Jenin refugee camp: A stronghold of Palestinian resistance against Israel

Jenin refugee camp
6 min read
07 June, 2024

In Jenin, a city in the northern occupied West Bank, young armed men patrol the winding, rubble-laden streets of the refugee camp, rotating sleepless shifts, setting up roadblocks at chokehold points, and reinforcing the iron barricades dotted across entrances, all in an effort to hinder escalating Israeli military incursions.

Mohammed Al-Sabbagh, head of the Jenin camp’s People’s Committee, told The New Arab that since 7 October the Israeli army has killed around 75 Palestinians in Jenin, destroying about 47 homes and shops, with hundreds more partially damaged.

“Around 115 families have temporarily relocated outside the camp,” Al-Sabbagh says. “Every house in Jenin camp has suffered destruction and vandalism by the invaders, who break down doors to terrorise and loot innocents.”

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Israel has carried out a total of 74 raids in Jenin since the Hamas-led 7 October attack and the brutal war that ensued in its aftermath. The last two incursions took place late last month, including a 40-hour ground operation on 21 May that resulted in the deaths of 12 Palestinians and injuries to 25 more.

The second operation was on the 26 May, with 30 military vehicles storming Jenin, stationing troops across several quarters of the camp, and bulldozing infrastructure on Sika Street after engaging with the camp’s armed militants.

Fighting between Jenin’s militants and Israeli soldiers has become an all-too-familiar scene for residents of the camp, many of whom have lost homes and loved ones to Israeli raids over the years. This legacy of armed resistance against Israel's military occupation, however, dates back long before 7 October.

“Jenin camp has consistently been a centre of resistance since its founding,” researcher Kamal Jabr says. “The camp played a significant role during the First Intifada and saw the emergence of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the early 1990s.”

"Jenin camp has consistently been a centre of resistance since its founding"

Throughout the Second Intifada, Jenin’s residents continued to be central to the resistance effort, particularly during the 2002 Battle of Jenin, when Israeli forces launched a large-scale attack which destroyed 400 homes and killed 52 Palestinians.

“From 3 to 18 April 2002, the Israeli army's offensive left the camp in ruins,” Jabr says. “But the perseverance of its people cemented Jenin’s status as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.”

Jenin / Qassam Muaddi
A photo of a Palestinian fighter in Jenin refugee camp. [TNA/Qassam Muaddi]

Militant unity

More recently, Jenin has become a target of Israel’s operations in the occupied West Bank following the ‘Unity Intifada’ in 2021, which was triggered by attempts to expel several Palestinian families from their ancestral homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

Hamas responded by launching rockets into Israel in what was popularised as the ‘Sword of Jerusalem’ battle in May of the same year. The Israeli army retaliated with an 11-day assault on Gaza.

In the aftermath of the ‘Sword of Jerusalem’, Jenin became the launchpad and centre of operations for the Jenin Brigades, Lions’ Den, and other youth-led militant groups who have clashed with Israeli soldiers during multiple raids.

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“A new wave of resistance in Jenin camp began with the Sword of Jerusalem battle,” expert on Palestinian militant movements Ahmad Abu Al-Hijaa tells The New Arab. “The conflict reignited resistance in Jenin.

“Following the events of Sheikh Jarrah, resistance within the camp began with marches and confrontations with the Israeli army, then transitioned to armed insurgency, which culminated in the formation of military cells for key factions, most notably the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah, the Al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas, and the Al-Quds Brigades of Islamic Jihad.”

These new groups comprised loosely organised young fighters associated with the main Palestinian factions, transcending the conventional dividing lines that historically separated them. This cohesive community of militant groups has become a “thorn lodged deep into Israel’s side,” according to Abu Al-Hijaa.

“In Jenin, there is no shortage of armed fighters,” he tells The New Arab. “Despite killings, assassinations, and arrests, the camp almost always produces new ones, ensuring the resistance grows in numbers."

"Israel is using the global focus on Gaza to eliminate Palestinian militant groups and resistance efforts in the West Bank"

Another notable aspect of organised resistance in Jenin camp, as highlighted by Abu Al-Hijaa, is its status as a sanctuary for fighters from towns in the Jenin governorate and beyond.

“Many fighters from different cities have come to Jenin seeking refuge, and dozens have been martyred in the camp throughout the years,” he adds.

Israel, says Abu Al-Hijaa, aims to uproot this support network through assassinations, infrastructure destruction, and home demolitions, making the camp uninhabitable in an effort to displace its residents gradually.

“The reason why raids on Jenin and other camps intensified following the 7 October attacks is that Israel is using the global focus on Gaza to eliminate Palestinian militant groups and resistance efforts in the West Bank, which have become a growing source of concern for Tel Aviv,” he adds.

Israeli raids have killed over 75 Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp since 7 October. [Getty]

He described community support in the West Bank as weak because, unlike Gaza, the area is an open field for occupation forces, allowing Israeli soldiers to move freely and crack down swiftly on the civilian population.

“Israel’s systemic dismantling of militant groups is not the only challenge these fighters face,” he adds. “Formed mostly of young men, these groups lack resources, training, and experience owing to the lack of a unified veteran leadership. This can sometimes lead to dangerous, ill-advised operations.”

But Abu Al-Hijaa also highlighted recent improvements in the performance of these groups over the past few months.

"There are less chaotic, deadly confrontations with Israeli forces during recent incursions, and the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used against Israeli vehicles have become more effective," he explains.

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A continued struggle

The refugees in Jenin, displaced during the 1948 Nakba, have vowed to “never be displaced again,” according to Jamal Huweil, a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council and a native of the refugee camp.

“Anyone violating the camp’s sanctity must pay the price. This is our right and our religious, moral, and legal duty to defend ourselves,” he states. “The youth of Jenin are sacrificing their lives for their people's freedom.

“But the situation is different now. During the Second Intifada, there was national unity and official support from then-President Yasser Arafat. Today, we have a united younger generation from all factions, which overcame political divisions but still faces challenges from both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli authorities."

"We have a united younger generation from all factions, which overcame political divisions but still faces challenges from both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli authorities"

After Hamas seized control of Gaza from President Mahmoud Abbas's forces in 2007, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has collaborated with Israel to quell Islamist militant factions and maintain the dominance of the secular nationalist Fatah party in the West Bank, a move that has largely alienated the governing body from the people and Fatah’s PA leaders from their younger ranks.

“Jenin has moved beyond this political division," Huweil notes, highlighting his close relationship with the late Hamas leader Wasfi Qabha. "When the occupation tried to arrest Qabha, fighters from Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas defended him. He took refuge in my house for nearly four months.

“It is this unity in Jenin that scares Israelis the most, and it is why the occupation seeks to make the camp uninhabitable,” he explains. “But the community keeps on rebuilding, and the resistance lives on.”

This article is published in collaboration with Egab.