Jenin refugee camp: Israeli raids risk reigniting historic West Bank flashpoint

Fears rising that site of bloodshed during Second Intifada could become another front in war

Jenin is a concrete and cinder-block Palestinian refugee camp that houses about 14,000 people in the occupied West Bank. AFP
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At least two people were killed on Friday in an Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, the Palestinian Health Ministry said in a statement, leading to mounting fears that the camp could become a second front in the Israel-Gaza war.

A representative said the Israeli military was "currently conducting counterterrorism activities in the area".

The latest deaths come after three Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire on Thursday and one Israeli was killed in a Palestinian attack, according to first responders.

Two of the three Palestinians were shot dead during an Israeli raid in El Bireh near the city of Ramallah, while the third was killed in the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

The Israeli died when his car came under fire near the Einav settlement in the north-west of the territory.

About 130 Palestinians have now been killed in clashes with troops or Jewish settlers in the West Bank since the Israel-Gaza war began on October 7, the ministry has said.

With fighting in Jenin showing no sign of abating, The National explains why the city is at risk of becoming a second front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Where is Jenin and what is life like there?

Jenin is a small city in the north of the occupied West Bank near the border with Israel.

The hillside city is home to a teeming, concrete and cinder-block refugee camp that houses about 14,000 people.

The camp's residents are descendants of Palestinians dispossessed when Israel was created in 1948. Most are impoverished and unemployed.

This heritage and the difficulties of life in Jenin has made the city a bastion of hostility towards Israel and a stronghold for Palestinian militant groups.

Residents of Jenin have said life has become unbearable, especially amid a surge in violence over the past couple of years.

"This is not a life. We want to live in dignity and peace," artist Fidaa Sammar told the AFP news agency.

Mother of three Ahlam Benara said for weeks in June most of the Israeli raids, and ensuing clashes with Palestinians, took place in the early hours, when she was preparing her children for school.

"My eight year old says he no longer wants to go to school because it's located near the main road," which Israeli Jeeps use, she added.

What happened in Jenin in June?

Israel carried out a two-day offensive that targeted militants in the densely populated Jenin refugee camp.

The raid, which combined infantry with drone strikes, followed a similar assault on the camp earlier in the month in which Israel used aerial strikes in the West Bank for the first time in the nearly 20 years.

Raids in Jenin and elsewhere in the occupied territories have become a nearly daily occurrence since an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence began more than a year ago.

The UN said 8km of water pipes and 3km of sewage pipes were destroyed as Israeli bulldozers tore up the streets in an attempt to uncover hidden explosive devices. More than 100 houses and several schools were also damaged.

What is the significance of Jenin refugee camp?

Jenin was the arena of some of the worst bloodshed during the Second Intifada, which began after the collapse of US-backed peace talks in 2000 and escalated into an armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian groups.

Jenin produced many of the suicide bombers who spearheaded the uprising. In response, Israeli armoured forces carried out a devastating raid on the camp in April 2002 as part of a wider clamp down on areas where Palestinians had exercised limited self-rule under interim peace deals signed in the 1990s.

The UN said in an August 2002 report that a total of 52 Palestinians died in Jenin, at least half of them civilians, while Israel lost 23 soldiers, with more than 400 homes demolished and a quarter of the population left homeless, leading to reconstruction of the camp.

Two decades on, Israel has sounded alarms over the growing number of gunmen in Jenin and their stockpiling of munitions. Israel says the camp is a hub for planning and preparing militant attacks, as well as a safe haven for fighters funded by Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Israel also says more than 50 gun attacks have been carried out by Jenin-based militants since the beginning of this year and almost half the population is affiliated either with Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The launch of two improvised rockets by militants near Jenin this year raised alarm in Israel that the West Bank could be going the way of the Gaza Strip, from which it withdrew settlers in 2005 and where armed factions led by Hamas are now in power.

What military actions has Israel taken on Jenin?

Recent smaller-scale Israeli raids on Jenin, often employing squads of commandos disguised as Palestinians, have encountered difficulties given militants' booby-trapping of narrow lanes with bombs and the quick detection of strangers in the camp.

That contributed to the size of the early July Israeli operation, involving more than 1,000 soldiers, as well as Israel's decision to back them up with rare drone strikes in what it called a drive to destroy militant infrastructure and weapons.

Among sites the Israeli military says it has unearthed in Jenin is a command room with a bank of CCTV cameras covering the camp and a tunnel and armoury hidden under a mosque.

Israel also says it has captured 120 suspected militants and killed at least nine gunmen in Jenin. Of the 10 Palestinian deaths, five have been confirmed as militants.

What militant groups are present in Jenin?

Militant groups present in Jenin include the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the armed wing of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction.

The camp's militants operate under the umbrella of the Jenin Brigades.

Their growing presence has been partly due to inaction by the security forces of Mr Abbas's internationally backed Palestinian Authority (PA), which says Israel has undermined its credibility on the street.

But their strength also feeds on the weakness of 87-year-old Mr Abbas, whose formula of statehood negotiations with Israel collapsed in 2014, with no revival on the horizon, and perceived endemic incompetence and corruption within the PA.

Reuters contributed to this explainer report

Updated: November 03, 2023, 12:49 PM