The latest IDF raid in Jenin, a West Bank city and refugee camp, leaves us with more than another casualty count and set of civilian traumas. How can we can address those living in civic limbo in places like Jenin?
As I noted in a four-part series on Israel and the West, writing on Middle Eastern conflict is plagued by the immediate search for bias, with which to dismiss any competing intel from “the other side”. Al Jazeera will always report with certain priorities. The Times of Israel will report with others. And as situations in Israel and Palestine intensify, there is always a push to gamify death counts and the sheer panic and destruction in any given clash. In international media, this leads at times to more fixation on word choice (such as haggling over apartheid) and scoreboards than the humanitarian nightmare itself.
That gamification continues now, around the latest painful event in the region: an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) operation this past weekend that saw over 1,000 troops raid Jenin to target military combatants and their arsenals. The IDF shared photos of seized stockpiles of explosives and other munitions caches, one under a mosque, and reported that its airstrike targets included a joint war room used in part by the Jenin Battalion. Local Palestinians shared videos and photos of the damage to civilian spaces, and reports of attendant harm to civilian life.
Death counts differ. The IDF says at least eighteen Palestinian gunmen were killed. Palestinian sources name at least twelve, including five teenagers among the combatants. One Israeli soldier was killed while supporting IDF withdrawal, which was completed early July 5. This “brigade-level raid” also saw hundreds of local citizens injured, well over a hundred young men held for questioning, families trapped without aid for days, and thousands driven out.
Today, Palestinian militant groups are claiming victory on the streets, while fellow citizens join them in railing against the local government for failures of defense. The teens and adults killed as combatants are being buried as valiant protectors in its stead. On Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that this raid was unlikely to be a “one-off”, but rather “the beginning of regular incursions and continuous control of the territory”. This is in keeping with IDF promises to continue to target what it considers a “hornet’s nest” of terrorist activity in Jenin.
This latest raid cannot be viewed in isolation, if we ever hope to alleviate the harm.
But international fixation on this “largest raid in 20 years” isn’t helping. You can almost hear the drum-beat of media sensationalism, pushing for a Third Intifada.
Have we learned nothing from our other active wars?
The problem of Jenin
Jenin refers to both a city and a refugee camp in the West Bank: the former holding up to 40,000 people, and the latter an overcrowded 14,000. That complex identity matters. This refugee camp has been in operation since 1953, when it housed Palestinians fleeing or violently expelled from their homes during and after the 1948 Palestinian War, which is recognized as part of the Nakba: a term used to describe both the original expulsion and the ongoing state of Palestinian life in the region.
Why do we have 70-year-old refugee camps? Because that’s the only way, sometimes, for international bureaucracy to provide any aid to impoverished regions denied fuller integration within surrounding nation-states. It doesn’t help residents go forward, but it allows them to keep treading water. (And our world is full of such stopgaps.)
Jenin is one of many refugee camps in the region, but it has a particularly storied history in Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was rebuilt in part by the UN after the Battle of Jenin in the Second Intifada, a major Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. This effort on the part of international groups was not universally favored; many Israelis today consider UN and other international relief efforts in the camp as partly responsible for its current state, as a key site of Palestinian extremist recruitment and preparations for attacks on Israel.
Ostensibly, Jenin is governed by the Palestinian National Authority (PA), under 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is not well liked (disapproval has gone as high as 81 percent), and with reason. He’s part of the Fatah Party, which decided to drop democratic elections years back. Hamas, the opposition party, initially refused to recognize such a government, and the two have struggled to share authority ever since. For want of proper electoral processes, no one is sure how this precarious third party between Palestinian militants and the IDF will be replaced. Appointment is likely, but also unlikely to improve confidence in the office.
For now, the PA stands accused of ineffective governance by both local Palestinians and Israelis. Netanyahu’s government argues that the West Bank power vacuum compels Israel to take more direct action through IDF operations, though local analysis disagrees over whether this strong Zionist’s aim is and/or should be to seize further territory, or simply eliminate terrorist threats. Even the name of this latest raid has been shaped by different group ideologies. Some claim the raid was called Operation Home and Garden, from a Biblical term for Jenin also used by Netanyahu; IDF spokespersons have insisted that it has no official name.
