For two days Israeli forces pounded Jenin with airstrikes, that killed at least twelve Palestinians, injured one hundred, including women and children, and displaced thousands of others.
Touted as the biggest military operation in Jenin since the Second Intifada, the full-scale incursion which Israel announced was “over” on Wednesday, rendered the city a ghost land rained on by drones and haunted by a large convoy of army vehicles and bulldozers. After long hours of seemingly unceasing violence, the city resembled an abandoned battlefield engulfed in smoke.
But Jenin is not a state at war with Israel.
It’s a refugee camp within an occupied city. The camp, which turns 70 this year, was founded by Jordan to host Palestinian refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 war. Today, some 17,000 refugees are squeezed into a quarter square mile, known as Jenin Refugee Camp.
Israel has coveted Jenin since the 1948 War, when its forces failed to take the city, whose strategic depth and location on the Jordanian border offered an attractive buffer zone for the nascent state. Defended by the Iraqi Army, Jenin was one of the few Palestinian towns where the Arabs fought bravely and showed fierce resistance. (A war cemetery for Iraqi soldiers is still located on the outskirts of Jenin.)
The Zionist leadership was baffled by the defeat. The Israeli daily Haaretz lamented at the time, prophetically so, that Israel’s failure in the battle for Jenin would haunt the Israeli leadership for years to come. Had Israel taken Jenin that year, one reader noticed, “the Arab front on the Jordanian border would most likely have collapsed, the Iraqi army would have retreated, East Jerusalem would have been liberated, and the Jordan River would have become Israel’s border.”
It was the survival of Jenin which allowed it to serve as a refugee haven for displaced Palestinians from Haifa and other parts of Palestine. In a tragic irony, Israel is now bombing the very refugee population it displaced 75 years ago.
In 1967, Jenin fell under Israeli occupation with the rest of the West Bank, rendering it aa city swollen by refugees. Israel occupied Jenin, but never truly conquered it. Israeli leaders knew that Jenin was not an easy feat.
The city had a long history of resisting foreign occupation. During the Palestinian Revolt (1936-39), Jenin became a graveyard for British soldiers, embarking on “an intensified campaign of intimidation and sabotage,” which caused the British administration “grave concern,” to cite an official British report.
Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the legendary Arab field commander of the Arab Liberation Army in 1948, used the city as his military base in northern Palestine, where he mounted his first attack against Zionist forces in kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, which sat near a strategic road between Haifa and Jenin.
Owing in part to its refugee history, Jenin became a hub for Palestinian militants, and consequently, the site of Israel’s collective punishment against Palestinians. It served as a militant stronghold for Palestinian Islamist groups such as Islamic Jihad’s Al-quds Brigade, and Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but also more secular groups like Black Panthers of Fatah, and the Red Eagles of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). This rendered Jenin a symbol of Palestinian resistance against occupation.
More recently Jenin has been the birthplace of a new type of resistance in the form of the Jenin Brigades, a nascent militant group inspired by Israeli aggression, the rise of settler violence, and the PA’s own authoritarian repression and suppression of Palestinian dissent.
Combining armed struggle with poplar resistance, the group have taken up arms against both the occupation and the settlers, carrying out shootings on Israeli military checkpoints and engaging in armed clashes during Israeli raids. (Israeli military officials claim that more than fifty shooting attacks have been carried out from the Jenin area over the past six months.)
The group’s model has been adopted by other newly formed armed groups including The Lion’s Den of Nablus, which have launched several attacks against Israeli checkpoints, soldiers and settlements.
The new groups enjoy the support of a wide spectrum of Palestinian factions, including Fatah, PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This gave the groups their cross-factional identity. Israel has been trying to crush these new militias as seen in frequent raids on Palestinian cities. Jenin Camp has long served as target of Israel’s repeated invasions, raids and bombings, curfews and targeted killings, mass arrests and house demolitions. During the first Intifada, the camp was the target of several Israeli raids and military incursions.
Over its tortured history, the Jenin Camp has known very little peace. The Oslo Accords of 1993, which forced Israel to hand administrative control of Jenin to the Palestinian Authority, have only made Israeli incursions into the camp more and more palpable.
Nearly ten years after Oslo, the oppressed revolted.
Jenin became a major battlefield for Palestinian liberation during the Second Intifada.
The Palestinian uprising started off as a popular rebellion in 2001, but soon became militarized. Jenin became known to Palestinians as “the martyr’s capital and to Israelis as the “capital of the suicide bombers.” Israel said it traced about 30 terror attacks to people from Jenin. And in April 2002, in the aftermath of a wave of suicide bombings, Israel launched a major incursion into Jenin as part of what they called Operation Defensive Shield. Palestinians call it the Battle of Jenin.
Accounts of what happened during the fighting were disputed by both sides, including the Palestinian death toll which some Palestinian sources put in the hundreds. But a UN report and Human Rights Watch found 52 Palestinians were killed, around half of whom believed to be civilians. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed.
The battle, which lasted for ten days, left 400 homes destroyed, and hundreds more severely damaged. The BBC reported that ten percent of the camp was “virtually rubbed out by a dozen armored Israeli bulldozers.” A UN envoy likened the camp to an earthquake zone. Israeli bulldozers razed houses with family members in them. Some 4,000 residents, a quarter of the camp’s population, were left homeless, twice displaced. (Military destruction of town and camp and the Palestinian narrative of the battle is documented in Mohammed Bakri’s film Jenin, Jenin).
Two decades since the Intifada, violence continues to haunt Jenin. On May 11, 2022, during an IDF raid in Jenin Camp, Israeli snipers shot and killed Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh as she was covering the raid for Al Jazeera. Another journalist, Ali Samodi, of Al-Quds newspaper, was shot in the back yet survived.
From there, violence has snowballed. A year ago in June, Israeli forces, backed by helicopter gunships, stormed the al-Marah area of the city, killing three Palestinians, and injuring one hundred others. In January, IDF forces, during a renewed raid in the city and the camp, killed nine Palestinians in a clash with Islamic Jihad militants.
The Jenin Camp is an Israeli creation, birthed by Israel in the aftermath of war. Haunted by Jenin’s refugee history, Israel continues to view the impoverished and powerless camp as a security threat of “existential” proportions that requires extraordinary and disproportionate measures. But history shows us that violence under occupation breeds violence.
The new Israeli government, packed with hard-right settler extremists like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, hungry to show they are responding to Palestinian attacks on Israelis and with no interest in a peaceful resolution to the conflict, offers no horizon for change or hope when it comes to the fate of Jenin and the Palestinians.
Seraj Assi has a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, and an MA in Middle East History from Tel Aviv University. Twitter: @Srjassi