In Jenin, Guns Are Kosher if You're Fighting Israeli Occupation

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The Jenin Refugee Camp, last week.
The Jenin Refugee Camp, last week.
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Traffic was light in the alleyways of the Jenin refugee camp on Wednesday. Young men sat listless in a few places, casting sharp glances at anyone who entered the camp. A car with Israeli plates stood out; foreigners have no business here. Less than a mile away, in the city of Jenin, the situation is different. Despite the cool weather and the weekday, it was full of Israeli cars moving between the markets, workshops and garages. On the weekends, thousands of Israeli Arabs are warmly welcomed in Jenin.

“Take out the Arab Israeli citizens, and the city would be as empty as the refugee camp,” says Abu Ahmad, an associate of the Palestinian security apparatus and a member of Fatah's Tanzim militia. This is why, he explains, no one dares to rattle the sense of personal security inside the city, and there is a prominent police presence.

Abu Ahmad knows everyone in Jenin, especially in the camp, and his phone doesn’t stop ringing. “Tell him to wait in the square near the monument, I’m coming,” he says to one of his callers. After that, he answers: “Yes, we went to the governor and we closed the matter.” Conversations like this, he says, are the most efficient way to resolve local conflicts. “Anyone who thinks that conduct here goes according to Israeli logic, of roadblocks, raids and arrests, is wrong. It won’t work here.”

The squares in the refugee camp are, in effect, monuments, with pictures of residents of the camp who were arrested or killed, decorated with Palestinian flags. There are familiar faces on a few of the posters – for example, Zakaria Zubeidi or Mahmoud Aradeh, who led the breakout of the six security prisoners from Gilboa Prison. One monument stands out among them. The marble is still gleaming and the plants around it are new. It was built to commemorate four Palestinians killed in exchanges of fire with Border Police forces in August.

A square in the Jenin Refugee Camp.

At a shop next to the monument, four young men sit at the entrance. One of them is a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces; the three others are members of Tanzim. They discuss attempts by the PA to impose order in the camp and to retake control of it. “You’re not writing names, right?” one of them asks.

Then he says: “We’re negotiating over who will turn himself and his weapon in to the PA. It’s very complicated, because the problem isn't the gun, but who’s using it. Bottom line – nobody, not even the governor, would dare demand that a gun that is intended to be used to fight Israel be turned in. That weapon is sacred.” The young man adds: “Every Israeli entry into the camp will encounter resistance. In Israel, they call it terror. Here we call it the fight against the occupation.”

Since the fighting between Israel and Gaza in May, the atmosphere of resistance has been palpable in the refugee camp and in the general area; this has only grown stronger with the prison break in September. Residents have since shown more daring and willingness to fight, and consequently there are more and more guns.

“There are no settlements or military bases near us, and we have no interest in hurting the city's economy,” says one of the young men. “And so the target is the army. Any entry of an Israeli force into the camp will meet resistance by any means, and that’s what happens.” He has been asked to surrender his M16, with which he is suspected of firing at the city's PA administrative center – or Muqata – because of his dissatisfaction over the way a local conflict was being handled.

According to another young man: “The problem is that guns that are used for the fight against the occupation have become, in some cases, a tool to resolve conflicts between criminals. Or people just fire their guns because a prisoner has been released, and at weddings there is massive gunfire.” He says that until recently, the PA has preferred a more restrained approach to the shootings, which also disturb the camp's residents.

A view of the Jenin Refugee Camp, last week.

That changed after a series of incidents in recent months: A press conference held by armed men identified with Islamic Jihad during the search for the escaped prisoners, at which they said they would shelter the fugitives; the appearance of armed men in Hamas military wing fatigues at the funeral of a former minister who belonged to the movement; and the firing at the Muqata.

The first step the PA took was to replace the heads of its security forces in the area. Next came a broad sweep of arrests, which stopped after Ramallah realized that this would not restore the peace. One of the well-publicized arrests was that of Sami al-Rukh, in which the parties exchanged fire. Al-Rukh was not a Hamas nor Islamic Jihad member, but rather the son of Hisham al-Rukh, commander of the PA Preventive Security Service.

The father was murdered by criminals in 2012, and since then his family has been discussing revenge. “This is a complex story,” a relative explains. “Sami’s father, who was a key figure in the camp and kept order, was murdered. The person who murdered him did not face justice, and the son responded angrily. Now he is wanted, and we’re trying to reach an agreement in his case.”

Not far from there, a few young fugitives were sitting in a house on a hill overlooking the city. A phone call from Abu Ahmad led to an invitation for a cup of tea. Present were Yihya Zubeidi, the brother of Zakaria Zubeidi, who is also a Tanzim man. Zubeidi, who has wide-ranging connections in Jenin and in Ramallah, says that in recent weeks he has made the trip between the two cities in an effort to ease tensions.

The Jenin Refugee Camp.

“Everybody knows that there is a very large amount of guns here," Zubeidi says. “Nobody will touch them as long as they are used against the occupation, and nobody will be put on trial for shooting at an Israeli soldier. If in Israel they think this is what’s going to happen, they can forget about it. The story here is different – the concern is that the guns will become a symbol of the loss of control, and everyone wants order and to avoid chaos. And so we are holding talks all the time with the heads of the groups in and outside the camp to calm the situation, and we’re serious about that,” he says.

He adds, “Our situation is absurd. On the one hand, the PA wants quiet and on the other, Israel thinks that it can come in whenever and however it wants and arrest people without being bothered. Every arrest operation like that only increases the anger and frustration, and makes it harder on everyone. We know that Israel doesn’t want quiet, and that there will always be people who try to fuel the fire and the conflicts.”

A boy walks by a monument to commemorate four Palestinians killed in exchanges of fire with Border Police forces in August.

The others in the room grew up during the second intifada. “We are a generation that grew up with arrests, house demolitions and raids,” says Mohammad (not his real name), who pours coffee and tea. “This is a generation that sees its dream crushed and believes that it has a legitimate right to fight, without caring which group he belongs to. I am a wanted man, but I don’t see myself as a terrorist and my problem is not with the PA. Tell the Israelis – we won’t turn our guns into a battering ram in an internal war.” Like the others interviewed, he also says: “From our perspective, Israel is an occupying entity, and any entry of an Israeli soldier into the camp will be met with resistance.”

After the conversation with the wanted men ends, they return to discussing the conditions and the timing for turning themselves in. There is no real answer as to what would happen to those who do so. “There are people who have been asked to turn in weapons that were used in firing at the Muqata or in criminal incidents,” Abu Ahmad explains. “These will be investigated and they'll make a deal. Some might also have to go to prison. One of the issues that is always debated is what prison they would go to,” he says. “If they say ‘Jericho,’ you get hostility – the place has a bad name and nobody wants to go there.”

On the way out of the camp, Abu Ahmad adds: “In the end, we can’t forget that we are from the same place, the same refugee camp and the same fundamental principle – the fight against the occupation.

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