The Palestinian town of Jenin is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Israel’s recent brutal attack, which left at least thirteen Palestinians dead (including women and children), injured one hundred, and displaced thousands others. For two days, Israeli forces pounded Jenin with airstrikes and drones, backed by military convoys and bulldozers.
Touted as the biggest military operation in Jenin since the Second Intifada, the full-scale incursion rendered the city a ghostland in ruins. After long hours of unceasing violence, Jenin resembled an abandoned battlefield engulfed in smoke.
But Jenin is not a state at war with Israel. It’s a refugee camp within an occupied city.
The camp, which turns seventy this year, was founded by Jordan to host Palestinian refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 war. Today, some seventeen thousand refugees are squeezed into a quarter square mile, known as Jenin refugee camp.
Israel has coveted Jenin since the 1948 war, when its forces failed to take the city. Its location on the Jordanian border offered an attractive buffer zone for the nascent state. Defended by the Iraqi Army, Jenin was one of the few Palestinian towns where the Arabs fought bravely and showed fierce resistance. (A war cemetery for Iraqi soldiers is still located on the outskirts of Jenin.)
It was the survival of Jenin that allowed it to serve as a refugee haven for displaced Palestinians from Haifa and other parts of Palestine. In a tragic irony, Israel is now bombing the very refugee population it displaced seventy-five years ago.
The Israeli leadership was baffled by the defeat in Jenin, whose heroic survival would haunt Israel for decades to come. Had Israel taken Jenin that year, Haaretz noted, the Arab front on the Jordanian border would have collapsed, the Iraqi army would have retreated, East Jerusalem would have been captured, and the Jordan River would have become Israel’s border.
In 1967, Jenin fell under Israeli occupation with the rest of the West Bank, rendering it a second Gaza, an occupied city swollen by refugees. Israel occupied Jenin but never truly conquered it. Israeli leaders knew that Jenin was not an easy feat. The city had a long history of resisting foreign occupation.
During the Palestinian Revolt (1936–39), Jenin became a graveyard for British soldiers, embarking on “an intensified campaign of intimidation and sabotage” that caused the British administration “grave concern,” to cite an official British report. Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the legendary Arab field commander of the Arab Liberation Army in 1948, used the city as his military base in northern Palestine, where he mounted his first attack against Zionist forces near the strategic road between Haifa and Jenin.
Owing to its refugee history, Jenin became a hub for Palestinian militants, and consequently, the site of Israel’s collective punishment against Palestinians. It served as a militant stronghold for Palestinian Islamist groups such as the Alquds Brigade and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, but also more secular groups like the Black Panthers of Fatah and the Red Eagles of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
This rendered Jenin a symbol of Palestinian resistance against occupation. The young Palestinian militants fighting Israeli occupation in Jenin today, including the nascent Jenin Brigades, represent a new generation of Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps under the yoke of Israeli apartheid, and who have suffered decades of settler violence.
The Jenin camp has long been a target of Israel’s repeated invasions, raids and bombings, curfews and targeted killings, mass arrests and house demolitions. During the first Intifada, the camp was the target of several Israeli raids and military incursions.
Over its tortured history, the Jenin Camp has known very little peace. The Oslo Accords of 1993, which forced Israel to hand administrative control of Jenin to the Palestinian Authority, have only made Israeli incursions into the camp more and more constant.
The Jenin Camp was an Israeli creation, birthed by Israel in the aftermath of war. Haunted by its refugee history, Israel continues to view the impoverished and powerless camp as a security threat of “existential” proportions that requires extraordinary and disproportionate measures.
Two decades ago, Israel meted out its most brutal measure against Jenin: apartheid. It began with the Second Intifada, when Jenin became a major battlefield for Palestinian liberation. The uprising started off as a popular rebellion but soon became militarized. Jenin became known to Palestinians as “the martyr’s capital.”
In April 2002, Israel launched a major incursion into Jenin as part of its Operation Defensive Shield, known among Palestinians as the Battle of Jenin. The destruction was swift and total.
Palestinian sources put the Palestinian death toll in the hundreds, most of whom were civilians. The battle, which lasted for ten days, left four hundred homes destroyed and hundreds more severely damaged. The BBC reported that 10 percent of the camp was “virtually rubbed out by a dozen armored Israeli bulldozers.” A UN envoy likened the camp to an earthquake zone.
Israeli bulldozers razed houses with family members in them. Some four thousand residents, a quarter of the camp’s population, were left homeless, twice displaced. Military destruction of town and camp and the Palestinian narrative of the battle is documented in Mohammad Bakri’s film Jenin, Jenin.
In May 2002, the Israeli government, led by Ariel Sharon, adopted a plan to build a separation wall between Israel and the West Bank. Adding salt to the wound, Israel picked Jenin as the building block of the wall.
In June, Israeli forces stormed Jenin, demolished houses, razed fields to the ground, and confiscated private Palestinian lands for the first segment of the wall. Construction began near Salem village west of Jenin, and extended in stages to Jerusalem in the south.
What was once a fertile Palestinian land became an intrusive network of electric fences and concrete walls twenty-five-feet high, with rolls of razor wires and deep dishes, military trenches, manned checkpoints, and surveillance towers — all flanked by military roads and vehicles on the Israeli side. Overnight, Jenin became enclosed by giant concrete walls topped with military watchtowers and Israeli snipers. Jenin was emerging as the nucleus of Israeli apartheid.
By the time the wall was completed, Jenin’s apartheid reality was sealed: it was now an occupied city under siege, segregated by an apartheid wall, and cramped with refugees. It was a prelude for apartheid in Palestine.
Today, some 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, mostly in segregated cantons behind Israel’s “apartheid wall” and newly constructed “Apartheid Road,” and in towns and cities penned between Jewish settlement blocks and behind a network of segregated roads, security barriers, and military installations. The wall, which runs deep into Palestinian lands, displacing Palestinian communities and cutting off their towns and villages from one another, has created a two-tiered system that provides full constitutional rights and privileges to Israeli settlers while depriving Palestinians of basic human rights.
For Palestinians who live there, apartheid signals not merely segregation, but the inhumanity of life under occupation: the beatings, shootings, killings, assassinations, lynchings, curfews, military checkpoints, house demolitions, forced evictions and deportations, forced disappearances, uprooting of trees, mass arrests, extended imprisonments, and detentions without trial.
The ongoing violence against Palestinians in Jenin and elsewhere is the ugly reality of Israeli apartheid, the culmination of decades of occupation and dispossession of a stateless people deprived of basic human rights and freedoms. The camp should never have existed in the first place.