Ambulance, avoids burning debris, Jenin
Ambulance avoids burning debris in the road in the Jenin refugee camp, Jenin, West Bank, in December 2023. Photo credit: Tom Mutch / WhoWhatWhy

“Now you know how it feels to be Palestinian.”

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JENIN, West Bank — When the raid sirens and the distress calls in Arabic began sounding from the loudspeaker in Jenin’s mosque, we knew we were in trouble. We were a group of five reporters who had entered the Jenin refugee camp after the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announced their withdrawal following a raid in the city. The camp looked like a derelict suburb, with concrete buildings and small shops instead of tents and non-government aid organizations passing out supplies. It was heavily damaged in the Israeli raid. Several women clambered over the wreckage of an apartment block that had been hit by a drone strike. The streets around the camp had been dug up by bulldozers, and the walls were full of bullet holes.

As we walked past the destroyed mosque, a huge black SUV drove past us. It had tinted windows, but they were lowered enough to show several exhausted but determined looking Palestinian men. A few seconds after the car turned into the street in front of us, we heard a volley of gunfire, and a bullet ricocheted into a wall next to us. We ducked down an alleyway as the shooting intensified. A woman wearing a black headscarf opened her door and beckoned us into her courtyard.

“They beat my sons and my husband, and then blindfolded them,” she said. “They broke everything.”

We could see that the walls and the furniture of her home had been ripped apart. The Israeli soldiers may have been looking for weapons. “They were here for four hours. They took my husband and sons to prison. Now one of my sons has come back, but my husband and other son are still there.” She added that the Israelis had brought dogs who attacked her while the house was being searched. “The troops did nothing to stop them,” she said.

Palestinian, boy, hospital,  Jenin

Palestinian boy being treated in a hospital in Jenin, December 2023. Photo credit: Tom Mutch / WhoWhatWhy

Jenin is the center of the low-intensity war that has spread throughout the West Bank in the weeks after the October 7 attack by Hamas. It is being fought between the IDF and various Palestinian militant brigades aligned with groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Jenin is infamous among Israeli forces for the presence of the Jenin Brigades, a well-armed militia tightly embedded in the city and community.

Of the 303 Palestinians killed as a result of violence in the West Bank, 78 have been killed while fighting in Jenin. Israel considers these groups to be terrorists, and families of Palestinian militants I spoke with left no doubt that their aim is nothing less than the annihilation of the State of Israel through military means. While the destruction here pales in comparison to the 1,200 Israelis killed on October 7, let alone 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, this is still a brutal, messy conflict that is being fought mostly outside the public eye. At least 11 Palestinians were killed during the raid we witnessed.

The gunfire lasted around 15 minutes. When it died down, we decided to leave the camp and get back to the relative safety of the city. As we walked down Al-Shuhada street, we stopped in front of an alley. A local man told us that there were soldiers at the end of the alley. We raised our hands, with our camera above our heads, clearly marked as press.

My colleague saw an IDF technical vehicle at the end of the street just before the gunfire started. We have no idea if they were shooting to hit us, or just to scare us. “If they’d wanted to kill you, you’d probably be dead,” a more experienced colleague remarked at dinner that night.

IDF, technical vehicle, Jenin

Israeli technical vehicle. Photo credit: Tom Mutch / WhoWhatWhy

We ran back into a group of waiting journalists. A young Palestinian reporter, Shatha Hanaysha, stopped to ask how we were. After telling her our story, she grinned slightly, and said, “Now you know how it feels to be a Palestinian! You experienced it for one day, but for the people living here, it is every day.” Hanaysha knows the dangers of reporting here better than anyone. She was working with Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh when Akleh was killed by an Israeli sniper during a similar raid in May 2022. A memorial to her was destroyed by the IDF during a raid several weeks ago.

We witnessed other instances of senseless vandalism and pointless provocation as well. Several IDF troops recited Hanukkah prayers over a mosque loudspeaker during the raid. They sprayed the Star of David onto the faces of posters of Palestinians, militants and civilians alike, who had been killed in previous battles. An IDF spokesperson declined to comment on the circumstances of the raid or offer anyone for an interview. The IDF did, however, suspend several of the soldiers who performed the Hanukkah songs.

I spoke with one former IDF soldier who had served in Jenin. He said that one of his relatives had been in the unit that had killed Akleh. They had mistaken her camera for a weapon. He also said that the IDF operated under extremely difficult circumstances. Frequently, people dressed as civilians pulled out weapons and shot at them from civilian housing. We had seen one man with a gun run for cover within the walled courtyard of a hospital. In addition, one Jenin local said that the mosque that had been destroyed was a well-known hideout of a commander of the Jenin Brigade.

Memorials, defaced, Jenin

Memorials defaced by the IDF. Photo credit: Tom Mutch / WhoWhatWhy

At a small cemetery just outside the camp, family members grieved at the graves of their dead relatives. Ahmad Shadi, 25, had recently lost his brother Muhammad, 26. “We gathered all the young guys at a spot where there had just been an airstrike,” he said. “It was peaceful for an hour. There was nothing. Then the IDF suddenly came in with bulldozers, jeeps, everything… we survived three or four more airstrikes.” Shadi was sitting next to his brother’s headstone while he told me this. “I asked the guys to just go away and disappear,” he said. “But my brother didn’t want to, He wanted to continue fighting. There was a fifth airstrike, and he was killed right there.”

