Jenin then, Jenin now – the weakness of Palestinian security forces is the key difference

Peter Beaumont

The Guardian  /  July 3, 2023

Marginalization of Palestinian Authority has led to a new generation of militants who cannot be controlled.

Jenin 21 years ago. Jenin today. In 2002, it was attack helicopters hovering above the West Bank city’s refugee camp over a week of brutal fighting. The new offensive has been led by drone strikes as Israeli soldiers entered the city, reducing the centre of the camp to rubble.

Scenes still stand out from that fighting two decades ago. Journalists standing in the olive groves outside the camp and watching a hovering helicopter fire into the streets. A woman sitting in the first floor room of a house whose front had been sliced off. A man in a wheelchair trying to cross a debris field of shattered buildings.

When the smoke had cleared in what became known as the Battle of Jenin in 2002, more than 50 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were dead, 13 of them killed in a single ambush trying to fight through the booby-trapped streets.

The current Israeli military operation is being described as the biggest in the West Bank since Israeli troops went into Palestinian cities during the second intifada, surrounding Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, and putting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem under siege. Those were violent days in the West Bank, when Israeli tanks were on streets noisy with gun battles with angry funerals to follow.

But Jenin and the wider West Bank have changed in the past two decades, with the steady marginalization by Israel of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has given way to a new generation of militants who cannot be controlled.

Israeli officials have said the present assault, with 2,000 troops deployed, could last for days.

If it seems familiar that’s because it is. Once again armoured bulldozers are pushing their way into the camp, with snipers on rooftops in an operation that was approved 10 days ago.

Then, as now, Jenin’s refugee camp was a place where the writ of Palestinian security forces was considered weak.

The assault in 2002 occurred a few days after a Palestinian suicide bombing during a large gathering for the Jewish holiday of Passover, killing 30 people.

Monday’s raid came two weeks after another violent confrontation in Jenin and after the military said a rocket was fired from the area last week.

“There has been a dynamic here around Jenin for the last year,” Israeli spokesperson Lt Col Richard Hecht said, defending Monday’s tactics. “It’s been intensifying all the time.”

If there is a difference, it is that during the second intifada, Palestinian security forces and fighters associated with senior Palestinian figures were drawn into the escalating violence. In this cycle of violence, it has been the absence of Palestinian security forces that has contributed to the recent escalation.

The level of armed resistance from within the camp during the last major Israeli raid in June caught Israel unaware, with videos showing an explosion that wounded seven of its soldiers and helicopters and drone strikes deployed to rescue injured troops.

That led to pressure from Israeli politicians on the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is dominated by West Bank Jewish settlers and their supporters for a “large-scale operation” across the occupied West Bank.

It was an incident that underlined Netanyahu’s weakness. The years in which his governments have undermined and marginalized the Palestinian Authority as both a plausible peace partner and a viable government, allied with his association with emboldened far-right Jewish settler groups, has contributed to the growing vacuum in Palestinian society on the West Bank.

That has emboldened the armed groups in Jenin and other cities, including Nablus, as a new generation has become disaffected with the Palestinian Authority.

But Netanyahu has been weakened in other ways, perhaps explaining the timing of this offensive. Facing large scale protests over his controversial judicial reform bill, which restarted its legislative process on Sunday, he might hope for a show of strength as a distraction, amid calls from some political figures to suspend demonstrations amid the operation.

One thing is clear, however. Revisiting large scale violence on Jenin and other Palestinian cities – as the experience of Gaza has amply demonstrated – will not solve the long-term and toxic issues of occupation and settlement building.

Peter Beaumont is a senior reporter on The Guardian’s Global Development desk