Palestinians in Jenin camp: From Nakba to Israel’s latest assault

The target of Israel’s military has been home to three generations of refugees, many of whom are now fleeing again.

People rest as residents of Jenin camp flee their homes amid an Israeli military operation in Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 3, 2023. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta
Residents of the Jenin refugee camp have fled their homes to escape an Israeli military operation [Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

Tight alleyways and adjacent rooftops. Small residential buildings – many of which house more people than they have room for – stacked next to each other, many of them window to window.
The Jenin refugee camp, located in the northern part of the occupied West Bank, is once again facing a devastating Israeli assault – one the largest in more than 20 years.

Israel has portrayed the camp as a den of “terrorists” that threatens its security and therefore, is justified in using harsh force, a notion the United States has also supported.

For three generations of Palestinians, the camp has been a home that has sheltered them in the years since the Nakba – or “catastrophe” in Arabic – when 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and forced from their homes to make way for the establishment of Israel in 1948.

The latest Israeli attacks are now threatening to make the refugees homeless again. About 3,000 Palestinians have already been forced to flee the refugee camp since the start of the operation late on Sunday, according to Jenin Deputy Governor Kamal Abu al-Roub.

Haifa Abu Sirriyeh, a 34-year-old mother of three who lives at the centre of the camp, told Al Jazeera she was awoken early on Monday by a bombardment and her little girl was shaking and crying in fear.

Israeli forces “want to commit massacres inside the camp” and “want to wipe out the camp”, she said.

INTERACTIVE - Map of the Jenin refugee camp detail-1688448255

A history of attacks

The Jenin refugee camp, which is located roughly one kilometre (0.6 miles) west of Jenin city, was established in 1953 to accommodate Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 from more than 50 villages and cities in the northern parts of Palestine, mainly Haifa and Nazareth.

Israel seized the West Bank in 1967, including the camp, and three generations of Palestinians have had to endure violence during military raids by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

The camp was nearly destroyed in 2002 when Israeli soldiers ambushed it during the second Intifada.

At the time, at least 52 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were also killed.

Political analyst Wasef Izraiqat told Al Jazeera that the latest attacks were an extension of those carried out by Zionist militias like the Stern, Irgun and Haganah in 1948. “The people that the Israeli army is fighting now are the sons and daughters of the families that were expelled from their cities and villages in historic Palestine – from Haifa, Akka and Jaffa,” he said.

Poor living conditions

The Jenin refugee camp has a population density more than 70 times that of Israel — 14,000 people crammed into a plot of land about 0.42sq km (0.16 square miles).

It is one of 19 official United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) camps. The UN agency has reported about how children spend their time in the camp between areas that are either too cramped or too dangerous to play in and how children who play outdoors are exposed to conflict-related violence, intra-communal violence, drug abuse and other risky behaviours.

Moreover, the camp suffers one of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the West Bank, mostly due to restrictions of freedom of movement imposed by Israel. Many young people remain unemployed despite having graduated from university, resulting in dissatisfaction and frustration that the UNRWA considers a contributing factor to increasing violence and substance abuse.

The camp also suffers sporadic water and electricity outages, which are only exacerbated when Israel launches new assaults.

Symbol of resistance

Since mid-2021 when Israel ramped up its military occupation and settler attacks grew, the camp has become home to hundreds of armed Palestinian fighters, who have emerged as a symbol of resistance.

The fighters, many of whom are young Palestinians who see no choice but to resist, belong to armed groups that include the Jenin Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah.

They are equipped with firearms, recently deployed improvised bombs to incapacitate Israeli military vehicles and have been known to set up roadblocks to prevent Israeli advances.

Human toll of the latest assault

During its latest incursion, Israel has used drones, rockets, a brigade of soldiers – between 1,000 to 2,000 – and many dozens of armoured military vehicles. Israeli forces surrounded the camp and also used tractors to enter Jenin. They severely damaged roads and homes.

Jenin Mayor Nidal Obeidi told Al Jazeera that water lines, the sewage system and water tanks on roofs have been targeted, and Israeli snipers have prevented the municipality from doing its work. At least 10 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Jenin and dozens more injured, some critically.

The UNRWA said its installations, including four schools and one health centre, were not functioning due to the attack.

Source: Al Jazeera