Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made his first visit in years to Jenin, the battle-scarred and impoverished Palestinian city in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that was the target of a two-day attack by the Israeli army last week. .
Mr. Abbas’s visit was an effort to demonstrate to both Israelis and Palestinians that he maintains authority and control over Jenin, a city where his security forces are passive spectators to street battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militias opposed to his rule.
Jenin is within the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank that has been nominally administered by the Palestinian Authority since the 1990s, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed diplomatic agreements, known as the Oslo Accords, that increased Palestinian autonomy within some parts of the territories which. Israel captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But in recent years, areas of Jenin and other parts of the northern West Bank have instead become dominated by Palestinian militias that reject Mr. Abbas’s leadership and carry out frequent attacks on Israelis. As a result, the Israeli army has increased its attacks on the city and the wider region, such as the one last week that killed at least 12 Palestinians. Mr. Abbas’s inability to prevent these attacks further damaged his popularity among Palestinians, making it even more difficult for him to assert his authority over the city.
Mr Abbas’s brief visit on Wednesday – widely reported as his first to Jenin in more than a decade – was a belated effort to rebuild his standing, as well as that of the authority itself. It came just days after some of his key allies were booed by mourners in the city as they attended funerals for people killed during the latest Israeli operation.
Mr. Abbas’s efforts to end Israel’s occupation through negotiation and diplomacy are seen by many Palestinians as a failure, and a younger generation of Palestinians — including fighters in Jenin — want to fight Israel by force.
After arriving by helicopter around midday from Ramallah, one of the few pockets of the West Bank where Mr. Abbas exercises tight control, he visited a neighborhood known as the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold that was extensively damaged during the Israeli assault. The heavily built-up area is still known as a refugee camp because it is inhabited mostly by Palestinian families who sought refuge there during the wars in the late 1940s that surrounded the creation of the state of Israel.
“Brothers, I want to tell you that the authority came here to affirm its support for the people of Jenin camp and with its people in the city of Jenin,” said Mr. Abbas, standing in front of a restaurant badly damaged by the battle. last week
“The Palestinian Authority is one authority, one state, one law,” he added.
About a thousand elite Palestinian Authority troops secured the area ahead of Mr. Abbas’s trip. Officials decorated the streets with dozens of yellow flags signifying support for Fatah, Mr Abbas’s secular political movement. The flags largely obscured those of rival movements, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two Islamist groups that wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Mr. Abbas in 2007.
The authority’s troops were also filmed on Wednesday blocking an Israeli military convoy from entering the city – a scene so rare that many asked on social media if it was staged.
But while Mr Abbas’s visit was intended to demonstrate his authority beyond Ramallah, it also showed his fragility. To arrive by plane, he had to borrow planes from the Jordanian government and secure permission from the Israeli army, which controls airspace over the West Bank.
To ensure his safe passage to the outer edges of the Jenin refugee camp, Mr. Abbas’ security team had to work with the gunmen who control the camp. Palestinian officers removed roadside explosives from the area that had been planted by the militias – but only after they were told where they were, according to Muhammad Owais, a fighter from the Jenin Camp Brigade, a loose union of local militiamen.
“Nobody wanted this visit,” Mr. Owais, 18, said in an interview. “We wanted to show our respect to him as a city because it would be a shame for us not to do it. But he was just trying to whitewash his image.”
Mr. Owais portrayed Mr. Abbas as a distinguished visitor, rather than his national leader. “He is our guest here, and we respect all guests,” Mr. Owais said.
Despite the heavy police presence, the visit was chaotic and Mr Abbas’ bodyguards struggled to keep crowds of curious residents at a safe distance. Senior aides to Mr. Abbas, including a government minister, were sometimes forced to push back onlookers themselves.
The loudspeakers transmitting Mr. Abbas’s speech often failed, silencing him for seconds at a time. When he was audible, Mr Abbas, 87, struggled to clear his throat, often filling the air with the sound of coughing. Two police officers attending the speech passed out in the heat as temperatures approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the loudspeakers were operational, Mr. Abbas tried to create an atmosphere of unity.
“I would like to say to those near and far: The country is one, and will remain one,” he said.
“The hand that will break the unity of the people – and their safety, security and stability – will be cut off from its arm,” he added.
For some, his presence and words were welcome and even pleasantly surprising.
“I didn’t expect him to be interested in us,” said Islam Khrewish, 20, whose family owns an eatery that formed the backdrop to Mr Abbas’s speech. “But now he has shown that he has not abandoned us.”
But even among those charmed by Mr. Abbas’s visit, the president’s approach to governance and the conflict with Israel remained unappealing.
Architect of the Oslo Accords, Mr Abbas has long sought to achieve Palestinian sovereignty through diplomacy, negotiation and other non-violent means. But with Israel now ruled by its most right-wing government in history, prospects for a Palestinian state are more remote than ever. Mr Abbas’s approach is now seen as a failure among the Palestinian public, who largely support a return to arms, polling shows.
“He’s been trying this for years and it’s gotten nowhere,” Mr. Khrewish said. “It is clearly a failed strategy. The right way is resistance. The Israeli army will leave only through resistance.”
Many now also see the authority less as a vehicle for national emancipation than as a corrupt and authoritarian body that helps Israel police the West Bank. Mr. Abbas has not held national elections for 17 years, the Palestinian Parliament has not met for more than a decade, and Mr. Abbas now rules by decree.
However, his control over the Jenin refugee camp remains tenuous at best, even after his visit on Wednesday. He left within an hour, without speaking to members of the public.
Within half an hour of his departure, Mr. Abbas’s elite troops disappeared.
Once again, militia members freely patrolled the streets with their assault rifles.