Israel’s hornets’ nest

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Friday 15 Apr 2022

Palestine’s Jenin refugee camp may be Israel’s biggest security dilemma, Mohamed Abu Shaar reports from Gaza

Israel s hornets  nest
Mourners carry the body of 25-year-old Palestinian Ahmed Al-Saadi, who was killed during clashes with Israeli forces, in Jenin (photo: AFP)

 

Once again the Jenin refugee camp, no larger than one square kilometre, is at the forefront of Palestinian politics after a series of developments involving repeated Israeli incursions there under various pretexts. The refugee camp, which the Israeli army calls “the hornets’ nest”, poses a difficult security challenge.

Developments in Jenin, in the northern West Bank, began to escalate in early April when the Israeli army killed three Palestinians in the heart of the city. The army claimed they were plotting an operation inside Israel, where several attacks – unseen in many years – had killed 15 Israelis. In response, the Israeli government took extensive security measures to prevent the recurrence of such attacks.

The escalation crescendoed further when the Jenin refugee camp was revealed to be the abode of the perpetrators of two fatal attacks in Tel Aviv. This raised the alarm in Israel about the camp’s increasing threat to its security, and it warned it would invade the camp in an extensive operation.

Jenin refugee camp was built by UNRWA in 1953, five years after Israel occupied large swaths of Palestine in 1948. Some 13,000 Palestinians live there, mostly refugees from Haifa and Mount Carmel, who have close ties with relatives who live in these cities under Israeli rule. This has resulted in a security loophole whereby Jenin residents can enter Israel without being subjected to extensive security measures, compared to other areas in the West Bank. In addition, there is geographical proximity between the city and areas within the Green Line.

However, the residents of the camp, which has become a haven for many suspects wanted by Israel because it is difficult to penetrate, suffer from harsh Israeli restrictions as well as endless attempts by Israel to storm its outskirts and penetrate it, whether by Israeli soldiers and machines or special forces or what is known as Mustaaribeen, undercover assassins posing as Arabs.

Unemployment rates have reached 22 per cent inside the refugee camp, according to the latest Palestinian figures, which is high compared to other areas in the West Bank where unemployment is at 16 per cent. In the latter areas, Palestinians can work inside Israel, trade across the border with Jordan, and find job opportunities in the private sector.

In Jenin and the refugee camp, however, Israel is pursuing a policy of economic strangulation through a series of restrictive steps that have a limited short-term effect but devastating cumulative impact on the lives of Palestinians. These measures also undermine the development of Palestinian economic and social life.

The repeated closure of Al-Jalama border crossing, through which shoppers from Arab cities in Israel enter Jenin, dealt a severe blow to the city’s economy. The city relies on those shoppers and their high purchasing power as well as the economic activities associated with the flow of tourism: transportation, communication, etc.

Jenin, which was once considered the breadbasket of the West Bank, has become an area rife with unemployment and crime, and the spectre of poverty hangs over many of its residents. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is gradually losing control over the security situation there.

The PA’s loose security grip has enabled armed Palestinian factions to thrive in Jenin refugee camp, where militants from various factions have closed military ranks. Israel fears this will spread to other areas in the West Bank.

Among the groups that are thriving in Jenin refugee camp are Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing created by Fatah that later integrated with the security services of the PA. This step was mostly successful in reducing attacks by the Brigades against Israel. However, some Fatah militants who disapproved of the PA’s handling of relations with Israel restructured themselves into a single military body.

Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, are also active in the camp and work closely with Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. This is unlike most other areas in the West Bank, where Fatah and Islamic Jihad clash and boycott each other.

Hamas, which does not have a viable military presence in the camp, recently began to contribute to  the militarisation of the camp by making token appearances at most military activities organised by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Al-Quds Brigades.

Although Israel was always alarmed by the growing militant activity at the camp, it shied away from any large-scale military operation there, until the recent wave of operations inside Israel. Diaa Hamarsheh and Raad Khazem – two young Palestinian men from Jenin who carried out two shootings in the Bnei Brak area and Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv in April – were the two names that emerged.

Khazem carried out the last attack, and it embarrassed Israel because it took ten hours to track him down and kill him when he arrived in Jaffa on foot, after walking there from the site of the operation in central Tel Aviv.

The Israeli army attempted to enter the camp on Saturday to arrest the perpetrator’s father, but was met with shots and home-made explosives by Palestinian gunmen who were holed up there. Israel failed to make an arrest, and gave the father a short deadline to surrender or it would raid the camp.

After these events, Israel’s Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev said Israel is preparing for a large-scale operation in Jenin refugee camp, but indicated that Israel is working to exhaust all other options first. Bar-Lev was referring to repeating the 2002 invasion of the camp, when Israel fully breached the camp as part of a military operation that included all areas of the West Bank known as Operation Defensive Wall.

During this operation, militants from different factions and Palestinian security agencies fortified themselves at the heart of the camp, and engaged in ferocious clashes with the Israeli army. The fight killed 23 Israeli soldiers and 50 militants inside the camp, and Israel completely demolished hundreds of buildings and facilities in order to enter the centre.

The decision to raid the camp to eliminate the military presence of Palestinian factions inside will not be an easy option for the current Israeli government, as it faces more turbulence in its cabinet coalition and the possibility of collapse at any moment.

At the same time, a large-scale military operation in Jenin may push armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, especially Islamic Jihad, to respond by firing rockets into Israel, as noted by Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziyad Al-Nakhalah. Al-Nakhalah said the factions in Gaza will not stand idly by while Israel launches a massive attack on Jenin.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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