A memorial to the 57 villages from which the Jenin residents’ forebears fled during the Nakba. Alex Levac

Jenin, Once the Most Militant of Palestinian Refugee Camps, Waves a White Flag

The residents of this refugee camp, once a site of horrific clashes with the army, are more occupied with Facebook these days than with the occupation. Still, no one knows how long the calm will last.

Two doves, one snow-white and the other gray, flew like a sort of hackneyed symbol through the huge new hall under construction in the lower part of the Jenin refugee camp. The 750 square-meter structure is named Nisan, in memory of the month in the Arabic Gregorian calendar in which the Israeli army invaded – April 2002 – sowing horrific devastation in the camp. A project of the Popular Committee, which acts like a local government, the hall will be available at cost to local residents for private celebrations. The first such hafla will be a wedding reception for 27 couples from the camp, at the conclusion of the Ramadan holy month, which began this week. Each couple will receive a gift of $3,000 from the committee. Signs of hope in the Jenin camp.

Not far away from the hall, other projects are also nearing completion. One, a stylized white Square of the Return, will be a memorial to the 57 villages from which the residents’ forebears fled during the Nakba. The camp’s entrance gateway, also of hewn stone, carries the inscription, “Waiting station for the return.” The large bronze “keys of return” on the gateway will soon be replaced; people complained that they look more like guitars than keys to the lost homes in Palestine.

A new cemetery was also recently dedicated in the camp – the previous one, which came into use after the Israeli invasion, is full. And in the large sports stadium, where we witnessed a rally of armed fighters during the second intifada, new lighting poles have been installed. The new inscription on the wall is: “Even if I don’t get there, it’s enough that I tried.” Nearby, a new supermarket, called Happy Family, in English, has opened, as has a car wash.

Jenin, Jenin. The camp has changed since our last visit here more than two years ago. At that time, we came after 21-year-old Hamzi Abu al-Haija, – whom we’d known since he was a child, when both his parents were in prison at the same time – was killed. “There’s nothing to worry about,” he told us, two weeks before Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed him after he opened fire as they were trying to arrest him.

Alex Levac

He’s the last person to have been killed in Jenin. Two years and three months with no one killed, knock on wood. The camp has barely taken part in the current “lone-wolf” intifada. People here don’t believe in it. They’re occupied with Facebook, with exchanging recipes, with the improving economic situation, and with the vast quantities of weapons still remaining in almost every home: Although the firearms are intended for use in celebrations, they worry the locals. “People who are angry at their wife shoot, people who get out of jail shoot, people getting married shoot,” one resident said this week.

The Palestinian Authority is trying to fight this phenomenon, but doesn’t have the means to succeed. People here are also concerned about the plethora of mopeds and motorcycles in the possession of youngsters, most of them stolen from Israel. The kids drive them wildly and dangerously through the narrow alleyways. The motorcycles and the guns are occupying the camp these days more than the occupation.

Jenin, always the most militant of the refugee camps, was battered and destroyed, suppressed and bloodied, by Israel. These days its spirit seems to be broken. Every person is dealing with his own fate, his own private struggle for survival. Quite a few handsome new homes have been built high up on the steep hill on which the camp stands, offering breathtaking views. Those who can afford it are moving to the city of Jenin, which is enjoying relative prosperity, thanks mainly to Arabs from the north of Israel who come to shop there.

For its part, the IDF continues to enter the camp, but in a less intense way: Only once every week or two, and usually with foot soldiers. They enter a house, arrest someone, often for web-based “incitement,” and leave. The children occasionally throw stones at the soldiers, but there are no longer the columns of armored vehicles and jeeps that would once rumble into the camp with a huge din almost every night, and strike fear into the hearts of the people here. Nowadays, in some cases, the residents only learn in the morning that the IDF raided the camp at night. Palestinian Authority forces also rarely enter the camp, for fear of the armed residents.

The Jenin camp, not what it once was. The Jenin camp, not what you thought.

