Since March 22, there have been a number of terrorist attacks in Israel killing at least 19 Israelis including two Arab Israeli police officers.
On Thursday evening, May 5, towards the end of Independence Day, with many people gathering outdoors to celebrate the country’s 74th anniversary. A fifth attack took place in the Ultra-Orthodox city of Elad near Petah Tikva, three civilians were killed and seven other were injured. The two terrorists who were armed with axes and knives are still at large and as the hunt for them continues, the police released their identities Assad Al-Rafai and Tzabahi Abu Shakir, both from Jenin area in the West Bank.
There has been a lot of speculations in the media about the timing, the possible connection between the attacks and motivations. Furthermore, experts on Israeli and Palestinian affairs were trying to detect a common denominator or explaining the reasoning behind these attacks. But within the Israeli intelligence community there was no surprise when it’s emerged that four of the seven assailants were from Jenin. For the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s intelligence agencies, Jenin has always been a source of violence since its very establishment. According to many military experts if the situation in Jenin is not brought under control Jenin’s trouble can flame tensions to spill over and can lead to a major military confrontation.
The terrorist attack in Beni Brak on March 29, 2022, was carried out by Dhia Hamarsha who came from the village of Yaabed, south of Jenin. His attack, the 7 of April attack on Tel Aviv and the recent attack in Elad, were all carried out by terrorist from Jenin. These three attacks clearly show that the battle of Jenin which was supposedly won 20 years ago was not won. Once again Jenin is of being the epic center of West Bank terrorism and according to Israeli authorities at least 23 of the 60 suicide bombers that attacked Israel come from Jenin, especially its refugee camp, according to Israel, more than any other city in the West Bank.
Twenty years ago, precisely on March 29, 2002, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a large-scale military operation known as Operation Defensive Shield, in several West bank towns, including Jenin refugee camp. In one month alone, March 2002, more than 138 Israelis lost their lives and more than 683 were wounded. On 27 of March, 2002, just two days before the start of the IDF military operation, a Palestinian suicide bomber disguised as a religious Jewish woman entered the ground floor of the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a Passover Seder dinner was being held. He detonated his powerful bomb, killing 30 Israeli civilians and injuring hundreds.
THE PARK HOTEL MASSACRE
During the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, Israeli cities and towns were subject to wave of Palestinian terrorist’s attacks. Suicide bombers, which many of them were from Jenin would denoting their bombs in busy Bazars, buses and other civilian places. The IDF tried to battle the wave of attacks by conducting small-scale operations and arrests in West Bank, to avoid invading cities.
The atrocities of the Park Hotel immediately changed the rule of the game. Back then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government ordered the army to launch an invasion. The IDF launched “Operation Defensive Shield” – the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967.
The operation began with the entrance of IDF soldiers into Jenin. During the ten days of intensive fighting between IDF and various Palestinian armed groups, Jenin refugee camp was almost flattened, 100s of homes were severely damaged, with some 52 Palestinians, mostly militants, and 23 IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting. The fighting also led to the disposition of more than quarter of the camp’s population and contributed to building of the West Bank Security Barrier (separation wall).
Yaron Buskila, a Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) who served more than 10 years as a Battalion Commander and Operation Officer of Juda and Samaria Division in West Bank, recall the memories of the battle of Jenin “the resistance was very severe, 23 soldiers were killed, and the terrorists tried to abduct soldiers' bodies. But it was difficult because they used the civilian population as a human shield, if the IDF had not tried to be careful towards the civilian population the resistance would not have been considered significantly in the face of a strong force like the IDF”.
A JOURNEY INTO JENIN CAMP PAST AND PRESENT
For many Palestinians, Jenin is a ‘Symbol of Resistance’ and have long been proudly referring to Jenin as “the factory of men and the lion’s den”. It’s the home to the first Palestinian resistance against the British rule, led by the Syrian-born Izzedin Al Qassam who was killed by the British in 1935 in Yaabad in Jenin. His death led to mass protests and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. After his death he became a symbol of the Palestinian resistance and when Hamas was established, it named its military wing after him, the Izzedin Al-Qassam Brigades.
