli incursions.

“At best, they are youths who only know how to shoot using basic rifles. But they have strength, and they resist,” he added. Conversely, Israel utilises advanced technology to fight militants, including drones, operations rooms, intelligence, and special units.

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In its study, ACLED noted that “many members of these local groups are youths, often with no prior training in using arms, nor with a political background or strategy beyond armed resistance, who operate on their own initiative without a command hierarchy. While their emergence reflects the higher flexibility among local armed groups in the West Bank, they do not operate as fully autonomous groups”.

On that note, Al-Sharqawi said: "Palestinian resistance is growing in the West Bank in general, and particularly in the camps and Nur Shams. The war on Gaza has engineered a new reality for Palestinian youths and resistance that won’t be easily erased”.

Talking to TNA, Israeli affairs expert Mohammed Abu Alan said that what is happening in the camps of the northern West Bank, specifically Nur Shams, poses a significant challenge to the Israeli army.

"Israel launched in March 2022 a military operation named 'Break the Wave' to confront a series of Palestinian resistance operations originating from camps, including Nur Shams, which lasted for over a year and failed to achieve its objectives,” Abu Alan said. 

According to Bisharat, Israel has failed to employ a military approach that successfully subjugates Palestinians throughout over 75 years of conflict.

"As history is our witness, the occupation may succeed in containing armed resistance in the West Bank, but it cannot completely eradicate them.”

Issam Ahmed is a Ramallah-based independent journalist focusing on security and human rights issues

This article is published in collaboration with Egab.