Masked in Gaza

Essam Al-Batsh and his nephew Sobhi Al-Batsh are the latest in a long line of reported Palestinian “militants” killed by Israel. They were both targeted while driving in a car in downtown Gaza. According to an Israeli army statement, “[They] were affiliated with a terrorist squad that intended to attack Israeli civilians and soldiers via the western border” (Reuters, December 8).


Two days earlier, Israeli military aircraft “had targeted two militant squads that were preparing to fire rockets into southern Israel,” according to the Associated Press, which quoted an Israeli official saying the army would “continue to take action against those (who) use terror against the state of Israel.”


It really doesn’t take much to kill a “militant” in Gaza. Israeli military intelligence officers simply select a weapon and zoom in on their chosen person on any given day. This is not difficult since the entire population is besieged in Gaza’s open-air prison. The same statement issued regarding the assassinated “militant” can then be easily rewritten, using the same predictable justifications.


Israel’s excuses actually tell nothing of the history behind the phenomena of militancy. To know why some young men in Gaza decide to mask their faces and carry arms, they need to abandon the media’s reductionist characterization of Gaza’s armed struggle. This goes back much earlier than Hamas and Fatah, the 2006 selections, the 2007 siege, and the 2008-09 war.


The phenomenon began shortly after the Nakba—the Palestinian Catastrophe in 1948, which saw the destruction of Palestine and the erection of today’s Israel. During this time, nearly a quarter of a million people were evicted or forced to flee to Gaza. A displaced population then yearned to go home and many wished to recover the life savings they had buried under patches of earth in their Palestinian villages, to harvest their crops, and seek family members that had gone missing during the forced march out of Palestine.


Once they crossed into newly-established Israel, many refugees never returned. But the boldness of the fedayeen (freedom fighters) grew rapidly. The refugees eventually began organizing themselves, with or without help from the Egyptian army, which was still stationed on the outskirts of Gaza and at the southern borders of the Sinai Desert. Groups quickly assumed names and became factions, their members acquiring military fatigues. The fighters used keffiyehs (traditional headscarves) to cover their faces in order to escape the watchful eyes of Israeli collaborators who were also growing in number.


Over time, Palestinian guerrilla commandos began carrying out daring strikes deep inside Israel. The fedayeen were mostly young Palestinian refugees and a few Egyptian fighters. Their operations grew bolder as they snuck into Israel with primitive weapons and homemade bombs. They would target Israeli soldiers, steal their weapons, and return with the new weapons the second night. Some would sneak back to their villages in Palestine to steal blankets and whatever money they had saved, but failed to retrieve in the rush of war. Those who never returned received a martyr’s funeral. Following every fedayeen operation, the Israeli army would strike Gaza’s refugees, inspiring yet more support and recruits for the young commando movement.


The phenomenon quickly registered among Palestinian youth in Gaza, not due to any inexplicable desire for violence, but because they saw in the fedayeen an heroic escape from their own humiliating lives. Indeed, the fedayeen movement was the antithesis of the perceived submissiveness experienced by refugees. It was a manifestation of all the anger and frustration they felt. They wanted to go home and freedom-fighting seemed the only practical way of fulfilling this wish.


As more Palestinians were killed by Israeli military incursions and snipers, the numbers of fedayeen multiplied. In an historic visit to Gaza in 1955, then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser promised to fight on until all of Palestine was liberated. Soon after, amid angry demands for action, Egypt decided to establish ten battalions of the National Guard, which were made up mostly of Palestinian fedayeen led by Egyptian officers. It signaled an Egyptian attempt to take charge of the situation and control the scattered Palestinian leadership and its armed factions. Cross-border skirmishes culminated, at times, into full-blown border battles. Israeli mortar attacks reached many areas in Gaza. There was no safe place to hide.


Although the factions took new names and the fedayeen wore different colored kuffiyehs, in essence, little changed. Poverty persisted and human rights continued to be routinely violated. Not a single refugee returned home. And three, if not four, generations of fedayeen carried on with the fight.


In some way, the media perception of these masked fighters also remained largely unchanged. The “militant” has always been reported as an inexplicable irritant. At best, they served as a reminder, not of a poignant history that must be unearthed and understood, but of why Israel is, and will remain, threatened by masked Palestinians. When a so-called militant is brutally killed, little justification is offered. If any “militants” respond to the killing, such retorts could possibly serve as a casus belli for an already planned Israeli military escalation.


It is important that we understand that militancy in Gaza is not linked to any Palestinian faction per se or incited by a specific ideology or individual. The phenomenon preceded all the factions and individuals that now dot Gaza’s political landscape. It was caused by the single event of the Nakba and all the tragedies that resulted from it.


Chances are, the “militants” will continue to exist as long as the conflict remains unsolved per the necessary standards of justice and fairness. As for the media, it behooves reporters to dig a bit deeper than an image of the charred remains of an uncle and his nephew and to see beyond the predictably false accusations that underlie official Israeli statements. 


Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).