Ahmad Jamil Azem
Middle East Eye / August 16, 2023
Without a resolution in sight to the Israel-Palestine conflict, young people are honing their strategies for self-protection.
Following Israel’s large-scale attack on Jenin last month, I sensed that the Palestinian response this time around was different from usual. And despite the mass destruction in the refugee camp, streets and buildings, it seemed Israel had achieved very little in terms of eliminating the core armed groups.
Arriving in Palestine after the attack, it took me several days to arrange to visit the camp. In the meantime, I met relatives and friends, and discovered something astonishing: their daughters and sons knew the details of the “martyrs” of Nablus and Jenin, the young men killed in recent confrontations with the Israeli army and Jewish settlers. The new generation had a new set of heroes.
In mid-July, I was driven by a friend to Jenin camp, and en route we arranged to meet a leading local activist, who was waiting for us upon arrival. Our host introduced us to a group of people standing near the community’s youth centre, and I was struck by the victorious smiles on their faces.
I was eager to raise with them the notion of the new “rules of engagement” in the ongoing conflict with Israel.
The number of victims in the recent Jenin assault was relatively small, with 12 people killed, including several teenagers. The father of a young man who was injured said his son came to Jenin to help people, and video footage shows the 22-year-old was unarmed when he was injured by Israeli gunfire.
Meanwhile, young resistance fighters in the camp say that the older generation, including men who fought during the Second Intifada, have imparted lessons: “You should not make yourself an easy target. We need you alive.”
Some of the men with whom I spoke explained how they have turned to “tactical redeployment” – a strategy that involves adhering to the principles of asymmetric warfare, using small groups and quick confrontations, rather than larger-scale military battles.
But in my mind, this did not answer the question: why carry weapons in a highly populated area? A young man with traces of injuries around his eyes answered bluntly: “If we have political gains, we will lay down the guns.”
He added: “We do not have a political process. Settlers are everywhere attacking us, and we have to protect ourselves.”
The young resistance fighters said they had no intentions of confronting anyone other than Israeli occupation forces. Their goal was to avoid facing the Palestinian Authority – but if the PA could not stop Israel’s attacks, then someone had to step up, they said.
The Jenin refugee camp has become a regular site of Israeli incursions
Residents say Jenin camp is in a particularly vulnerable location, below a high hill where Israeli snipers can easily target them. Rags are draped across streets in some areas to hide pedestrians from potential snipers.
This fragility adds another dimension to the pragmatism developing within the camp, with no vision of a wider national liberation movement. People are doing what they can to defend themselves and resist; as one resident put it, “not to die silently”.
Amid this backdrop, one key feature of the camp is the unity that has developed, both among political factions and between generations. Elders narrate the history of the camp, provide moral support, and ensure that families’ daily needs are met. A generation down, people in their 40s and 50s emphasize the lessons of the Second Intifada, while intervening in any disputes that might arise.
Young men in their 20s and 30s are the new generation of resistance. Residents estimate that there are only a few hundred armed fighters among more than 15,000 people in the camp, while other young men work to build civil defence structures and camp fortifications.
These youths highlight the importance of comprehensive resistance, noting that “words could be the most important factor in the conflict”. They welcome critical discussions, explaining how music and art are essential parts of their battle. At night, people in the camp gather, sing together and share advice.
Leaving the camp, I understood that the term “capitulation” was not in the dictionary there. Going forward, the lack of a peace process, along with widespread hopelessness and a deepening occupation, will continue to foment new kinds of resistance.
Ahmad Jamil Azem is an associate professor at Qatar University