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Jenin refugee camp: The battle that never ended

Jenin refugee camp: The battle that never ended
10 min read
West Bank
20 April, 2022
In-depth: Jenin is once again at the centre of tensions in the occupied West Bank, but the story of the refugee camp goes back much deeper in time as a centre of Palestinian nationalism and resistance.
The Jenin camp is half a kilometer square big, home to 16.000 Palestinians, and a historical hub of Palestinian resistance [Getty]

The Jenin refugee camp has been at the centre of tensions in the occupied West Bank in recent weeks. Israeli raids have gone from a weekly pattern to almost a daily routine, with armed battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants during every incursion.

This increasing intensity has claimed the lives of seven Palestinians, killed by Israeli forces in the camp since the beginning of March, in addition to one Palestinian from the camp who was killed in Israel after shooting and killing three Israelis.

Raad Khazem, 29,  carried out his attack on the 8th of April in Tel Aviv on the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Jenin in 2002, when Israeli forces launched an unprecedented military operation in the refugee camp.

Back then, Raad was only nine when he witnessed the ten-day-long siege of the camp by thousands of Israeli troops supported by helicopter gunships and armoured bulldozers.

The battle ended with the destruction of a large portion of the refugee camp and the killing of 52 Palestinians. During the fighting, 23 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

The battle made Jenin a reference point for Palestinians in the early 2000s. It became a theme of patriotic songs, posters, poems, and even a 2002 documentary film by Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad Al-Bakri ‘Jenin .. Jenin’ that documented the details of the battle and was banned from Israeli cinemas last year.

As Israeli military raids and subsequent clashes in the camp become more frequent, in addition to a series of economic restrictions imposed by the Israeli army on the Jenin region earlier in April, some observers believe that the refugee camp might be heading towards a second ‘battle of Jenin’.

This possibility has raised interest once again in the Jenin refugee camp and both its historic and contemporary role in Palestinian resistance. 

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'A reminder of Palestinian dispossession'

According to the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, the Jenin refugee camp was formally established in 1953 for families who arrived as refugees from the region of Haifa and the Carmel, after the Palestinian Nakba in 1948.

As with all refugee camps in the West Bank, Jenin camp stands on land rented by UNRWA for a prolonged period of time. The camp's boundaries are less than half a square kilometre, inhabited today by some 16,000 registered Palestinian refugees.

The region where the Jenin refugee camp was born is in itself one of historical importance in terms of Palestinian nationalism.

The region of Jenin was the stronghold of the first organised Palestinian resistance against British rule, led by the Syrian-born Ezedin Al-Qassam, who was killed in action in 1935 in Yaabad, only 18 kilometres west of Jenin.

Many of the high commanders of the 1936 Palestinian revolt were from or based in Jenin, like Farhan Al-Saadi and Yousef Abu Durra.

The creation of a refugee camp in a place of such political heritage gave it an additional symbolism; that of the Nakba.

“A refugee camp is a concentration of the unsolved aspect of the Palestinian cause,” Abdul Rahim Al-Shaikh, professor of cultural studies at Birzeit University, explains to The New Arab.

A Palestinian refugee camp near the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan, 25 June 1949. [Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

“Refugee camps were always marginalised places, always excluded from services, with high levels of poverty”, he says.

“This has always made refugee camps a reminder of the original dispossession of the Palestinian people, and made the camps themselves strongholds of resistance.”

Jenin “was no exception, but it was special”, stresses Jamal Hweil, a member of the Revolutionary Council of the Fatah movement and a former prisoner in Israeli jails who also wrote a book on the battle of Jenin, in which he personally fought.

“Growing up in Jenin in the 1970s and the 1980s meant to grow up in the middle of the Palestinian tragedy,” Hweil tells The New Arab. “I remember that houses were still made of cane sticks, mud, and zinc roof plates, which was what replaced the UN tents before I was born,” he recalls.

“We stood every day in a long line in front of the UNRWA centre to receive a portion of flour, vegetable oil and some canned fish, we had no running water and my family’s house was made of two rooms, for six people,” Hweil says.

“I could see that people outside the camp lived differently and I heard stories of our original village and how we were expelled from it, and I understood what the cause was all about from an early age.”

From the 'Black Panthers' to 'Al-Aqsa Brigades'

At the time, Jenin was witnessing an awakening of Palestinian militancy in the West Bank. After the Palestinian resistance left Lebanon in 1982, as a result of the Israeli invasion of that country, new militant groups began to emerge inside the occupied territories, many of which centred around Jenin.

“In Jenin there were the ‘Red Eagles’, a group affiliated to the left-wing PFLP, and there were the ‘Black Panthers’, who belonged to Fatah,” explains Jamal Hweil.

“My twin brother was a member of the ‘Black Panthers’ and he was the first Black Panther to be killed by Israeli forces,” he points out. “The Israeli army took his body and buried it outside the camp and only allowed five people, including my parents to be present,” he recalls. “That event was a turning point in my life”.

During the First Intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, the name of the ‘Black Panthers’ was immediately associated with Jenin. The Israeli army raided the refugee camp countless times searching for members of the group, often demolishing their families’ homes and arresting their relatives.

It was near the end of the first Palestinian popular uprising that an Israeli anti-Zionist activist, known by the people of Jenin by her first name, ‘Arna’, started the Jenin Freedom Theater.

The cultural centre taught children of the camp artistic expression through theatre as a way to overcome the conditions imposed by the occupation. The theatre was made famous by the 2004 documentary drama ‘Arna’s children’, produced and directed by Arna’s son, Juliano Khamis.