Shadi says he does not regret his brother’s death. Most young men in the camp are involved  with armed resistance. Shadi didn’t explicitly claim association with any militant group, but it was clear who had his sympathy. “The enemy that is trying to take your land, raiding your land, you cannot just stand there, you have to do something about it,” he said. “Defending our land is not a choice, we have to do it. It is not something that we choose, we are born into it, and we cannot change it.”

Mohammad, 18, was sitting over the grave of his nine-year-old brother, killed in the crossfire during a raid several weeks earlier. His mother and sister were silently weeping while they read from tatty paperback copies of a pamphlet of Quran verses. “All of Palestine must be free,” he told me. “Israelis have no place here, they must go back to where they came from, like Europe.”

We met a group of adolescents, 10–14 years old, who were hanging out and playing in a cemetery filled with the graves of Jenin Brigade soldiers. Everyone in the city calls them “martyrs.” Even the teenage girls were saying that they wanted to grow up and fight alongside the resistance. They asked us to take photos of them alongside the men’s graves — they talked about them as if they were movie stars or pop icons.

Jenin Camp, refugee camp, West Bank

The Jenin refugee camp was established in 1953 in the West Bank. A corner shop in quiet times, April 7, 2011. Photo credit: Mujaddara / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Even in places in the West Bank that are not at war, support for radical groups has increased. Nour, a young woman from Ramallah, told me, “Don’t ask anyone to condemn Hamas here, because they won’t.” She explained that after years of endless occupation, a corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority and no progress towards a Palestinian state, most people in the West Bank had given up on the political process. Hamas, in contrast, managed to achieve  results by inflicting serious military casualties on Israeli forces and getting Israel to release Palestinian prisoners from jail.

This is confirmed by the fact that recent polls show that nearly half of people in the West Bank support Hamas, up from just over 10% before October 7. Gaza is different. Depending on the poll, support for Hamas has remained mostly static in the enclave. What makes Jenin different is the divide between generations. Many people in Jenin are over 30 and used to work in Israel. They tend to be much more cynical about the possibility of military victory. 

Muhammad Rouhani, 32, lost both his legs below the knee in an IDF airstrike. He spoke frankly about his situation; he had nothing to do with the Jenin Brigade, but several members of the brigade had been hiding in the apartment next door. He was, in his own description, collateral damage. Before the conflict here started, he had worked in construction in Kiryat Shmona, a town that was recently evacuated near the Lebanese border. Yet despite this, he still spoke of his time in Israel fondly, saying that he had been treated well and paid generously, and regretted that the fighting had escalated. “My Israeli friends were decent people, and they have nothing to do with what happened to me here,” he said. 

This rift between age groups exists among right-wing Israelis as well. Last week I traveled with Naomi Kahn, who is an American who decided to become a settler in Giv’at Ze’ev in the West Bank. She is currently the international director for Regavim, a right-wing settler organization that tries to identify and destroy what it calls “illegal” Palestinian settlements in Area C of the West Bank. Kahn opposes a Palestinian state and wants around 60 percent of the West Bank to be annexed to Israel permanently. But she also claims that she wants  Palestinians to be allowed to stay on their land, albeit in something less than a state.

“If Israel really wanted to eradicate the Arab populations of Judea and Samaria when the population was a lot smaller, it could still do so now! But we don’t. Do I care if Arabs live here as long as I can live here in peace? But the Arab philosophy is that my existence defiles their land. A holy war is to rid all places that are considered Islamic land… that includes Spain,” she told me when I interviewed her for another article which ran in The Daily Beast.

Palestinian, men running, Jenin

Palestinian men running. Photo credit: Tom Mutch / WhoWhatWhy

On the first day of Hanukkah, I joined a protest outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. A few dozen Israelis intended to march on the Al-Aqsa Mosque. They were demanding the removal of the wafq, the Islamic administrator of the grounds of the mosque. The police shut the protest down, and confiscated signs saying “Death to Terrorists.” As one of the demonstrators told me, a terrorist is “anyone who identifies as a Palestinian.”

When I asked who organized the protest, I was surprised when I was introduced to Atacama, a blonde high schooler. Originally from Texas, she espoused radical views far beyond what I’ve been used to hearing in Israel.

“The plan already is to overthrow the government, we don’t like this government. Bibi Netanyahu is not a right-wing man, Bibi Netanyahu is not a religious Jew, he is not someone who should be ruling over the religious land of Israel,” she told me. As she increasingly worked herself up, her demands escalated. “We need a religious government,” she said. “Not a democracy — a theocracy, a kingdom of Israel so we can do everything that we have to do! So, we can rebuild the Temple, so we can have Jews living all over Israel.” 

She said that she wanted to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque, and that Jews should have the right to remove Palestinians from their lands in the West Bank whenever they wanted to settle. Jacob, a 21-year-old who is also from the US, said that he agreed with everything she said. The West Bank, he said, was Israeli land “that we won fair and square in the 1967 war. We conquered the land, it is ours.” He said that this was the way of the world, “how all societies and borders had been decided; so why should Israel be any different?”


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