For two days, the Israeli army used its military might to hit Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank. The scene was reminiscent of Israel’s large-scale invasion of the West Bank in 2002: Smoke plumed from buildings destroyed by Israeli weaponry, tyres set aflame by young men sent toxic fumes into the air, drones hummed overhead and the sirens of ambulances wailed as Israeli forces obstructed them from transporting the wounded to hospitals.
At least 12 Palestinians were killed, at least three of them children, in a ground and aerial offensive carried out by hundreds of soldiers. Bulldozers wreaked havoc on the dilapidated refugee camp, which covers less than half a square kilometre (0.2 square miles) but houses some 23,600 people.
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But did Israel accomplish its stated military goals?
Its army vowed to come back, describing the refugee camp, one of Palestine’s oldest, as a hub for what it called “terrorism”. But for Palestinians, the Jenin refugee camp has become a symbol of resistance, with many of its young men taking up arms to defend the community and to carry out operations against Israeli soldiers and rampaging settlers who have been carrying out pogroms across the West Bank.
And according to experts and observers, early evidence suggests the siege might only embolden the resistance.
“Such deployment of brutal force is also a short-term attempt to show who is in charge and who holds the power, to deter armed resistance against the occupation,” said Ines Abdel Razek, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. “But history shows us it will actually get Palestinians even more determined.”
Some of the armed men in the camp are affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades of Fatah, the political party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Others are part of the Jenin Brigades – also known as the Jenin Battalion – and are either connected with some of the various traditional factions in Palestinian politics or are autonomous.
For years, Jenin has been a sore spot for Israel, which has not managed to crush the tides of resistance despite many efforts.
But observers say that Israel has failed to achieve its mission in Jenin, which is to root out the fighters completely. “Israel failed to achieve the military and political objectives it set out for its invasion of Jenin. The resistance groups remain, and have been strengthened as the refugee camp and the entire country has rallied behind them,” said Salem Barahmeh, a Palestinian activist.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) – which to many Palestinians acts as a proxy for Israel – has lost its capability to re-establish its writ in the area. “The fierce resistance by the Jenin Brigades” contrasts with the “PA’s failure to protect its own people against a massacre”, said Barahmeh. The PA’s declaration that it was ending security coordination with Israel was also later disputed by the Israeli government. “People are under no illusion that the PA is an extension of the Israeli occupation,” Barahmeh said.
What Israel did accomplish
Yet Israel did achieve some of what it likely set out to do, said analysts. It destroyed large parts of the camp’s infrastructure, and with it, crippled the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency’s ability to rebuild.
“Because they couldn’t secure a clear ‘win’, they completely destroyed the infrastructure of the camp and they terrorised an entire generation of refugees who are already traumatised,” said Diana Buttu, an analyst and former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team.
“UNRWA [UN Refugee Agency] is already cash strapped and so what they did was destroy the camp where people are going to be scrambling to rebuild it.”
In 2002, Israeli forces killed 52 Palestinians and destroyed large parts of the camp in an 11-day operation. Twenty-three of its own soldiers were killed too.
Twenty years later, it returned with a vengeance following a series of attacks inside Israel by gunmen from the camp. Raids by Israeli forces became the norm, as did attempts to kill or arrest members of the Jenin Brigades. But because many of its members were not part of the traditional Palestinian factions, it was difficult for Israel to eradicate them.
Last month, an Israeli raid – which army leaders thought would be routine – took a surprising turn when an explosive device was used to disable an armoured vehicle. Images of makeshift rockets that could be used on Israeli towns circulated on social media, showing how far the resistance groups’ fire power had advanced.
Spurring the army into more drastic action has been pressure from Israeli settlers in the West Bank and their leaders in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right allies have been calling for a large-scale military operation in the West Bank for months now.
“The attack on Jenin came at a strategic timing politically for the Israeli regime. It followed the settlers’ pogroms against Palestinians that have embarrassed the establishment and from which they need to distract attention,” Abdel Razek said.
“It also comes amid continued demonstrations from Jewish Israelis against the judicial reform with the attack on Jenin, allowing the establishment to regroup consensus among [its citizens] on the need for supremacy over Palestinians; and also comes after the criticised announcement of further illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank.”
Since the start of the year, almost weekly protests have been held by Israelis against the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary. Critics say the reforms will weaken the judicial system’s ability to keep the government’s use of its power in check.
But there’s also a larger strategy in play from Israel, according to some analysts.
Abdel Razek said the assault was also aimed at segregating parts of Palestine so that it is easier for occupying Israeli forces to rule over them.
“It is part of a progressive tactic at play to isolate and confine Jenin from the rest of Palestine, ghettoise it further the way they did with Gaza over the past decades,” she said.
On June 20, four settlers were shot dead near the illegal settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank. The perpetrators were not from Jenin, but National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir demanded, “[We must] demolish buildings, eliminate terrorists, not one or two, but tens and hundreds, and if necessary even thousands”.
The incident took place a day after six Palestinians were killed in the Jenin refugee camp during a large-scale Israeli military incursion where Israel used helicopter gunships for the first time in many years.
The use of drones and helicopter gunships forewarns further Israeli incursions, Palestinians believe.
“Their goals are destruction: Destroy the resistance, destroy the infrastructure. But their bigger goals or rather what they did versus what they said they would do – they didn’t achieve those,” Buttu said. “That means they are going to come back again.”