The return of 'Rapid Response': What is happening in West Bank's Tulkarm city?

The return of 'Rapid Response': What is happening in West Bank's Tulkarm city?
Israel's raids on Tulkarm in recent weeks underscore the city's significance and the evolution of Palestinian armed resistance in the occupied West Bank.
8 min read
West Bank
19 January, 2024
Armed Palestinian resistance witnessed a resurgence in the occupied West Bank in the past two years, with Tulkarm joining the wave since early 2023. [Qassam Muaddi/TNA]

On Thursday, 18 January, for the second consecutive day, Israeli forces continued their assault on the city of Tulkarm, northeast of the occupied West Bank. During the past 48 hours, Israel killed ten Palestinians in the West Bank​​​.

Following more than 12 hours of raids into the Tulkarm refugee camp, which lasted until late Wednesday and killed five Palestinians, Israeli forces launched another raid onto the Nour Shams refugee camp early on Thursday.

During Wednesday's raid within Tulkarm, Israeli forces arrested dozens of Palestinians and searched houses amidst confrontations with local Palestinian fighters.

Israeli media reported that one Israeli soldier was seriously wounded.

On Thursday, fighting continued in Nour Shams, where Palestinian fighters in the Tulkarm Brigade announced that they successfully targetted an Israeli military bulldozer with a local explosive device.

Israeli forces have been trying to defeat the Tulkram Brigade for almost a year now.

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Tulkarm's legacy

Tulkarm is a city of roughly 150,0000 inhabitants, located in a historically agricultural region of Palestine, which found itself right on the edge of the cease-fire line after the 1948 war. The line, later known as the 'Green Line', became the internationally recognised border of the state of Israel, which was violently established in what is known as the "Palestinian Nakba". 

During the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, Tulkarm hosted thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their towns and cities by Zionist forces from areas that today became the Israeli districts of northern Tel Aviv, Raanana and Natanya. These refugees were hosted in two locations around Tulkarm, which later became the Nour Shams and the Tulkarm refugee camps.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s and the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, several generations of Palestinian armed fighters emerged from these two refugee camps. 

Some of the renowned figures include Khader Taleb, who founded the first PFLP armed cell in the city and was killed in 2002 by Israeli forces. Another was Dr Thabet Thabet, a dentist and intellectual, senior member of Fatah and close friend of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was killed by Israeli special forces in 2000 after accusing him of forming armed cells in Tulkarm.

The most famous figure of the 2000s Palestinian armed resistance in Tulkarm, essential to understanding the current situation, is Raed Al-Karmi—the leader of the then-armed wing of Fatah, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Israeli special forces killed him in January 2002.

Two decades after the second Intifada, armed Palestinian activism surged in the northern occupied West Bank.

Local armed groups began to form in late 2021 to challenge Israeli forces and settlers after Israel launched a wave of raids on Jenin on the heels of the escape of six Palestinians from the Gilboa Israeli high-security prison in September 2021.

By early 2022, the Jenin Brigade was born, followed by the 'Lions' Den' group in Nablus.

Young Palestinians who formed these groups come from different political factions or are without any political affiliation.

Armed with personal firearms and locally-made explosives, these groups' activities focused on shooting Israeli military and settlement outposts and confronting raiding Israeli forces in their cities.

Israeli forces' reaction to this wave has been to further the violence and intensity of raids, introducing airstrikes by helicopters and drones in July 2023, unseen in the West Bank since 2002.

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The birth of the Tulkarm Brigade

In Tulkarm, the return to armed resistance came as a reaction to its increased attacks by Israel on Jenin and Nablus.

In late 2021, a 20-year-old Palestinian, Seif Abu Labadeh, established an armed cell in Tulkarm for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - PIJ armed wing. He was killed in an Israeli ambush between Tulkarm and Jenin in April 2022.

Separately, another group, mimicking the Nablus's 'Lions' Den', emerged and called itself 'The Falcons' Nest' in October 2022. Meanwhile, two young Palestinians were trying to revive the legacy of the armed wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the city.

One of them was 24-year-old Ameer Abu Khadija. He had graduated from university a few years earlier and worked as a policeman in the Palestinian Authority security forces. He was fired from the job and then sought work in construction.

