Is Israel's military operation in Jenin a sign of what's to come?
On Monday morning, for the second time in less than two weeks, Palestinians in the northern West Bank city of Jenin were forced to relive the trauma of Israel's military operations during the Second Intifada.
Memories of that infamous campaign against West Bank cities, dubbed ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, were reawakened by the use of weaponry deployed for the first time in twenty years; the Apache helicopter gunship.
The Apache was an icon of Israel’s re-invasion of West Bank cities in the early 2000s alongside the D-9 military bulldozer, which razed Palestinian houses during the eight-day-long Battle of Jenin in 2002, reducing the centre of the refugee camp to rubble and killing at least 52 Palestinians.
Israeli air attacks in the West Bank were used this year in June for the first time in decades. During a raid in Jenin last month, Palestinian fighters from the 'Jenin Brigades' succeeded in ambushing Israeli forces near the refugee camp and luring them into a trap of locally-made explosives which damaged several army vehicles and wounded five Israeli soldiers.
"Thirteen Palestinians were killed, hundreds wounded, and around 3,000 residents fled the camp during the raid, which ended after 48 hours"
The troops were caught in the middle of Palestinian gunfire, making their evacuation a complicated task for the Israeli military, which began a rescue mission that lasted ten hours. During the operation, Israeli forces used Apache helicopters to bomb Palestinian fighters’ positions near the ambush location in order to secure the entrance of heavy machinery to pull out the damaged vehicles and the wounded.
Twelve days later, on 3 July before dawn, Israeli forces raided Jenin again. This time, they pushed military bulldozers into the heart of the refugee camp, while helicopters targeted sites with air missiles ahead of heavy demolition machines.
Thirteen Palestinians were killed, hundreds wounded, and around 3,000 residents fled the camp during the raid, which ended after 48 hours.
Images of helicopters in the skies of Jenin and bulldozers in the camp were new for Palestinians too young to remember the 2002 battle. Yet for those old enough, the Israeli operation carried a clear message.
For months, Israeli politicians have been debating the necessity of another re-invasion of West Bank cities, similar to 2002's 'Defensive Shield'. On the fringes of the already far-right Israeli government, security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir championed a new operation, calling for a large-scale invasion of the West Bank that would bring, according to him, the definitive crushing of the new wave of armed Palestinian resistance.
For Palestinians, a large-scale Israeli operation in the West Bank has long been a possibility, both before and after the airstrikes in Jenin.
Mostafa Shita, the director of the Jenin Freedom Theater, was a young boy when Israeli troops besieged and bombed the refugee camp in 2002. He later joined the Freedom Theatre, which was born out of the trauma of the Israeli invasion as a way for young people in Jenin to express their pain, anger, and hopes through art. The memory of 2002 is part of his own, and the Theater’s, legacy.
“We were expecting a large operation, and it actually happened,” he told The New Arab. Since the first airstrike on 20 June, making the connection with 2002 was inevitable, he points out. “The atmosphere of those days came back instantly, with the memory of all the victims, the bulldozed houses and those who were pulled out of the rubble days later, some alive, some dead,” he said.
“Yet, it was far from comparable. In 2002, the occupation deployed thousands of soldiers, tanks and the huge D-9 bulldozers that destroyed hundreds of houses in a few days,” notes Shita. “This time, we saw a few limited airstrikes and nothing like the round-the-clock bombing during the battle twenty years ago,” he says.
When residents woke up on Monday to Israeli bulldozers and airstrikes, Palestinians in Jenin understood that this had been the escalation that Israeli officials had been threatening.
“The occupation is showing excessive brutality as a show of force, probably trying to tell the civilian population that we will pay the price for resistance, and this is the real purpose of deploying helicopters and drones and bombing the camp,” Shita said.
A large-scale Israeli military operation in the entire West Bank is unlikely to happen, he added, saying that the recent attacks in Jenin are more for media and political purposes, rather than military objectives.
“I believe that the occupation has understood the futility of such a move, as twenty years after the battle of Jenin, they are dealing with the same situation, because it was only a matter of time before a new generation takes over,” he points out.