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The film also popularised the names of several young Palestinians who had been members of the theatre’s first generation as children and later grew up to become militants of the Second Intifada, either killed, imprisoned, or hunted by Israeli forces.

One of those was Alaa Al-Sabagh, leader of the Al-Aqsa Brigades in Jenin, who was killed during the shooting of the film. Another is his comrade, Zakaria Zubeidi, an icon of the Second Intifada who once again became a symbol of Palestinian resistance after taking part in the 2021 Gilboa prison break.

Zubeidi’s family had offered the second floor of their brick house in the camp to Arna’s first theatre. Many of the family members were later killed by Israeli forces, including Zubeidi’s mother, who was hit by a stray Israeli bullet while looking out of her window during an Israeli raid.

Zubeidi himself became a top leader of the Al-Aqsa Brigades in the camp and succeeded Alaa Al-Sabagh after his death as the head of the group.

He then laid down his weapons along with many Al-Aqsa Brigades fighters as part of a deal with the Palestinian authority in 2007, that included negotiating an amnesty with Israel and reintegration into civilian life.

He even signed up for a Master's program at Birzeit University. Then in 2019, he was arrested again by Israeli forces, who accused him of resuming militant activity.

Jenin refugee camp was the scene of eight days of intense fighting on 22 April 2002 after a large-scale Israeli military incursion, which killed over 50 Palestinians. [Getty]
The 'dragon', the 'hunter', and Gilboa

“Zakaria became probably the most researched Palestinian figure after Jesus Christ and Yasser Arafat,” says professor Abdul Rahim Al-Shaikh with an admitted exaggeration, referring to the days following the Gilboa prison break.

Professor Al-Shaikh supervised Zakaria’s Master’s thesis, entitled "The Hunter and the Dragon: Fugitivity in the Palestinian Condition 1968-2018".

“His thesis is about fugitivity and clandestinity in the Palestinian context, inspired by his own experience,” details Al-Shaikh. “He finished part of it inside prison after being arrested again”.

In September 2021, the Jenin refugee camp began appearing again in news headlines following the escape of six Palestinian prisoners from the high-security Israeli prison of Gilboa, near the northern border of the West Bank.

In the days that followed the prison break, the Israeli army threatened to invade the Jenin refugee camp, as it suspected that some of the escapees were hiding in it. Palestinian militant groups in the camp began to join forces in preparation for the Israeli attack.

On 19 September, twelve days after the prison break, Israeli forces simulated a false invasion on one part of the camp, clashing with Palestinian fighters, while a smaller force sneaked in from a different direction and rearrested Ayham Kamamji and Munadel Nufeiat, the last remaining escapees from the Gilboa prison.

The raid was only the beginning of a spiral of tensions around the camp and in the Jenin region more generally.

Jenin camp: The 'real deal'

“Israeli forces conducted undercover raids on the villages in the Jenin region to capture Palestinians,” Shatha Hanaysheh, a Palestinian journalist based in Jenin, tells The New Arab.

“Israeli forces raided the villages and even Jenin city at night and sometimes in daylight, often clashing with youth who had nothing but stones, and sometimes with armed men, demolishing homes, but everybody knew that the real deal was the refugee camp, and everybody in the region expected its invasion,” notes Hanaysheh.

“The Israeli army knows that invading the Jenin refugee camp would be complicated, which is why it has carried out limited raids in recent weeks, always clashing with armed Palestinian fighters,” she explains.

“The reason why it is complicated to invade the Jenin refugee camp is that it is very densely populated, but above all, because the people of the camp are confident and willing to fight,” stresses Jamal Hweil, recalling his own experience. 

“In 2002, our most important weapon was the unity between all fighters from different factions, which provided the maximum support from residents,” he says.

Zakaria Zubeidi, a local leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, holds up his M-16 rifle and picture of Yasser Arafat on 31 July 2004 in the northern West Bank city of Jenin. [Getty]

“Today, there is a whole generation of young people who have inherited our experience, just like we inherited the experience of the Black Panthers, and like they inherited the experiences before them,” says Jamal Hweil.

“In addition, the conditions of Palestine and of the camp haven’t changed either, occupation is still a reality”.

A reality that continues to claim lives. In early March, the Israeli army clashed again with Palestinian militants in Jenin as it raided the refugee camp, killing two young Palestinians. One of them, 22-year-old Abdallah Husari, was a fighter.

The other, Shadi Najim, was an 18-year-old who was coming back from work at a sweets shop in Jenin city when he was shot by the Israeli army. He was the only source of support for his sick parents.

In early April, the Israeli army raided the camp again, killing two more Palestinians. One of them was 17-year-old Sanad Abu Atiyah, a teenager who had dropped out of school to help his parents by working at a bakery.

The other, Yazid Saadi, was a 23-year-old who was armed and taking part in the clashes. In August 2021, he witnessed the death of his friend, Nour Jarrar, who was killed in clashes with the Israeli army.

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After Raad Khazem killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv, before being killed by the Israeli police, his father made a speech in front of a small crowd that had gathered in front of his balcony in the camp, in which he called upon continuing resistance.

The Israeli army raided the camp two days later in an attempt to arrest him, but he wasn't there.

Raad’s father then posted on his Facebook account that he will not surrender until Israel releases his son’s body. In a separate raid, the Israeli army attempted to kill his younger son, accusing him of being one of the camp’s militants, but he escaped the ambush, in which another Palestinian was killed by random fire.

“This spiral of death can only lead to more resolution by the people of Jenin,” comments Jamal Hweil.

“We can not expect a normal and stable life in a refugee camp,” he says. “A refugee camp in itself, you know, is an unstable, and temporary reality”.

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