As Israeli forces hunted down wanted men, weapons and explosives in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin this week, after using aerial drones to blow up what they described as terrorist centers there, the city lived up to its reputation as a center of militant defiance. in the occupied West Bank.
For many Israelis, the city and its surroundings are a fearsome incubator of terrorism that has claimed many lives over the years. During the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the Jenin refugee camp was a major exporter of suicide bombers to Israeli cities. Israeli officials say more than 50 shooting attacks against Israelis have come out of the Jenin area this year, and that 19 militants have taken refuge in the camp after carrying out attacks since last fall.
For many Palestinians, Jenin, in the hilly northern end of the West Bank, is a heroic symbol of resilience and resistance against Israeli rule, and the rule of others that came before. That reputation was sealed in 2002, at the height of the second Intifada, when the camp was the scene of a fierce, 10-day battle in which 52 Palestinians, about half of whom may have been civilians, according to the United Nations, and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed
Yasir Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, came up with a new name for the camp that year: “Geningrad”, comparing it to the World War II battle of Stalingrad.
On Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of Israeli commandos took part in the largest military incursion in many years in the area, searching the crowded camp and killing at least 12 people. The military says it has discovered explosives-making laboratories and caches of weapons and explosives hidden inside buildings, under the narrow roads and even in ditches under a mosque.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces also said on Twitter that a soldier was killed “by gunfire” during the military operation.
Israeli leaders indicated Tuesday evening that the incursion was in its final stages and that the Israeli commandos were likely to withdraw from Jenin. But given history, analysts say, it may not be long before Israeli troops return.
“Jenin is respected because it provided the Palestinian collective memory with many examples of not only resistance but also popular support and solidarity,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian columnist and political analyst based in Ramallah. “It is not a rich or industrial city,” she added, but a place with “a sense of shared destiny and unity” where normally competing armed factions of a deeply divided Palestinian society and community fight as one.
Jenin was the northernmost of 19 West Bank sites originally established to house some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel in the late 1940s – when the state of Israel was established and its Arab neighbors. waged an unsuccessful war to crush it – and were never allowed to return. The sites are still referred to as camps, but have become built-up towns or neighborhoods, albeit with generally substandard conditions.
In the Jenin camp, up to 17,000 residents are crowded into an area of less than half a square mile, next to the city of Jenin with about 40,000 people and only three miles from the line separating Israel from the West Bank. United Nations says the camp was not only plagued by violence, but has “one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty” in the West Bank.
In a year of increasing violence in the area, Israel made frequent raids in Jenin to arrest Palestinians suspected of planning or carrying out attacks against Israelis. Many have turned deadly after protracted firefights broke out between troops and armed militants.
Jenin has become a bastion in the West Bank of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza, and of Islamic Jihad. There have been newer, unaffiliated militias, made up of a new generation of gunmen, some of them born after the end of the second intifada in 2005, who act on their own initiative and do not respond to the established organizations.
Of the Palestinians killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, by Israeli fire in the camp since early Monday, at least five have been claimed as fighters by militant groups, including a 16-year-old boy. Israel says all those killed so far were fighters. , although the affiliations of the others remained unclear.
Israel’s right-wing government has vowed to take tougher action against Palestinian violence, while the Palestinian Authority, which is generally weak and unpopular, has almost abandoned the police from the war beds in the northern West Bank, signaling a loss of control and adding to. the atmosphere of lawlessness.
“Jenin is essentially a countryside, a rural town,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israeli fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of the book “Intifada” about the first Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993, describing the city as “a kind of backwater .” It is out of the way for most Palestinians, and far from Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, the body created in the 1990s that exercises limited autonomy over parts of the West Bank.
Years of neglect by the Palestinian Authority have made Jenin an easy recruiting ground for the authority’s rivals in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Mr. Yaari said, adding that those groups have recently flooded the area with weapons and money provided by their Iranian backers.
During the second intifada, according to Israeli estimates, at least 28 suicide bombers set off from the Jenin camp.
Palestinian officials tried to cast the 2002 Israeli attack, part of a larger offensive in the West Bank, as a “massacre” with hundreds of Palestinian deaths in the camp, a claim the United Nations examined and rejected. But the legacy remained.
Even before Israel existed as a state, Jenin became known as a center of rebellion in the late 1930s, during the Arab revolt against British rule and against Jewish immigration to Palestine. A British official was assassinated in his office in Jenin and in a reprisal attack, British troops blew up a quarter of the city.
After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49, the West Bank came under Jordanian control. Then Israel seized it in the 1967 war and Jordan later renounced its claim to the territory. The Palestinian Authority nominally took over Jenin and other parts of the West Bank in the mid-1990s.
In 2005, hoping to reduce friction in the area and signal progress towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel dismantled four Jewish settlements around Jenin, the same year it withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Jenin and the northern West Bank were then viewed by Israeli, Palestinian and international authorities as a kind of pilot program for Israeli disengagement from the occupied territory, and by some even as a possible prototype for a future Palestinian state. That model later collapsed.
Israelis would routinely cross the border into Jenin for shopping, car repairs and dental care, but this has become more dangerous. Israel has restricted Palestinian crossings, so fewer of them enter Israel each day for work, according to the United Nations.
Israel has stepped up construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a major point of friction. Palestinian gunmen often shoot at Israeli communities across the line.
And proximity to the border has another meaning for the Palestinian refugees in the Jenin camp, said Ms. Odeh, the political analyst in Ramallah.
“The refugees there can literally look out the window and see where their fathers and grandparents were displaced from,” she said.