"The occupation is showing excessive brutality as a show of force, probably trying to tell the civilian population that we will pay the price for resistance"
Jamal Hweil, a former fighter who took part in the Battle of Jenin in 2022, agrees with this assessment. He served time in Israeli prisons after the battle, which he wrote a book about, and continued his studies and now lectures at Al-Quds University.
"The use of air bombings was an escalation, and it did remind us all of 2002, but it's an expected one given the escalation that has been taking place for a year and a half,” Hweil points out. "We expected the occupation to escalate its violence and its weaponry in specific places, like Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus or Jericho, with helicopters and more, but I don't believe it will include all the [occupied] territory”.
Residents and fighters in the camp have long felt this moment was coming, notes Hweil, before the first helicopter attack on 20 June, but the airstrikes last month made many realise that a large-scale raid was imminent.
“In 2002, President [Yasser] Arafat provided political cover for the resistance, and the national unity between all factions was reflected in the battlefield, as members of the Palestinian security forces participated in defending Jenin during the battle,” Hweil said.
Residents and fighters maintain that sense of unity today, he adds, but at the political level, things are very different. A major distinction today is also the use of force mobilised by Israel.
“The occupation is not using tanks, and it won’t in my opinion because it doesn’t want a re-invasion of cities. In 2002 that meant taking the Palestinian Authority out of the picture, and the occupation doesn’t seem to want that”.
On Monday, Hweil called on Palestinian Authority security forces to participate in the defence of Jenin again, through Palestinian media, warning that “the occupation’s attack on Jenin aims to break Palestinian national unity”.
Shortly following the first June airstrikes in Jenin, the Israeli army declared that it will, from now on, use all means of force to strike Palestinian fighters. Three days later, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian fighters north of Jenin using an armed drone.
One week later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel doesn't want the Palestinian Authority to collapse, while at the same time rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state.
“There is nothing new in the use of drones or aerial force because the occupation government already approved their use months ago,” says Bilal Shalash, a Palestinian historian specialised in the history of Palestinian resistance.
“The Second Intifada was a special moment in the history of Palestinian resistance that repeats itself on historical turns, where the resistance becomes generalised in all of the Palestinian territories,” he explains.
“Today we are definitely not at such a moment, but we are rather going back to the regular state of Palestine since the 1967 occupation. That is a state where resistance reaches a high peak in some regions before a whole generation of fighters is exhausted, and then resistance experiences a new spike in another place, which is why it is very difficult to study the history of resistance in the same periods in all places”.
"The return of armed resistance in the West Bank has been centred around Jenin and its refugee camp since 2021"
Shalash notes that the use of airstrikes is not an exceptional practice in the history of Israel's occupation, having been used regularly since the 1960s. Drones are merely the modern incarnation of this in the West Bank.
The practice was interrupted during the 1990s as peace negotiations took place but was reinstated in a much more brutal form during the Second Intifada when helicopters bombed cities across the West Bank.
The practice ebbed again after the early 2000s as Palestinian armed groups had been weakened by the effects of targeted assassinations and the impact of the political split between Fatah and Hamas in 2007.
“Today, there is a whole new generation of Palestinians who grew up after the Fatah-Hamas split and don’t really relate to it, and a young generation of Fatah, in particular, who is reconnecting with the militant heritage of their faction,” Shalash said.
“These young Palestinians are cooperating beyond factional labels, which has laid the ground for a new wave of armed resistance, motivated by the increase of Israeli brutality and settlement expansion," he notes.
“As armed resistance is returning to the scene, Israeli attempts to crush it are going back to what it has been for decades, which is why we are seeing helicopters back in the skies of Jenin,” he adds.
The return of armed resistance in the West Bank has been centred around Jenin and its refugee camp since 2021. The name of the city in itself has grown to symbolise resistance for Palestinians more than any other city in the West Bank. This growing symbolism has been met with growing Israeli brutality, and a growing death toll among Palestinians.
Out of the more than 180 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of the year, at least 61 were killed in Jenin, including many children. It is a reflection of the central place of Jenin in the ongoing confrontation between Palestinians and Israel, one that only seems to grow more violent, with no end in sight.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi