On November 29, Rula, a widow and mother living in Jenin refugee camp, heard loud sounds and shooting outside of her home. As the sounds grew louder, Rula soon learned that the Israeli army was invading her area of the camp, and was gripped by fear. “We couldn’t leave to go anywhere, because we could hear the shooting from everywhere,” she tells us.
The phone then rang. It was an Israeli army officer, asking Rula if there were any men in the house. Despite Rula insisting that there were not, she was then told by the officers that she had thirty seconds to leave her house. Rula and her two young daughters quickly evacuated, and watched from outside as a rocket hit their home.
After this, they made their way to Rula’s mother-in-law’s flat, which is located on the ground floor of the same building. Minutes after arriving there, a rocket hit the building next door, where Rula’s sister lives (at this point, Rula’s sister was sheltering with her at her mother-in-law’s home). “We were all so scared. . . . The kids went flying in the air; they hit the ceiling and then the floor,” recalls Rula.
The bombings demolished Rula’s house, and partially destroyed her mother-in-law’s flat and sister’s home. “We were stuck in that room [at my mother-in-law’s] for five or six hours, too scared to leave the house because there were snipers everywhere,” says Rula. “All we could hear was shooting, sometimes towards the room, and bombing. The kids were all crying. I thought my daughter was going to have a nervous breakdown.”
Fearing that they would die in the building, Rula said she eventually “built up the courage” to leave the building carrying a white flag, screaming at the soldiers to stop shooting. When the Israeli army saw her, they took Rula and her family to be interrogated, first in the rubble surrounding the building, and then another location nearby. Rula and her family members were all repeatedly asked whether there were any men of “fighters” in their house, despite her having made clear over the phone that there were not.
When they were finally released hours later, Rula returned to her home, and was “shocked” to see the state of it. “It was so sad to see our home gone like that,” says Rula. “And all for nothing.” Rula’s brother is currently raising funds to rebuild his sisters’ homes.
Over the past four months, Israeli forces have unleashed a brutal wave of violence on the West Bank, killing 299 Palestinians between October 7 and December 31 — a 50 percent increase compared to the nine other months of the year. At least sixty-one further Palestinians, including thirteen children, have been killed so far in 2024 as of January 29, according to data from the United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Jenin has become a flash point in the Israeli assault, with raids occurring near daily, in addition to the use of some air strikes on United Nations refugee camps. Israel has continuously targeted Jenin in an effort to crush Palestinian resistance groups residing there. But it is not just fighters who are targeted but civilians also. Last month, at least seven Palestinian civilians were killed in an Israeli air strike on the city of Jenin, with no links to armed groups. And, last week, Israeli forces raided Ibn Sina Hospital in Jenin disguised as civilians and medical personnel, killing three Palestinians and beating doctors and nurses.
Rula is not the only one who has been left homeless as a result of Israel’s intensified attacks. A report from the OCHA detailed the demolition of more than 115 Palestinian homes in the West Bank since October 7, which has led to the displacement of over seven hundred Palestinians, three hundred of whom are children. Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers have been entering Jenin camp almost nightly, demolishing asphalt roads, severing electricity lines, and puncturing sewage pipes.
Faten Al-Rakh lives in Jenin camp in Al-Saha, the area most affected by the razing of infrastructure. “In the place where I live, the sewage was overflowing until it reached the door of my house, so it became difficult for me and my children to move around,” Al-Rakh tells us. “When we leave our homes, we find the smell of sewage, and our clothes get wet, because of the water that floods the streets.”
Farha, who also lives in Jenin camp, says it has become difficult for her children to get to school because of the potholes in the road. “Kindergarten buses are no longer able to reach children in their homes,” she says. “Many children can fall into holes or get hurt.”
Conditions have always been difficult inside the densely populated camp. The some fourteen thousand residents of the Jenin camp are descendants of Palestinians dispossessed of their land and homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Jenin has one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty among nineteen refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Now, impoverishment in the area is set to worsen, following the suspension of UNRWA funding from Australia, Germany, the UK, the United States, and others. On top of this, the destruction of roads and infrastructure is preventing many Palestinians from getting to work.
“It is collective punishment to destroy the infrastructure of the camp, and a clear violation of humanitarian international law,” says Riham Jafari, advocacy and communication coordinator at ActionAid Palestine. “This destruction aims to deprive people of their basic rights, and to be able to enjoy a decent life.”
The bulldozing of civilian infrastructure and destruction of homes in Jenin Camp is nothing new, with demolitions being a leading cause of the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank. Nor are the violent raids by Israeli forces, which have long been used to terrorize Palestinians. Prior to October 7, in 2023, Israeli forces had killed 205 Palestinians in the West Bank, while Israeli settlers were responsible for nine more deaths. Of these deaths, fifty-two occurred in Jenin alone.
In July, Israel launched its biggest raids on the area in decades, killing twelve Palestinians and forcing around three thousand Palestinians to flee Jenin refugee camp. During the assault, Israeli bulldozers ploughed the streets, leaving the roads in rubble and water and electricity destroyed. Many of the streets had since been repaired, only to be razed again during the latest Israeli onslaught.
“Over the last year, before October 7, [Israeli forces] were coming every two, three days, invading [the camp] and arresting people,” says Ahmed Tobasi, the artistic director of the Freedom Theatre, a cultural venue in Jenin camp. “But after the seventh, you can really see how much these soldiers are not coming to find ‘fighters’ or ‘terrorists’ — they’re coming for revenge.”
The Freedom Theatre has long been a symbol of resistance, and a safe place for children to heal from the trauma inflicted by Israeli occupation. On December 13, the Israeli forces entered the theater, destroying the offices, opening fire from inside and knocking down a wall to the neighboring building. The theatre was also vandalized by Israeli forces, who painted it with religious and political symbols.
After destroying the theatre, Israeli forces arrested Tobasi and Mostafa Sheta, the Freedom Theatre’s general manager, from their homes. The invasion of the theater was part of a three-day raid by Israeli forces that resulted in the killing of thirteen Palestinians and the injury of thirty-three others in both the city of Jenin and the camp. Tobasi was released after fourteen hours, but Sheta remains in detention.
“They hit me, handcuffed and blindfolded [me and my brother] in the house, and they started to destroy everything,” says Tobasi of the arrest. During his arrest, Tobasi says he was subject to “psychological torture” and horrific conditions, such as being denied access to water. “Each second [in detention] felt like a day. The situation was painful and humiliating.”
This is certainly not the first time the Freedom Theatre has come under attack: it was last raided in September, prior to the December raids. Tobasi sees the attacks on the theater — and the destruction of civilian infrastructure more broadly — as an attempt to stamp out Palestinian resistance and hope. “It’s to take away the little possibility that Palestinians can have a better future; to take away their dreams,” he says.
Rula sees the destruction of her home as serving a similar aim of stealing the future she built for herself and her family. “I have just a small house with two bedrooms, and everything that I have built through the years is now destroyed,” Rula says. “It’s been a horrible experience; my daughters now wake up crying and shivering at night with bad dreams.”
Israeli media now refers to Jenin as a “little Gaza” — a reference to the camp being a center of Palestinian resistance. As Tobasi points out, Israel is taking advantage of the fact that the world’s eyes are now trained on Gaza to accelerate its effort to crush and isolate that resistance. And it does so with impunity: while Joe Biden has sanctioned Israeli settlers over violence in the West Bank, no such restraints have been applied to the Israeli military.
“[The Israeli army] knows all the focus is on Gaza,” says Tobasi, “so they’re getting revenge on Jenin camp.”