‘History repeats itself’: Israeli attack turns Jenin into war zone once again

Bethan McKernan & Sufian Taha

The Guardian  /  July 3, 2023

Old traumas are revived in West Bank city that was scene of some of worst fighting in Second Intifada.

In Jenin’s centre and at the main entrance to the city’s refugee camp, the ground shook with the boom of explosions; rounds of artillery and machine gun fire drowned out ambulance sirens and shouts and screams. Roads were littered with bullet casings and broken glass, and the air was filled with teargas and plumes of black smoke from burning tyres, set alight to block Israeli access and vision.

Jenin, a poverty-stricken city in the north of the occupied West Bank, witnessed some of the worst fighting of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of the 2000s. Two decades later, full-scale warfare has returned to the city’s streets, bringing old traumas to the surface for older generations and opening the eyes of younger ones.

Fierce fighting raged across Jenin’s claustrophobic, ghetto-like refugee camp, home to approximately 11,000 people, from the early hours of Monday, when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched Operation Home and Garden, its largest offensive in the West Bank in 20 years.

By late afternoon at least eight Palestinians had been killed in the first major drone strikes in the West Bank for 15 years and ground fighting in which up to 2,000 Israeli troops have been deployed. Bulldozers – another returning hallmark of the Second Intifada – have destroyed or damaged homes, cars and streets. The IDF said they had been used to clear the roads of improvised explosive devices.

The local hospital was hot and chaotic, with intermittent electricity: blood streaked the floor, while people seeking shelter smoked cigarettes outside treatment rooms and tried to get some sleep in quieter corridors. Eight bodies lay in the morgue as weeping family members went to and fro.

“This is one of the worst days I have ever had,” said Dr Mahmoud Baslit, an orthopedic surgeon who has worked at the Jenin government hospital for the last four years. He said the hospital was treating 35 people injured in the raid, of which about 10 required surgery.

“We are the closest medical centre to the camp, we are just 200 metres down the road. But the soldiers haven’t been letting some of the ambulances through. We know there are many more injured people inside we can’t reach,” he said. In an emailed comment, the IDF denied obstructing the work of Palestinian medics.

Jenin, home to one of the largest camps in the West Bank set up for Palestinians expelled from their homes after the creation of Israel, has long been a centre of resistance to the 55-year-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Today it still suffers from high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment, and gun battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups in the narrow streets are common.

The semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority, viewed by many Palestinians as little more than a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, has no presence or legitimacy here, and a new generation of fighters, who do not necessarily take orders from the traditional Palestinian factions, are reaching maturity.

The camp is the epicentre of the new wave of violence engulfing Israel and the Palestinian territories. According to the IDF, 50 shooting attacks against Israelis in the last two years originated in Jenin and 19 suspects have taken shelter there.

In March 2022, the army launched Operation Breakwater, focusing on Jenin and the nearby city of Nablus, in response to a spate of Palestinian terrorist attacks. In the 15 months since, both cities have experienced near-nightly IDF raids and some of the worst bloodshed in the West Bank in decades. Many young men in the camp the Guardian has met on previous visits say they have no choice except to pick up weapons in order to defend their home against the Israeli incursions.

Despite Israeli efforts at what is known as “mowing the grass”, the situation has only deteriorated and Palestinian attacks are becoming deadlier: four Israelis were killed at a petrol station in the West Bank last month.

At least 133 Palestinians and 24 Israelis have been killed so far in 2023, meaning this year is on track to be the bloodiest in the West Bank and Israel since 2005. Two surprise Israeli operations in the blockaded Gaza Strip over the last year led to the deaths of another 83 Palestinians, and one Israeli.

Over the past few weeks the fighting in Jenin has ratcheted up several notches. Last month the IDF was forced to send a helicopter gunship for the first time in two decades to aid the rescue of a ground unit that encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance, including the use of improvised explosive devices the army likened to those used in Lebanon in 2006.

In another unprecedented development, a rudimentary rocket was fired towards Israel from Jenin last week, in an echo of how the militant group Hamas built up its arsenal in Gaza.

Operation Home and Garden targeted what the army called a command centre in Jenin camp used as a safe house and strategy, weapons and communications hub.

At the Jenin hospital, however, three survivors of a drone strike said that after the initial bombings, the Israelis appeared to be attacking at random. “It hit someone standing 5 metres in front of me,” said Abu Ayham, a 37-year-old firefighter from the camp, who was responding to the damage caused by the Israeli strikes.

The lower half of his body was covered in shrapnel injuries; doctors had not had time to thoroughly examine him yet, he said, but he could not use his legs and staff had told him he would need surgery.

“I was hit in the leg by a rocket in the second intifada too,” said Jihad Hassan, 63, who was looking after his son in the same room where the firefighter was recovering. “Now look, 20 years later, my son is here, in almost the exact same bed, with the same injury. History repeats itself.”

It is not clear why such a large operation is taking place in Jenin now. Israeli media suggested it had been long planned, and its execution delayed until after last week’s Eid holiday. There is significant, and mounting, political pressure on the IDF: powerful far-right elements in Israel’s new government have publicly castigated the security establishment for not doing enough to stem terrorism.

They have also fired up their base. Jewish settler vigilantes are taking matters into their own hands on a bigger scope and scale than before, with hundreds descending on Palestinian villages to torch homes and cars in response to the killings of Israelis – to date, with impunity.

For now, the West Bank violence is largely contained to Jenin and Nablus. The Palestinian Authority, and half of its divided ruling Fatah faction, is against a return to full-scale fighting, and sophisticated Israeli surveillance technology is making it more difficult for the new generation of militants to organize.

The IDF has also stressed that it is not seeking to retain a ground presence in Jenin camp, or anywhere else in the West Bank supposedly under the PA’s jurisdiction.

This round of bloodletting has not yet escalated into full-blown warfare, but events over the last year suggest a new chapter has been opened in the decades-old conflict – and it is never clear beforehand what will light the spark. For the people of Jenin, daily life is now a war zone anyway.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Sufian Taha in Jenin