Abbas, conversely, argues that the Israeli government has been routinely undermining the PA’s efforts to cultivate regional stability, in part through military actions like these. Israeli citizens critical of Netanyahu are sympathetic to that claim, because of Netanyahu’s express interest in prioritizing IDF operations while otherwise maintaining the political status quo. This is also extremely complicated, though, because many Israeli citizens regard the PA, which is made up of Hamas and Fatah, as representing a force that expressly wants the destruction of Israel. Such citizens do not endorse their government helping to solidify the PA’s power, even as a means of staving off further radical military factions in the region.
A rock and a hard, hard place
As Haaretz reported this year, this political context has trapped Palestinian youth in the West Bank in a hopeless situation. With a third of the West Bank population between the ages of 15 and 29, unemployment high, and domestic corruption pulling people back from direct political participation, it’s no surprise that a majority of youth surveyed last June support armed confrontation and even a Third Intifada (even as overall Palestinian demographics do not).
In Jenin, Nablus and portions of Hebron, it is no longer able to maintain public order or even provide basic services in some cases. Fatah’s nemeses have exploited this lawlessness to expand beyond Gaza, while Fatah’s own armed wings have ramped up their activities as well.
This situation has created ideal conditions for chaos and violence—especially in refugee camps, which are overflowing with illegal weapons and frustrated, unemployed young men (often school dropouts). Multiple new armed factions (e.g., the Lion’s Den) have emerged in Nablus, Jenin, Tul Karm and camps inside Ramallah. These factions have been responsible for much of the rise in violence against Israeli citizens and the Israel Defense Forces. They also openly oppose the PA and confront its security forces.“West Bank at Boiling Point: Palestinian Disillusionment and Two Governments in Crisis”, Moran Stern, Haaretz, April 5, 2023
In late June, IDF killed three Palestinian gunmen near Jenin who had allegedly targeted an Israeli checkpoint. One of these men, Muhammad Awais, was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of militias with ties to the PA’s ruling party.
This came on the heels of a June 19 attack in the city of Jenin, in which five Palestinians were killed and a hundred people wounded (civilian and Israeli military alike) during a joint IDF and Border Forces raid to detain two Palestinians in the territory. Apache helicopter airstrikes were deployed in the operation, while Palestinian militias reacted to IDF tanks with explosive devices.
Considering the approach taken in this week’s raid, to highlight the explosive munitions seized by the IDF in Jenin, it’s not a stretch to suggest that IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari’s promise to “draw lessons” from that confrontation two weeks prior played a significant role in this latest operation.
After that attack, however, the international community also weighed in, to again call for a more peaceful and humanitarian solution. France reiterated its support of a two-state solution and appealed to Israel to comport itself in keeping with both its agreements at Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheik, and international law involving the use of proportionate force and the protection of civilians in occupied territories.
The fundamental problem is that there is no hope provided by current approaches to the situation—for anyone. Militants on both sides expect ongoing hostilities, and are maybe even keen on another full-scale war. All the dehumanizing rhetoric also deeply undercuts peace goals: this notion of a “hornet’s nest” in Jenin, for instance, transforms disenfranchised and otherwise trapped Palestinian youth into little more than a garden scourge in need of pest removal.
Is there a need for protection on both sides? Absolutely. No one should have to live in fear of their home being attacked. But the terrorism plaguing both Israel and Palestine did not emerge from the ether, and it is not the work of cartoonish “baddies” who can be separated from the rest of a long-failed populace of fellow human beings.
Rather, the violence in Jenin—past, present, and surely future, in both its refugee camp and its city-proper—is an affirmation of past inadequacy from all bodies of authority who could have done better up to this point.
Their mistakes are our current nightmare.
We do not have to cede the next generation’s opportunities for peace to any further failures of political will and action here and now.