This week, Israeli forces besieged the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. It was perhaps the biggest escalation there in two decades. It’s also of a piece with the policies of the current Israeli government.
On Monday, Israeli forces conducted an operation with airstrikes and military personnel. About 1,000 Israeli troops entered Jenin over those two days, according to the Israeli press, in what the government said was a counterterrorism operation.
At least 12 Palestinians were killed, several of them militants; over 100 Palestinians were wounded; and one Israeli soldier was killed. The Palestinian health ministry said that water and electricity systems in Jenin were damaged, and ambulances were blocked from reaching those in need of care.
Amid the aerial attacks and bulldozers, thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes in Jenin. While many may return after homes are reconstructed, those shocking images were reminiscent of the catastrophe of 1948, which Palestinians call the Nakba, when some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. An “ongoing Nakba, a never-ending trauma,” is how Inès Abdel Razek, the advocacy director for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, described the situation. “You’re being displaced and re-displaced and denied your dignity and the right to be free within your homeland.”
The Israeli attack represents a major escalation and the most intensive campaign in the West Bank since perhaps 2002, when Israeli forces destroyed parts of Jenin. But it also builds on an exceedingly violent year in Jenin and across the occupied West Bank, including ongoing Israeli raids on Palestinian homes there to crack down on grassroots resistance groups that use violence against the Israeli military. In May 2022, prominent Palestinian American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead covering the Israeli raids of Palestinian homes in Jenin.
Though Israeli forces appear to have ended the campaign on Jenin, experts told me that there are risks of this continuing and such large-scale attacks on West Bank cities becoming the new reality. This year so far has seen a tremendous number of Palestinian deaths in the West Bank, more than 130 Palestinians killed so far this year, and is on track to overwhelmingly surpass 2022, which itself had set a tragic milestone, more than anytime in the past 15 years, of 146 Palestinians killed in the West Bank.
Many factors have contributed to this tense and dangerous moment. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has resulted in daily injustice for Palestinians since 1967, and that has been supercharged by the current extreme-right Israeli government that is emboldening settler violence, the annexation of Palestinian land, and settlement expansion. That encroachment has led to both new armed Palestinian militant groups and individual acts of violence — like last week when an Israeli military raid in Jenin killed seven Palestinians, seemingly leading to a retaliatory Palestinian shooting of four Israeli settlers, which then led to more settler violence against Palestinians, all within three days. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has supported what it referred to as an Israeli policy of “self defense,” further empowering the Israeli government at a time when Israelis had grown divided over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. For their part, young Palestinians are disenfranchised and see a Palestine Liberation Organization that offers no hope for political rights.
So while the attack on Jenin represents a radical departure, it is also part of the way the Israeli occupation works. At any point, the next campaign could begin, in Jenin or in another city.
The “Gazafication” of the West Bank
The shape and scale of this attack was new. The journalist Amjad Iraqi, writing in +972 Magazine, described the Israeli operation on Jenin as the Gazafication of the West Bank.
Israel has blockaded the occupied territory of Gaza for years and aggressively bombed Palestinians there as part of its counterterrorism campaigns in recent years. Hamas, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist group, in effect runs the government there. Palestinian militants have launched rockets into Israeli territory, and in response, Israel conducts operations against militants there that it calls “mowing the grass.” But that violent process has largely stayed in the confines of Gaza.
With over 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the territory has not experienced such an intensive bombardment. But now that dynamic appears to have changed.
The strict Israeli military occupation of the West Bank has largely rooted out the kind of organized resistance factions that have threatened Israeli national security interests. But a new generation of Palestinians has begun to resort to violence in response to the Israeli military, settler violence, and against Israelis in other situations.
The Israeli government described its military activity in Jenin as self-defense. “We’re not trying to hold the ground. We’re acting against specific targets,” said Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.
These grassroots military groups have attacked Israeli soldiers, but analysts have questioned the extent of the threat that disparate Palestinian groups represent beyond occasional, uncoordinated attacks. “Their offensive operations have been confined to occasional, small-scale attacks on Israeli military outposts, checkpoints and settlers,” according to the International Crisis Group’s field reporting. “As things stand today, this new generation of armed groups does not yet seem to pose a major security threat. Interviews with residents, Fatah members and PA officials in Nablus suggest that the groups are small, disjointed and scattered, without clear leadership.”
Tariq Kenney-Shawa, an analyst with the Palestinian research network Al-Shabaka, emphasizes the power asymmetry between the Israeli military and Palestinian military groups. “In Jenin refugee camp, they’re defending themselves from an Israeli invasion of the camp. They’re engaging in armed confrontations with soldiers who are part of one of the most advanced and most well-trained militaries on this planet, that has access to some of the best technology out there,” he told me.