From 1950s and onwards new militant groups began to emerge like Fatah, the Black Panthers, Black September, Abu Nidal organization (ANO) and the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group who carried out skyjackings during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these terror groups were centered on around Jenin region. Some of them moved away from classic guerrilla rural-based warfare and internationalized their so-called resistance. Many launched a series of hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and shootings, culminating in the kidnapping and subsequent deaths 11 of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
The notorious ANO carried out terrorist attacks in 20 countries, killing and injuring hundreds of people. Targets have included the USA, UK, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and the group also targeted moderate Palestinian opponents and was suspected of killing PLO deputy chief Abu Iyad and PLO security chief Abu Hul in Tunis in January 1991. ANO assassinated a Jordanian diplomat in Lebanon in January 1994. The group’s activities died out and today they have a modest presence.
From 1980, new groups were to emerge replacing the old guards. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), who originally emerged in Gaza but today has a strong-grip-hold in Jenin region and in particular in Jenin refugee camp. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas also has a significant power in Jenin.
Jenin steadily grow to become the epic-center of violence and hotbed of various armed groups. It also played a central role during the First Intifada in 1987. So, it’s not unsurprisingly that many Israelis came to view Jenin as the ‘Capital of Terrorism’.
Jenin refugee camp since its establishment has been a source of ‘headache’ to the Israeli authorities. It was founded in 1953 by Jordan to house displaced Palestinians following the 1948 War. After the Six-Day War in 1967, control of the West Bank was transferred from Jordan to Israel - placing Jenin under Israeli rule until the transformation to PA’s control in early 1990s as part of the Oslo agreement.
The camp suffers from severe overcrowding, it sits on 0.42 sq. km and has a population of over 15,000, and the density is estimated at 33,333 per sq. km. It also experiences one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty among the 19 West Bank refugee camps. Many residents previously relied upon work in Israel, which has been severely reduced since the construction of the Security Barrier and the implementation of the permit regime. Unemployment and poverty has affected the youth especially, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction and frustration and contributing to higher school dropout rates among younger adults. There is also a significant drug and substance use in the camp.
When the IDF launched its operation, the main objective was to destroy terrorist infrastructure housed in the Jenin and other West Bank town. There were fierce clashes taking place and 20 years on one can still finds on the IDF official website an acknowledgment the battle of Jenin was “the most difficult one and therefore is most remembered one”. Lt. Colonel Buskilawho served in the West Bank during that time, believes that “the operation achieved its goals because after the operation came 15 years of quiet in Jenin and Jenin changed from a city of terror to a city of marketing and theaters and more”.
At the end of the Second Intifada, the local armed gangs in Jenin's refugee camp were pushed aside. The Palestinian economy began to grow, and the regime shifted from militant Yaser Arafat to more diplomatic Mahmoud Abbas. Government institutions were rebuilt and Jenin became a vibrant city of cafes, restaurants and shops. Year 2018, Jenin become one of the most prosperous city in the West Bank with much of its economy reliant on Palestinian citizens of Israel who visit the area for shopping and leisure.
However, about four years ago the situation start shifting. The PA became increasingly corrupt and authoritarian and was entangled with crisis of legitimacy and nepotism. Young graduates in Jenin found hard to get jobs, jobs were to go to those with the right connections rather than merits. Then there was the arrival of more division and infightings within Fatah and the cancelling of the Palestinian Elections. Initially, some unemployed youth joined armed gangs dealing with smuggling of arms and drug trafficking. The lucrative crime deals between West Bank including Jenin and the Israeli Arab city of Umma Al Fahm, was a major contributing factor to the growing number of youth join criminal gangs in order to make a living.
The PA was further weakened when it decided to decrease its security coordination with Israel as a way to protest against the policies of Netanyahu government and Trump administration. The resentment and dissidents against Abbas’s leadership and PA was to intensify and a recent poll showed Abbas’ popularity is at its lowest since he emerged to the political scene, more than 80% wishes his departure.
