In Jenin, history blows back from Baghdad

Over a year after the events of Jenin, the camp's inhabitants see remarkable parallels with the fall of Baghdad

    There was street-fighting in Baghdad one
    year after Israeli troops and Palestinian
    fighters clashed in Jenin

    “Who lasted longer, Jenin or Baghdad?” asks Ahmed, 17 years old and eyes gleaming with wry pride in the dark bullet-riddled alley.

    “We did! We held out for four days: Baghdad only lasted one day! And here all we had were rifles: there they had airplanes, tanks, everything! There is more resistance in Jenin than anywhere in Palestine.”

    This time last year, the battle for Jenin refugee camp briefly brought the Israeli army to a standstill in its narrow streets, claiming the lives of 23 soldiers before local fighters surrendered to an onslaught of helicopter gunships and armoured bulldozers that obliterated the heart of the camp, and left some 4,000 people homeless.

    Yet, in streets and houses still pock-marked by shrapnel and bullets, the talk now is about Iraq.

    “What do you think will happen?” asks one of Ahmed’s friends. “Is Saddam really dead? “They will surely take Syria next,” says an older man. “Why not Saudi Arabia, they are also a dictatorship? Ah, but they are with the Americans.”

    Through they may now echo across the Arab world, such debates provoke particularly deep-seated emotions in Jenin. His decade-long confrontation with America and tokenistic missile attacks on Israel during the first Gulf War ensured Saddam Hussein’s quixotic popularity among some Palestinians. In the wake of Baghdad’s fall, Jenin camp mulls the failure of Arab leaders both abroad and at home, their own role at the vanguard of an ever-shrinking Palestinian resistance, and the shifting tides of history in the Middle East, in which the fates of Jenin and Iraq have in their eyes once again become entangled, as they were half a century ago.

    Revived memories

    Among fragrant pines in a small walled cemetery next to the small town of Kabati on the outskirts of Jenin, rest the remains of this shared history; 45 Iraqi soldiers killed in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when some 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in what is today Israel. Engraved names and ranks are still distinguishable on the low-slung tomb stones flanking a three metre memorial, emboldened with black paint.

    Muayyad, a taxi driver, remembers coming here as a child. “Outside there used to be a tank, from the war” he says, “but the Israelis took it away.”

    The battle of Jenin hardened Palestinian


    The soldiers played a well-remembered part in defending this corner of historical Palestine when the Jewish state was created and the Palestinian diaspora was born.

    “Unlike the other warring parties, the Iraqis put up a very stiff resistance in the area, and the Iraqi narrative takes pride in the fact that they did not surrender, did not run,” says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sara Lawrence College in the US state of Maryland. This despite the fact that the evidence now indicates the odds were largely against them, he adds. “They did not have adequate forces or a mandate to go on the offensive. They were short on equipment and short on ammunition.”

    Against the backdrop of Israel’s ongoing counter-insurgency in the Palestinian Territories, the American-led invasion of Iraq has re-invested this shared history with new significance. Like itself, Jenin sees in Iraq another barometer of Arab resistance to American and Israeli ambitions virtually indistinguishable to many Palestinians, and a mirror in which the camp people see their own suffering reflected. In one corner of the cemetery languish two windblown cardboard placards still fresh with ink - the remains of a recent manifestation.

    “The general union of Palestinian prisoners welcomes the steadfastness of our heroes in Iraq,” reads one, the other: “Our blood is their blood.”

    Present histories

    Based on their local experience, some people in Jenin have already drawn their own conclusions from the fall of Baghdad. One of them is Abu Ghalion, a local TV personality and businessman who heads a committee in the camp that provides social services to its residents.

    On the roof of its small building flies the banners of the main Palestinian political factions active in the camp  - Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If there is a secret to Jenin’s resistance, it is not its allegiance to any of those flags, suggests Abu Ghalion. “Jenin lasted longer than Baghdad,” he says, because “here they were fighting on their own accord without a leader, but there they were tied up by their leader who realised he was losing. All he thought of was to save himself. Here there was no leader to sell them out. Look at Ramallah, there is a leader there, and there is no fighting,” he adds pointedly.

    A middle-aged worker who calls himself Mohammed, retrieved the bodies of several family members from the rubble of battle last April. At least one source in the camp suggests some were active underground, likely in the manufacture of explosives. Mohammed says he never saw them with weapons. He defends the continuation of armed attacks as long as the IDF remains in and around Jenin. They have left the camp with no choice he claims: “The Intifada started with peaceful demonstrations. The people used to go to Jalameh [a nearby village] to demonstrate, and would come back with martyrs. More than three people were killed in Jalameh.

    The camp's residents suffered while a central
    part of the camp was razed to the ground

    Both the Bush administration and the Israeli government have in recent weeks cautiously welcomed the installation of a new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen, who they hope will bring an end to armed Palestinian operations. Mohammed politely affirms that he respects Abu Mazen but suggests there are limits to his authority here. “Abu Mazen does not decide, it the Israelis who decide. If the occupation is here, and Abu Mazen comes and says we should end the resistance, I will not obey. The problem is the occupation.

    Resistance and revolution

    In the history of the Arab world, failed resistance has never sat easily with restless nationalism, explains Gerges, and in this sense, Jenin has also played some part in the making of modern Iraq. After 1948, the defeated if uncowed Iraqi army officers returned home from Palestine convinced that they had been sold short by the Hashemite royal family, appointed as rulers of Iraq and Jordan by British authorities after the First World War.

    “The debacle of 1948 was decisive in discrediting the ruling classes in the Arab world, particularly those seen as being subservient to colonial Britain, and paved the way for a new generation of army officers – the “men on horseback” – who seized power and remoulded their countries into authoritarian structures,” notes Gerges.” Iraq is a classic case.”

    Buffeted by nationalist discontent, the Iraqi monarchy fell in 1958. Half a century later, history seems to have come full circle in Iraq: the last man on horseback is gone and Britain is back. Jenin meanwhile is still wading through the rubble of a history which now seems only to be its own. There are still those that hope otherwise, however.

    “People here can’t believe the Americans took Iraq,” says Ahmed. “There is a second Baghdad underground,” he asserts, waiting to rise.


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