Alex Levac

The road from Nablus to Jenin is lovely – it’s almost the only settlement-free swath of the West Bank. The loveliness is enhanced by the fact that IDF doesn’t often come through here, either. In the downtown area, municipal inspectors lock illegally parked cars with a wheel clamp. Signs in Arabic and English direct visitors to the Haddad holiday resort, the visitors’ center and a newly opened branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. You’d think that the “city of suicide bombers” had become an international tourist site. The messiah isn’t here yet, nor are the tourists, but the city looks better than it did two years ago.

This week the refugee camp woke up late. Ramadan had begun and with it the many hours of heat and fasting during the day and the “white nights” of wakefulness on the rooftops.

Jamal Zubeidi also got up late this week. On the empty lot next to his home – where his nephew, Zakaria Zubeidi, commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, lived until his house was demolished by the IDF in the second intifada – a new dwelling is being built for Jamal’s son, Yusuf, who works in a local sandwich shop and has never been in prison. But half of Jamal’s family is still incarcerated. His son Naim was sentenced to 33 months and is in Ketziot Prison; another son, Hamoudi, has been in detention for a year in Megiddo Prison, awaiting trial; Jamal’s cousin and son-in-law, Jibril, is due to be released at the end of the year after a 12-year stint in jail; Jibril’s brother, Yihyeh, will be getting out in two years, after completing a 16-year term; another nephew, Daud, has been sentenced to 54 months in prison; and a nephew from the nearby village of Burkin is serving a 29-year sentence.

Alex Levac

All of them were convicted of security offenses. It’s that kind of family, a “fighting family.”

Gradually, though, the realization is sinking in that it was all for nothing.

“We have been waging a struggle for almost 100 years and we have never achieved anything,” Jamal Zubeidi says quietly in the living room of his house, which was also partly destroyed by the IDF. He sees his jailed sons once every six months, through armored glass. His nephew Zakaria was released from a PA prison three months ago, after more than three years of incarceration, but he is not allowed to leave Ramallah, where the PA is forcing him to live. He is suspected by Israel of taking part in a shooting at the Jalama checkpoint a few years ago, and the PA’s arrest of this “cat with nine lives” – shrouded in mystery and the subject of endless rumors – was apparently coordinated with the Israeli authorities. In any event, more than 100 residents of the Jenin camp are still incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

Jamal Zubeidi, 60, a member of the Popular Committee, is one of the most impressive residents of the Jenin camp that we’ve met over the years. He acknowledges that the situation there is better than it was two years ago – but the improvement doesn’t fill his heart with joy after all the years of struggle and suffering.

Alex Levac

“People don’t think about politics anymore,” he says. “They don’t talk about politics. Everyone thinks only about himself. We have reached a point of despair. War doesn’t work. Politics doesn’t work.”

He blames the Arab world for abandoning the Palestinians to their fate. And meanwhile, no one in the camp knows how long the quiet will last. Has the hope for liberation been lost completely? Has it been crushed by Israel? It’s hard to know.

As though time has been frozen, photographs of Saddam Hussein still hang above one of the main alleys at the entrance to the camp. It may be the only place on the planet where images of the Iraqi dictator are still on display. Two years ago, in the almost total absence of local law-enforcement mechanisms, a monitoring committee was set up to address local disputes. This body of 30 residents, 10 of whom are very active, meets frequently in its offices high above the camp and is considered a success story.

The veteran Popular Committee runs the camp with funds from the PA, the PLO and donations. There is a feeling that unemployment is down, even if there are no data available. There is very little serious crime in the camp.

These developments should come as welcome news to everyone who wants the Jenin refugee camp – the site of numerous instances of martyrdom and heroism over the years, perhaps more than any other place in the occupied territories – to get on to an even keel. Yet, when we left late one afternoon this week, as locals were starting to shop ahead of the meal marking the end of the day’s fast ended, something melancholy and very sad hung in the air.

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