Let’s talk about Jenin

If we are to have just, sustainable peace in Palestine, we should do everything we can to set the record straight on what Israel is doing in the Jenin Refugee Camp. 

Jenin-raid damage
A boy checks the damage inside a house in the Occupied West Bank Jenin Refugee Camp on July 6, 2023 following the latest Israeli attack that lasted two days [AFP]

Last week Israel invaded the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank with hundreds of soldiers, terrorising Palestinians living there with helicopter gunships, rockets and armoured vehicles for over two days. At least 12 Palestinians, including three children, were killed.

“The international media has begun to show some of the tragic human consequences of Israel’s assault on Jenin refugee camp,” Birzeit University researchers Rita Giacaman and Penny Johnson wrote in an article titled “Who lives in Jenin Refugee Camp?”

“Yet Israeli officials persist in a rhetoric that brands [the] Jenin refugee camp as a ‘terrorist camp’, with all of its inhabitants, men, women and children of any age, thus also marked as terrorists and all actions taken against them thus justified.”

Most observers of Palestine would agree this is an accurate description of Israel’s – and thus most Western governments, media and intelligentsia’s – framing of the latest episode of settler colonial violence in Jenin. But this article is not from last week. It was first published in April 2002, in the aftermath of another deadly Israeli assault on the camp.

Let that sink in: 21 years later, we are still dealing with the same situation, having the same discussions and being forced to contend with the same tired lies and myths about Jenin, the Palestinians living there, and Israel’s attacks on them.

But, as Israel and its allies still remain determined not to provide honest answers to the most basic questions people around the world may have about Jenin, let’s try and answer them once again here. Who lives in Jenin? Why are they engaged in armed resistance against Israel? Since Israelis are also dying as a result of this violence, is Israel just “defending itself”? 

Who lives in the Jenin refugee camp?

As Giacaman and Johnson explained over 20 years ago, the answer Israel and its apologists in Euro-American media and governments give to this question is that Jenin is a “wasp’s nest”, a “hotbed of militants”, a factory that produces “terrorists” who unleash wanton, mindless violence on unsuspecting Israelis who just want to live in peace and quiet. Sure, their media organisations are occasionally forced to admit that Israeli “operations” into the camp kill Palestinian children, but they quickly frame these deaths as being a consequence of Palestinian resistance rather than Israeli aggression and violence.

For example, in a recent interview, a BBC host asked Al-Shabaka senior policy analyst and Al Jazeera contributor Yara Hawari: “Why would militants risk the lives of innocent civilians by having [their command-and-control centre in the heart of a densely populated area]?”

Hawari excellently shifted the terrain of the conversation to the nature of life in the refugee camp, and explained how Israel is working to dehumanise Palestinians, decontextualise the violence and present its own aggression as an act of “self-defence”.

But the fact that the host even tried to follow that line of questioning was proof enough that Israeli propaganda is still shaping the conversation about Jenin in Britain and beyond. After all, it should not take any journalist more than five minutes of basic internet research to learn that “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 in fact impossible for those who have taken up armed struggle to create a “command-and-control centre” away from the rest of the population.

This takes us to another basic question about the camp and the situation it is currently in.

Why are Palestinians in Jenin engaged in armed resistance against Israel?

Israel came into existence through the violent expulsion of the Palestinian people from their lands and homes in 1948. The refugees in the Jenin camp are descendants of those expelled in 1948. This camp has never been a real “home” for them, and they are yearning to return to their ancestral lands.

Residents of Jenin were born into a violent structure of oppression, and have been subjected to different forms of colonial aggression and violence all of their lives. But they are neither helpless nor do they lack the will to be free. They have practiced all forms of unarmed resistance over this long experience of suffering: strikes, protests, popular committees, dialogue, legal instruments, international advocacy and so on. Despite the enormous sacrifices that they have made, not only have they made no progress in reaching their goal of returning home, but the prospects of that return have continuously dimmed, their economic hardships have deepened, the levels of violence they experience have increased, and their ability to see the possibility of a dignified and free life has diminished.

They are dehumanised by the Israeli regime, forgotten by the international community, isolated from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and other parts of their 1948 homelands, and they do not enjoy any real support from a Palestinian Authority that does not represent their aspirations for liberation and return.

In such a context of suffering and despair, and with nothing to lose, it is hardly surprising that some of the Palestinians in Jenin resorted to taking up arms against their oppressors. They saw how violence has enabled the Israelis to achieve their colonial aims, so they resorted to violence in the hope that it can help them achieve their aims for liberation as well.

But what about Israeli victims of Palestinian resistance?

Loss of human life, whether that person is Palestinian or Israeli, is always regrettable and a tragedy. But Israel cannot use the harm suffered by its citizens due to its relentless oppression of the Palestinian people to legitimise more violence and oppression. Israeli violence against the Palestinians is much greater in terms of scope, scale and intensity than any violence Palestinian armed resistance of any form ever inflicted on Israelis. As there is no balance of power between the two parties engaged in “conflict”, Israel cannot point to Israeli victims of the violence to say it is “acting in self-defence”.

These answers are not meant to instil hopelessness in Palestinians and their allies. Answering the most basic questions about Jenin as honestly as possible, repeatedly, is perhaps the only way to break this cycle of devastation and find a better way forward. And there is a better way forward.

Once we dispense with the propaganda and the false narratives, settle the questions about who is to blame for the violence, why are Palestinians fighting and whether Israel is indeed “defending itself”, we can start talking about solutions – for Jenin and wider Palestine.

Zionists view the current situation in historic Palestine as a zero-sum game: Either Israelis will have complete and exclusive sovereignty over all of the land, and exert complete control over all of the remaining Palestinians there, or Jews everywhere will be without a “home” and vulnerable to anti-semitic violence like they suffered in Europe in the past.

This is a twisted perception. Israel is not just a “haven” for Jews but a settler colony that is replicating European colonial racism and violence against the indigenous population in Palestine. This Zionist ideology created Jenin, and is ensuring there is no end to violence and suffering in Palestine.

A different Israel-Palestine is possible. It is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to work together in a project of true decolonisation that would abandon all the hang-ups of Euro-American colonial modernity and create something new. We can create a new reality where we live under multiple sovereignties, as equals. A reality where both Israeli Jews and Palestinians are free, and there is no need for camps like Jenin. Palestinians can return to their lands, without that meaning the end of Jewish safety or Jewish expulsion from these lands. We can have a shared homeland, and create political and social systems that express the aspirations of all who wish to be free of the shackles of colonialism and racism. None of these things are easy to accomplish, of course, but if a truly better-and-new world is to come, it will require both Israelis and Palestinians to work hard, together.

Unfortunately, Israel’s settler colonial project is so advanced and has faced so little pushback from the international community for so long that the majority of Israelis refuse to entertain – let alone participate in – an honest conversation about building a just peace. They are convinced they are in a zero-sum game, and periodic attacks on “terrorists” confined in camps like Jenin and open-air prisons like Gaza are their only ticket to safety.

This is why international pressure through campaigns like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is necessary. Israelis need to be pressured into having these honest conversations. BDS is not the “end of dialogue” as its detractors claim, but rather the means towards an authentic dialogue.

So let’s make sure that we support BDS and that we talk the truth about Jenin. Otherwise, we will continue writing the same articles, making the same arguments and suffering from the structural violence of Israeli settler colonialism for another 20 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.