The failure of the PA and the mismanagement of funds contributed to PIJ and Hamas to gain more support and power. They with the support of frictions of Fatah’s military wing began taking hold of the Jenin camp undisturbed by the PA and to some extend by Israel.
Once again Jenin the local militias managed to rebuild a massive network of terrorist infrastructure and flood the camp with weapons.
Hamas, PIJ and Fatah and other armed cells operating in Jenin are not to be mistaken as a unifying force, but rather they have different agendas and all battling to be the dominant power there. However, they are all united in their fight against Israel and share equal animosity towards the PA, which they regard as a traitor for cooperating with Israel.
The security situation in Jenin was further worsening as result of the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns led to many people losing their jobs and were faced with economic hardships. Palestinian security forces were to engage in forcing Covid-19 restrictions to halt the further spread of the disease. This is at the same time as Israeli forces start reducing their operational activities in the camp. All these factors presented the perfect opportunity to PIJ and Hamas to tighten its grip in Jenin.
Palestinians in West Bank and especially in Jenin were to feel increasingly alienated from President Abbas’s leadership. Lt. Colonel Buskila claimed the leadership of PA is significantly weakened especially in Jenin and Nablus. He carries on saying “PA’s corruption and the fact they abused their people has opened the door for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to take the advantage of the situation and become the strongest players there” claims Lt. Col. Buskila.
WEST BANK IS BOILING
Last year, the PA replaced many senior officials in Jenin, in hope this move would restore the rule of law. But it’s evident that the PA has totally lost control of Jenin and its security forces are too afraid to enter the camp to deal with armed local groups.
The PA continue to diminish generally in West Bank and in particular in the Jenin camp. PA security forces cannot manage the security situation without its coordination with Israel. All this taking place in a time where most Palestinians have lost hope in the peace process and the dream of a sovereign statehood. The weakening of Abbas leadership has also opened the door to other external actors to get involved: Tehran, who is actively driving past and current tensions through Hamas and PIJ. PIJ is an obedient proxy of Iran who is easily influenced and according to unverified reports Hamas has few times prevented PIJ from firing missiles towards Israel, but for how long Hamas can control-manage PIJ, is uncertain.
As recent as less than a year ago, the IDF start recognizing that the Palestinian security forces were losing their grip on terrorist trends and unable to carry out a large-scale operation in Jenin in order to damage the terrorist infrastructure. It was reported that just few months before Israel was hit with the current wave of terrorist attacks that the IDF was planning to launch a military operation to eliminate terror cells there. But the plan was abandoned and the PA forces were pressured into taking care of the job, which they massively failed at.
What makes Jenin more challenging in military terms compare to other West bank towns, to that Lt. Colonel (res) Buskila says “Due to the lack of large clans in Jenin, the atmosphere in Jenin is that everyone is on his own (…) the fact that individuals are individuals without clan / tribal affiliation with economic interests has created a social space that has pushed people, especially young people, to enlist in organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah or the fronts. It can even be said that for the people of Jenin, the organization has over the years become the substitute for the clan, it gives the individual the identity, the support and the vocation”.
The current situation in West bank and particularly in Jenin is a ticking bomb that ready to explode at any moment. On its streets, the tires are piling up in anticipation of the next confrontation and masked heavily armed men belonging to PIJ and Hamas parading in the camp to show their readiness to fight. The leadership of Abbas is in a direr situation than ever before now facing a new generation of well-trained operatives, at a level not seen in other refugee camps in West Bank region.
What needed to be done to diffuse tensions and restore order, to that Yaron Buskila who is also a Military Commentator to Channel 14, says “Embarking on an extensive and significant military operation in Jenin and the other cities from which terrorism emerges (…) as well as taking security responsibility from the Palestinian Authority in order to restore order”. However, the question is - will the IDF and the PA succeed this time in ending the battle of Jenin once for all?