Once a Developing City, Jenin Has Turned Into a Terror Hotbed

The West Bank city that once symbolized quiet for Israel's security forces has turned into a stronghold for militant groups. Still recovering from COVID restrictions, sanctions imposed after a spate of attacks in Israel may make things worse

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Palestinian gunmen take part in the funeral of Muhammad Zakarneh, 17, who died of injuries sustained a day earlier during a raid by Israeli soldiers, in Jenin on Monday.
Palestinian gunmen take part in the funeral of Muhammad Zakarneh, 17, who died of injuries sustained a day earlier during a raid by Israeli soldiers, in Jenin on Monday.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

To Israel's security establishment, Jenin was a model of Palestinian stability until a few years ago: A city with a flourishing economy, its residents almost uniformly supporting Fatah, and a relatively small IDF force in charge of it. Soldiers would hardly patrol it on a routine basis, only entering based on specific intelligence. Its economy depends on the commerce of thousands of Arab citizens from Israel, and laborers from the city go to work in Israeli cities daily.

To Palestinians, Jenin is a symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation, particularly its adjacent refugee camp. Even in times characterized by Israel as “quiet,” the IDF continues to carry out its nightly raids to apprehend suspects.

The city that once symbolized relative quiet and security for Israel has forced its way into the headlines in recent weeks for entirely different reasons: The city and refugee camp have become strongholds of Islamic Jihad and Hamas members who have carried out deadly attacks in Israel, as have the nearby villages of Burqin, Yabad, and Qabatiyah. In response, the coordinator of government activities in the territories ordered a halt to the entry of Israeli citizens to the city over the weekend, gutting 75 percent of the purchasing power in the city’s economy.

Israel's sanctions on the city, during shopping-heavy Ramadan, are supposed to lead the Palestinian Authority to handle the militants in Jenin themselves – whether due to pressure by leading figures in the city, or because the lack of control over the area will leave the PA no choice. But continued sanctions could play into the hand of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the restrictions on Jenin could be reexamined as early as next week to prevent further escalation.

Palestinian children burn tires following an Israeli military raid in Jenin, Tuesday.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

The changes the city has undergone didn’t happen all at once. Since its peak in 2018, the city's delicate fabric has gradually eroded under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, indifferent to the tremendous weight of COVID-19 lockdowns, and the IDF. Largely absent from the public discussion in the Israeli media, these connections underneath the city's surface are what birthed the conditions for the lethal wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens in the last three weeks.

Terrorism economy

The Fatah movement’s grip over the greater Jenin area enabled both the PA and the IDF to monitor its developments much more closely, unlike cities in which Hamas receives more support, such as Hebron and Nablus. In 2018, the security establishment's assessment of Jenin was so mild that the IDF stationed just one battalion there. This posture gave the region’s residents peace and quiet of their own: Its central location and the low price of goods were attractive to Israeli Arabs ready to shop, while the rate of laborers leaving the city to work in Israel was low compared to other West Bank cities.

Next to the city sits the Jenin refugee camp, home to some ten thousand people. According to UNRWA data, the crowded camp occupies less than one square kilometer. Since Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) until February of this year, 45 residents of the Jenin area have been killed by Israeli security forces, B'Tselem data shows. Since March of this year, eight Palestinians have been killed in the Jenin area by the IDF during arrest operations – most since the start of the terror wave, with Israel claiming those killed were involved in it.

Palestinian mourners carry the body of Sanad Abu Atiyeh, 17, during his funeral in the Jenin refugee camp, two weeks ago.Credit: Nasser Nasser /AP

A 50-year-old Jenin resident says that the general situation in the refugee camp hasn’t changed significantly. He explains the violent eruption in the past few weeks by way of “the economic situation, the army’s raids on the camp, and the arrests,” a sentiment echoed by many of the refugee camp's residents. The camp's youth don’t know any Israelis, except as armed soldiers, he explains. The older generation, on the other hand, would meet Israelis who came to shop in Jenin or while working in Israel as day laborers.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in 2020, Israel decided to close the checkpoints and prevent Palestinians from entering Israel. Months later, many figures in Israel's security brass sought to reverse the measure in light of the city’s economic dependence on Israel, fueled by the dual movement of Israeli citizens seeking West Bank prices and Palestinians seeking work in Israel. The Israeli Health Ministry flat out rejected the request, ruling that there should be no distinction between Palestinian cities.

Throughout the year-long lockdown, the city's economy only deteriorated. Presented with a golden opportunity, Hamas and Islamic Jihad began to make inroads among the camp's struggling residents in cooperation with local organized crime, offering youngsters the opportunity to traffic arms and shoot at IDF forces in the area. Weapons flooded into the already saturated city: M16s, AK47s, handguns, and improvised weapons like the “carlo.” Over time, terrorism became a means through which the residents of the refugee camp could make it through the lockdown period. The new reality taking hold in Jenin happened right under the Palestinian Authority's nose, which had its hands full enforcing COVID restrictions across the West Bank.

