Palestinians in Jenin evoke painful past as violence flares
The journey of the Palestinian who opened fire at a street-side bar in Tel Aviv last week, killing three young Israeli men and sending the city into lockdown, began a two-hour drive away in an impoverished refugee camp deep inside the occupied West Bank.
Twenty years after Jenin saw one of the biggest battles of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel is once again launching near-daily raids into the camp and trading fire with local fighters. Decades of dispossession, poverty and violence have only deepened the camp’s reputation as a bastion of armed struggle against Israeli rule.
Tires, gutted appliances and other rubble are piled up near the entrances to the camp, which is transformed into a fortress at night, when the raids usually occur. Narrow roads wind through a confusion of squat concrete homes built on a hillside, some adorned with portraits of slain Palestinians and the flags of armed factions.
Palestinian assailants have killed 14 Israelis in a series of attacks in recent weeks, and clashes at a major Jerusalem holy site on Friday have raised tensions further.
Last Thursday, Raad Hazem, a 28-year-old from the Jenin camp, attacked the bar in central Tel Aviv and eluded a massive manhunt for hours before police shot and killed him near a mosque.
A large poster celebrating Hazem as a martyr to the Palestinian cause was hung over the main entrance to the camp after the attack, praising him for “imposing a curfew” on the seaside metropolis.
Israel has launched a wave of arrest raids across the West Bank, igniting clashes with Palestinian militants. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed, many of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been killed by mistake. Twelve were from in or around Jenin.
The renewed violence came as little surprise to Ahmed Tobasi, the artistic director of the Freedom Theater, which was co-founded by a famous militant and offers drama classes, performance facilities and a safe space for young Palestinians in the camp.
“What do you expect from a child who grows up in a refugee camp, who sees army raids morning, noon and night?” he said. “His father’s a prisoner, his brother’s a prisoner, his mother has been detained, his friends are prisoners or martyrs.”
“There’s no opportunity to be anything else,” he said.
The camp is home to Palestinian families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Like other camps across the Middle East, it has grown into a crowded, built-up neighborhood where a U.N. agency provides basic services.
Jenin emerged as a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada, when Palestinians launched scores of suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians, and Israel imposed closures and carried out deadly raids. On March 27, 2002, a suicide bomber struck a large Passover gathering in the coastal city of Netanya, killing at least 30 people and wounding 140.
Days later, Israeli troops launched a massive operation in the Jenin camp. For eight days and nights they fought militants street by street, using armored bulldozers to destroy rows of homes, many of which had been booby-trapped. An AP reporter who visited the camp immediately afterward said it looked like an earthquake had hit.
At least 52 Palestinians, up to half of whom may have been civilians, were killed in the fighting, according to the U.N. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed, including 13 in a single ambush.
Two decades later, the Palestinians’ dream of an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — is more remote than ever.
Peace talks ground to a halt more than a decade ago, and Israel continues to build and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which it unilaterally annexed and considers part of its capital. Gaza is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority’s limited self-rule is confined to West Bank cities and towns.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood, but his government has taken steps to improve economic conditions, including easing some movement restrictions and issuing thousands of work permits to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel had hoped such measures would help prevent a repeat of last year, when protests and clashes in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ignited an 11-day Gaza war.
Now, in the wake of the attacks, Israel is tightening restrictions around Jenin and calling on the PA, which coordinates with it on security matters, to take action.
But the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian PA is mired in a crisis of legitimacy that would grow even worse if it is seen to be fighting alongside Israel. Palestinian officials say the relentless Israeli raids in Jenin only undermine it further.
“We are ready in principle to work on enforcing law and order, and to implement our agreements with the Israelis, but in exchange for what?” Jenin’s governor, Akram Rajoub, told The Associated Press. “I don’t work for the Israelis. If I don’t see a political solution on the horizon, then why should I do anything?”
Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired Israeli general who held senior positions in the West Bank during the intifada and is now at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, says it’s the other way around.
“You’re looking at the chicken and the egg here. We operate there because they don’t,” he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Tel Aviv attack, but other officials did not. Rajoub visited the mourning tent of the attacker’s family and gave a speech filled with praise that he later posted to Facebook.
“That’s something very disturbing,” Kuperwasser said. “The Palestinian Authority still thinks it’s in an ongoing struggle against Zionism and against Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”
In the Jenin camp, the PA is seen as a public service provider at best, and at worst as collaborators with the occupation.
“The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian resistance are on opposite sides,” said Osama Hroub, a local leader with the Islamic Jihad militant group, which has a strong presence in Jenin.
“The Palestinian Authority performs its specific security duties in exchange for economic favors, with no regard for the Palestinian people,” he said.
Few expect another full-blown uprising. Israeli officials say the recent attacks appear to have been carried out by lone assailants with perhaps some accomplices, rather than by militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
On the streets of Jenin, the tires are piled up in anticipation of the next confrontation.
“We are going to live on our land and die with dignity, and we aren’t going to surrender to the occupation,” Rajoub said.
Associated Press reporter Nasser Nasser contributed to this report.