The other was 24-year-old Jihad Shehadeh. Shehadesh was the son of a lifelong Fatah loyal and former member of the famous Fatah's 'Black Panthers' group in the 1980s. Shehadeh and Abu Khadija formed a group that proclaimed itself part of the 'Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades' called 'The Rapid Response'.

'The Rapid Response' is a reference to the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Tulkarm during the second Intifada, Raed Al-Karmi, who was given the nickname because he launched retaliatory attacks against Israeli targets less than 24 hours after one of his comrades was assassinated, like after the assassination of Dr Thabet Thabet.

Shehadeh and Abu Khadija chose this nickname for their group, indicating that a new generation was picking up Fatah's legacy of armed resistance in Tulkarm.

In late February 2023, Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians in a raid in Nablus and wounded around 100.

Among the victims was a 72-year-old man who was shot dead by Israeli forces in Nablus's old city's popular market and a 61-year-old man who was identified at the hospital by his son, who was on duty as a nurse there.

In response to the Nablus massacre, the three resistance groups in Tulkarm joined forces under the combined name of 'The Tulkarm Brigade - The Rapid Response'.

In early March, a group of masked gunmen read the first statement of the brigade in front of a small crowd at Tulkarm's main square. The man reading the statement was Ameer Abu Khadija.

The Jenin-Nablus-Tulkarm triangle

Abu Khadija was killed by Israeli forces a month later during a gunfight with Israeli soldiers who surrounded a house he was hiding at in the village of Izbat Shufa, located in the southeast outskirts of Tulkarm.

In an interview in Arabic with the local Palestinian media 'Ultra Palestine', published on 6 March 2023, a member of the Tulkarm brigade said that the group transcends political affiliation and includes in its ranks individuals who belong to Fatah, Hamas, the PIJ and the PFLP.

The interview came in the context of protests in Tulkarm against the PA security forces' attempts to arrest members of the brigade members to contain its growing influence. The anonymous fighter used the interview to affirm that the brigade had no quarrel with the PA and called upon Palestinians not to start confrontations with each other.

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The Tulkarm Brigade's establishment formed a triangle of Palestinian armed resistance with Jenin and Nablus, harkening to the spectre of the second Intifada, in which a similar triangle was the backbone of Palestinian armed resistance at that period. 

By July of 2023, Israeli forces increased their violent raids, relying now on air strikes, first used on Jenin.

During every raid, Israeli forces have been confronted by Palestinian fighters, whose performance has visibly improved, and they have been able to successfully damage Israeli military vehicles and wound or kill Israeli soldiers.

In October, as most of the media's attention focused on Israel's war on Gaza, Israeli forces raided Tulkarm and killed seven Palestinians. During that raid, eight Israeli soldiers were wounded while fighting the brigade's fighters.

"The fighting experience of Tulkarm's fighters developed relatively faster than in Jenin because that experience was accumulated over two years in Jenin, then in Nablus, and then exported to Tulkarm", Bilal Shalash, a historian specialised in the history of Palestinian resistance, remarked to The New Arab.

"This is a pattern in Palestine's contemporary history. Armed resistance develops in one region, Israeli forces crack down on it, and the experience moves to another place", Shalash added.

An ambiguous outcome

"What is particularly new in this current wave of armed resistance is that these groups are not linked to a central leadership, making it harder for the occupation [Israel] to destroy them by killing their leaders. Despite Israel's attempts, these groups are still connected", Shalash noted.

"The current crackdown on Tulkarm is going on while the resistance in Jenin and Nablus has not been crushed despite taking many blows, which makes the current situation more complicated. The outcome of the current confrontation in the northern West Bank, especially in Tulkarm, also depends in part on how the war unfolds in the near future in Gaza and on how the general situation evolves in the rest of the West Bank", he added.

Earlier this week, Faisal Salameh, a resident and activist in Tulkarm, told TNA that following an Israeli raid on the city, "the occupation's forces caused extensive damage, bulldozing already-bulldozed streets in the refugee camps and destroying large parts of the infrastructure, blowing out sewage pipes and disabling water and electricity networks".

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As Israeli raids become more frequent and brutal across cities in the occupied West Bank, local Palestinian fighters are fighting back.

At this point, Israel is engaged in "a third front" in the West Bank while they claim they are trying to avoid it.

Meanwhile, the death toll of Palestinians, including civilians, continues to rise in the West Bank with each new Israeli raid.

Since the beginning of 2024, 48 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank.

Israel has killed 367 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 7 October.