Jenin, occupied West Bank – During the final hours of Israel’s two-day aerial and ground assault on the Jenin refugee camp earlier this month, the Israeli army said it had besieged a number of Palestinian resistance fighters in a mosque.
After destroying the lower part of the al-Ansar mosque – where members of the Jenin Brigades would operate – with explosive drones and targeted missiles, the army announced that it had found tunnels and that it destroyed them.
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It claimed that its forces had “neutralised an underground terrorist route” and that the tunnel “was rendered inoperable”.
What Israeli forces did not say, however, was that the fighters managed to withdraw safely from the mosque through the tunnels – the first-ever to be dug under the camp – fighters and residents of the camp say.
“The fighters were besieged but they managed to escape,” one fighter told Al Jazeera.
The raid on Jenin has been described as the largest on the densely populated camp since 2002, during the second Intifada, or mass Palestinian uprising.
Between July 2 and 4, Israel pounded the camp with drones and missiles while hundreds of soldiers raided on foot, taking cover in people’s homes and destroying large parts of the camp. Twelve Palestinians, including three children, were killed, along with one Israeli soldier.
The Israeli operation was intended to weaken the Jenin Brigades – a small, cross-factional Palestinian armed resistance group based in the camp that emerged in September 2021.
But multiple fighters told Al Jazeera that the vast majority of those killed were civilians and that the Israeli army had failed to kill or capture most fighters.
“They [Israel] said they arrested 120 people – none of them is from the Brigades. They arrested elderly men and uninvolved people. Where are the fighters?” a senior fighter, Hani Obaid*, told Al Jazeera.
“Their operation was a failure. Their only goal is to kill the fighters. But every time they try, they are not able to. It is true that we lost a couple of fighters, all of whom are dear to us, but we were expecting more men to be killed,” Obaid continued.
Al Jazeera approached the Israeli military for comment on the claims that the majority of the Jenin Brigades fighters survived and the existence of the tunnels, but received no response at the time of publication.
Tunnels under Jenin
The tunnels found under the camp mark a new and unprecedented phenomenon in the Jenin camp, which was the site of a deadly Israeli raid in 2002, in which more than 50 Palestinians were killed over 11 days.
Al Jazeera entered the tunnels under the mosque the morning after the army withdrew and found that they were intact, with electricity lines for lights and digging tools still in their place. The tunnels were about 10 metres (33 feet) deep and 100-150 metres long, and likely took months to dig.
The tunnels seen by Al Jazeera were located in two places: the aforementioned tunnel under the al-Ansar mosque in the al-Damaj neighbourhood of the camp, and a second tunnel inside a home in the Hawasheen neighbourhood, where the headquarters of the Jenin Brigades were located, an area Israel all but destroyed.
Jamal Hweil, a Fatah political leader living in the camp and former fighter during the second Intifada, said he believes the tunnels represent a development in the tactics of the Palestinian fighters.
“The [Israeli] occupation developed its tools for monitoring the fighters through drones and planes, so they started looking for safe ways to move around easily when the army raids the camp,” Hweil told Al Jazeera.
“It is clear that the fighters managed to withdraw from the mosque, and that they used these tunnels to cause the Israeli operation to fail,” he continued, adding that “the fighters are around and they are all OK.”
“The Israeli army may have known previously about these tunnels, but they did not know where they were,” he said.
Hweil, who once attempted to dig himself out of Israel’s Megiddo prison in 2002, said he and residents of the camp were pleasantly surprised by the ability of the fighters to dig the tunnels.
“This goes past creativity. The Jenin refugee camp is built on stone. The youth were digging through stone – it’s very difficult. This kind of work needs an endless amount of patience and will, and it needs experience,” he remarked.
Still, Hweil said, he believes “Israel is attempting to amplify the matter to use it as an excuse to hit the camp again”.
“Our powers are very modest and simple. Our youth try to make the most of what they have, but it is not comparable to Israel’s powers, backed by the United States,” he noted.
‘They were humiliated’
Despite the widespread damage to homes and roads caused by Israeli forces during the two-day assault, many residents said they were happy to see fighters roaming the streets of the camp the next morning.
“All the buildings, furniture, homes, cars – all of that can be replaced. The most important thing is that the fighters are safe,” one local, Mutee al-Saadi, told Al Jazeera.
Another resident, Amany Abdullah*, said: “We were very afraid for our fighters. But thank God, they are all safe.”
“When they [the fighters] started appearing the next day, it was as though I saw my son,” said Amany, who said her son was a member of the Brigades and was killed by Israel in recent months. “The fight is not over,” she told Al Jazeera.
“These are our sons. They were fighting without food and water for 48 hours. And yet, there is complete silence. Until when are we going to live like this?” continued Amany.
Meanwhile, resident Bassem Tahayneh, 41, said the attack on the camp had not challenged the residents’ resolve.
“What they did to us encourages us to do even more than this, and for the resistance to become stronger,” Tahayneh told Al Jazeera from his home in the camp the morning after Israeli forces withdrew.
“They [Israelis] were humiliated – they couldn’t enforce their control on the camp. What kind of control is it when you destroyed the streets and the homes? They couldn’t do anything to the youth.
“These youth are our pride; they are the honourable ones among us. Our hearts are with one another in Jenin. We are all with the resistance.”
To the fighters, Israel’s failure to crush the Jenin Brigades means that it is just a matter of time before another Israeli army raid.
“We will continue to fight,” said Obaid. “When they return, we will be ready.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the fighters and people.