When he learned that the Israeli army had launched an attack this week to comb for weapons and explosives in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, Mahmoud Sarahat and his friends mobilized to fight back. His comrades were shooting at Israeli soldiers while he helped evacuate the wounded and the dead, he said, taking his guns to give to other fighters.
After two days of violence that left 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead, the Israelis withdrew on Wednesday, leaving behind damaged homes, broken infrastructure and renewed anger over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But it was mixed with frustration with the Palestinians’ own leaders for their failure to plan a better future for their people, let alone protect them.
“We want the Authority to go,” Mr. Sarahat, 23, said of the Palestinian Authority. “They left us for dead.”
Israel has called its 48-hour incursion into Jenin, which it says is aimed at rooting out Palestinian militants, a necessary operation to prevent attacks on Israelis: It said all 12 Palestinians killed were fighters, and at least nine were claimed as fighters by militant groups. .
But Jenin residents described the attack as two days of terror that highlighted their growing sense of hopelessness, vulnerability and abandonment across the West Bank.
While the overwhelmingly strong Palestinians hold Israel responsible for their situation, many are also frustrated with the Palestinian Authority, a political body created decades ago as a sort of state-in-waiting that has limited administrative powers in parts of the West Bank. Now, the Authority offers little more than jobs whose wages it struggles to pay, and many Palestinians view it as ineffective, or as a subcontractor for the occupation.
The Palestinian Authority employs tens of thousands of security forces charged with policing within Palestinian communities. While the forces are expected to rein in Palestinian armed groups and prevent them from attacking Israelis, they do so inconsistently, at least in part because their members sympathize with the fighters.
The leaders of the forces communicate directly with the Israeli military to avoid clashes, but they cannot directly defend their people from Israeli forces. Nor can they protect Palestinians when Israeli settlers from the West Bank attack their cities.
Popular outrage overflowed this week when Palestinian officials arrived at the funerals of some of the 12 Palestinians killed in the Jenin attack but were chased away by mourners who chanted: “Get out! Get out!” and “For shame!”
Major General Akram Rajoub, the most senior Palestinian Authority official in Jenin, acknowledged the frustration but accused Israel of undermining the body.
“What brought the Authority to this point? It is the criminality of the occupation and its refusal to provide any political solutions,” said General Rajoub.
Israeli officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegation that their government undermined the Authority. As for the Jenin attack, they said it freed up a safe haven for militants who attack Israelis.
“They are targeting civilians and they are hiding behind civilians,” Mr Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on Wednesday. “And we denied them that possibility by avoiding civilian casualties.”
The Palestinian Authority continues to pay salaries to tens of thousands of workers in Gaza, but the body has been sidelined there since 2007, when Hamas, a hard-line militant group, seized control of the territory.
The West Bank is ultimately controlled by Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads one of the hardest-line governments in the country’s history, filled with officials who oppose Palestinian political aspirations. Peace talks aimed at ending the conflict and creating a Palestinian state broke down nearly a decade ago without a solution, and world powers like the United States, which have long pressured both sides to continue, appear to be giving up.
The Arab world is also increasingly looking away.
A handful of Arab states have established diplomatic relations with Israel in recent years, setting aside longstanding demands that Israel first resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. Other states, such as Saudi Arabia, have expressed a new openness to formal ties, but have not yet announced them, despite concerted efforts by the Biden administration. However, other Arab countries remain deeply hostile to Israel but are too mired in their own crises to offer the Palestinians anything more than rhetoric.
A Palestinian survey conducted last month found that half of respondents believe that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would benefit the people. The authority’s 87-year-old chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, was last elected to a four-year term in 2005, but remains on the board. Eighty percent of survey respondents said they wanted him to resign.
“They cannot rely on their leadership,” said Khaled Elgindy, a scholar of Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The region has abandoned them. The Arab states have deprioritized their issue. There is no such thing as a US-led peace process and there is no interest in starting one.”
That created “a sense of Palestinian desperation,” he said.
That sentiment ran through conversations in Jenin as residents sifted through the wreckage of this week’s attack.
The Israeli incursion, centered around the Jenin refugee camp, a poor area for Palestinians who fled or were chased from their homes around the time of the creation of Israel in 1948 and their descendants, considered refugees by the United Nations. Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, but Palestinians hope it will one day be part of their own independent state.
The camp is actually a densely populated neighborhood with approximately 14,000 inhabitants. On Thursday, signs of destruction were everywhere. Burnt cars and debris from damaged buildings blocked roads and men worked around the neighborhood to repair broken power lines and water pipes.
Many buildings had holes in their walls that residents said the Israelis made to get in, effectively using these homes as cover. Residents who fled the camp during the attack returned to find that soldiers had occupied their homes and destroyed belongings.
Before dawn on Monday, Israeli soldiers broke through the wall of the al-Saadi family’s apartment building, waking them up, said the mother, Shadia al-Saadi. Soldiers soon herded the 12 family members into a living room, took away their phones, zip-tied the wrists of the men under 50 and ordered everyone to be quiet.
There they stayed for about 10 hours, with soldiers even standing outside the door when they went to the bathroom, Ms. al-Saadi said. The soldiers terrified her 9-year-old daughter so much that the girl vomited several times.
“We were hostages,” Ms. al-Saadi said.
As the family waited, soldiers outside clashed with Palestinian gunmen and bulldozed roads, where the Israeli military said they had unearthed roadside bombs and electrical plugs to detonate them.
After the attack was over, the family discovered that the soldiers had used the building as a temporary base and ransacked their belongings. Furniture was overturned, windows smashed and clothes and dishes were pulled from cupboards and cupboards.
“We don’t even want to repair the house anytime soon because they will probably come back and destroy it again,” said Mrs. al-Saadi.
Another fighter, Mohamad Abu al-Kamel, 28, explained how the struggle against Israel defined his life. He remembered as a child seeing his home destroyed by Israeli soldiers during a battle in the camp in 2002. The Israelis killed two of his brothers and imprisoned his father, he said. He spent time in an Israeli prison for his involvement with armed groups.
Now, he carried a rifle inherited from one of his slain brothers and intended to continue fighting, he said. His wife had just given birth and he planned to pass the struggle on to the next generation.
“I will teach my son what my father taught me: to fight for this camp and for our honor,” he said.
Hiba Yazbek reported from Jenin, West Bank, and Ben Hubbard from Istanbul. Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from London.