“Before COVID, 6,000-7,000 Israeli cars would come into town – and then for almost a whole year hardly anyone came,” says Ammar Abu Bakar, chairman of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce. "35 percent of commercial outlets during COVID and others were idle. We contacted the Israeli side and said 'People are entering Barata’a (a village half in Israel and half in the PA). They have no COVID but we do?'”

Ten months ago, he says, checkpoints were opened to allow Israelis in. Now they were closed again following the recent attacks committed by residents of greater Jenin. “It’s collective punishment. They’re punishing all the citizens because of what happened. And during Ramadan? It destroys the whole city and of course it has a negative impact on the citizens. There is mutual interest in reopening them,” Abu Bakar argues.

The market in the Jenin refugee camp on Sunday.Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP

Many of Jenin’s residents are barred from working in Israel for security reasons. “This one is ineligible and this one is ineligible and this one is ineligible. The entire refugee camp is made ineligible with no security reasons. But many do go to work in Israel. Jenin is a border town. They go through the gaps [in the security barrier] and work in Afula and Nazareth."

Chronicle of a vacuum

Shortly after the global outbreak of COVID, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the suspension of security coordination with Israel following the unveiling of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” This impacted security operations on both sides: The PA refrained from public moves that could be interpreted as aiding Israel, and the IDF scaled down its presence in the area, refraining from entering the cities save for specific counterterrorism operations.

The trend continued and in 2021, with Jenin still under pandemic lockdown, Israel decided to continue to refrain from operations in the city and refugee camp during election season in the territories, afraid that military operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad would boost their support at the polls, harming Abbas’s reelection bid.

But in April 2021 Abbas decided to cancel the PA elections. Over a year has passed since the IDF significantly cut back operations in the area, during which the residents of the Jenin refugee camp lived in a vacuum in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad flourished – with no pressure or pushback from the IDF or PA. Following last year's round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Hamas was forced to concentrate on rebuilding the Gaza Strip and struggled to maintain its hold on Jenin and the refugee camp as a result. Thus, the responsibility for arms trafficking and launching attacks in the area passed on to the Islamic Jihad and to even less organized militant groups.

Israeli soldiers patrol on March 30, 2022, a village south of Jenin, reportedly from where Palestinian assailant Diaa Hamarshah left before killing five people in Bnei Brak.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP

In a particularly unusual show of leniency by the PA, a mass funeral took place in Jenin last November under the aegis of Hamas. Israel and the PA had just reestablisehd their security ties, and Israeli security figures warned Abbas’s men that Hamas was planning to sponsor the funeral of a Hamas operative and former PA minister who had died of COVID. The organization was planning a display of force and defiance of Abbas, they warned, in which armed and masked Hamas operatives would take part. The Palestinian President demanded that the funeral be called off, but the people of the refugee camp voiced vehement objection – and the PA security apparatus failed to stop it.

In response, Abbas fired several senior commanders in the Jenin area, replacing them with men he believed more loyal to the PA – but was quickly disillusioned within a few weeks. The new command, too, realized the limits of power when dealing with the militant groups of Jenin and the refugee camp.

As the PA's weak hold on the city became more apparent, the IDF began to resume its operations in the city in February. Following the wave of recent attacks, the IDF has increased its activity throughout the greater Jenin. “I haven’t slept one night since Ramadan began because every night we think the army will come here,” says one 49-year-old resident of Yabad, the village from which the Bnei Brak terrorist came. “My children ask me to wake them if the army comes. The army searches people’s homes and turns people’s lives upside down. They don’t leave a single thing in its place.”

He says that weapons have become more prevalent in the town in recent years. “Some of the weapons are against Israel and some aren’t. Some of the weapons here are between the clans. Everyone wants to show that they have more than the others, and there’s shooting at weddings.”

Palestinian gunmen shoot in the air during the funerals for Sanad Abu Atiyeh, 17 and Yazid al-Saadi, 23, in the Jenin refugee camp, in MarchCredit: Nasser Nasser /AP

As to why the violence erupted in the area now, he points at the frustration toward the settlers built up over the years, and the occupation at large. “They stand at the intersections and restrict us. I look out my window and see the settlement of Mevo Dotan on the mountain and next to it there’s another mountain where only one settler lives with his goats. A few months ago they came and built him a road, and you see the soldiers protecting him.”

The deterioration of the PA’s standing in the residents’ eyes has also tested locals. “We don’t like Abu Mazen at all," he said, referring to Abbas. "The Palestinian Authority has no compassion for us and doesn’t help us. Abu Mazen is the most loyal to Israel. We don’t like the other militants either,” he says.

He blames the PA, among other things, for signing the Paris agreements with Israel during the Oslo process, which made the Palestinian economy dependent on Israel’s. “When prices go up for you, they go up for us too. This affects the simple, innocent people.”

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