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A new generation is posing a challenge in the Israeli-occupied West Bank

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new generation is posing a new challenge in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Young Palestinian men are taking up guns and organizing into small militias. They have become Israel's most wanted men this year. And pursuing them has led to bloodshed at levels not seen in years. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The casbah of Nablus is a warren of shops selling candied pumpkin, olive oil soap, the city's signature sweet cheese dessert. I walked down one alley past a bakery and see a pile of limestones at the scene of an Israeli attack in August that killed gunman Ibrahim al-Nabulsi. Gunmen still patrol here.

And you can see the mangled metal and the broken stones. And standing right here to the left of me is a 22-year-old man with a black baseball hat and a large gun slung around his shoulder and a necklace with the picture of Ibrahim, his comrade who was killed.

He fidgets with his assault rifle and loads a new magazine. He won't speak on tape or give his name. He'd certainly be wanted by Israeli troops. He says he's among hundreds of young men in new militias like his, called the Lion's Den. They're not formally trained. But they've gotten their hands on M-16s, some smuggled from Israeli army supplies. Instead of throwing rocks at troops entering their towns, they shoot. Israeli soldiers have shot back, killing around a hundred Palestinians this year, including civilians, the highest tally in several years. And Israel says there have been more than 140 Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the West Bank, the highest number in years. A few soldiers were killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: A resident passes by. He won't give his name, talking about his support for wanted men, but says young, armed men like the one standing before us remind him of the intifada days, when armed Palestinians battled Israeli troops in these alleyways. Residents praise them for doing what their own police forces don't, confront Israeli troops. He speaks through our interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We feel that the spirit of resistance is alive and well. People have not forgotten resistance.

ESTRIN: The young gunman who was killed is actually the son of a veteran officer in the Palestinian security forces, whose mandate is to go after renegade militants like his son. I visit him.

We're walking up a very steep flight of stairs. There's Ibrahim's father on the balcony.

ALAA AL-NABULSI: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Colonel Alaa al-Nabulsi. He's with his wife, who's meeting a group of women offering their condolences.

AL-NABULSI: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The colonel says the whole point of him joining the force was the Oslo Peace Accord of the 1990s. He was supposed to help Palestinians secure their own streets. They hoped for eventual independence.

AL-NABULSI: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: But he says it was all just ink on paper. Today, Israeli troops sweep into Palestinian areas. And Palestinian security officers are told to stay out of their way.

AL-NABULSI: (Through interpreter) The Israelis are constantly going in. And we stay in our headquarters. The people started asking, what are you doing for us? You're doing nothing for us.

ESTRIN: His son joined other young men, taking matters into their own hands. He became a prominent militant Israel accused of shooting its soldiers. And al-Nabulsi says he got a phone call from an Israeli commander asking him to hand over his son.

AL-NABULSI: (Through interpreter) The Israeli commander called me. I told him, give me two days to convince my son. Maybe I can take him into Palestinian custody. As a security officer, I cannot arrest my son and deliver him to the Israelis. But he didn't give me a chance. The very next day, they raided the house and brought in dogs.

ESTRIN: He says Israeli troops turned the house upside down, slashing through sofa cushions looking for hidden weapons.

AL-NABULSI: (Through interpreter) How can I, as a security officer, arrest him after you've broken into my own house?

ESTRIN: As his son, Ibrahim, evaded arrest, the 18-year-old became a local star, the Lion. Supporters posted TikTok videos of him. He walked openly through the streets, crowds following him. Israeli troops ambushed and killed him in the casbah in August. But as his legend grows here, it highlights the crumbling power structure in the West Bank, where the Palestinian leadership and security forces lose ground to emboldened young gunmen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONEN BAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Israel's internal security chief Ronen Bar has called the situation a cycle of violence. After deadly attacks on Israelis this spring, Israeli troops are going after militants because Palestinian forces refuse to. But he says that leads to firefights, Palestinian casualties and further undermines the Palestinian police. Under pressure from Israel and the U.S., the Palestinian forces finally cracked down recently and arrested some of Ibrahim al-Nabulsi's comrades. The results were disastrous, with gunshots and screaming, as caught in this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

ESTRIN: Palestinian civilians and gunmen accuse their own police forces of doing Israel's bidding. In clashes, one man was killed. Now Palestinian leaders have pledged not to pursue militants in Nablus anymore. The young armed men are setting the agenda, says Jamal Tirawi, a prominent activist and critic of the Palestinian leadership.

JAMAL TIRAWI: (Through interpreter) There's a lack of trust in any political horizon and in the Palestinian Authority. That's led the Palestinian youth to launch their own initiative and their own struggle against the Israeli occupation. And they've taken authority into their own hands. And that's created gaps for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to fill in the West Bank.

ESTRIN: As the old guard, the Palestinian Authority and their police forces lose credibility. Analysts say militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are encouraging and funding some of the armed youth, maybe as a foothold to taking power here one day.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Nablus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.