clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What the siege of Jenin signals about the future of Israel and Palestine

The Israeli raid on Jenin appears over. But the next one could come at any time.

Children sit on stairs in a ruined building.
Children look on as they sit along a staircase by the rubble and broken furniture of a destroyed flat in a building in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on July 5, 2023, after the Israeli army declared the end of a two-day military operation in the area.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

This week, Israeli forces besieged the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. It was perhaps the biggest escalation there in two decades. It’s also of a piece with the policies of the current Israeli government.

On Monday, Israeli forces conducted an operation with airstrikes and military personnel. About 1,000 Israeli troops entered Jenin over those two days, according to the Israeli press, in what the government said was a counterterrorism operation.

At least 12 Palestinians were killed, several of them militants; over 100 Palestinians were wounded; and one Israeli soldier was killed. The Palestinian health ministry said that water and electricity systems in Jenin were damaged, and ambulances were blocked from reaching those in need of care.

Amid the aerial attacks and bulldozers, thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes in Jenin. While many may return after homes are reconstructed, those shocking images were reminiscent of the catastrophe of 1948, which Palestinians call the Nakba, when some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. An “ongoing Nakba, a never-ending trauma,” is how Inès Abdel Razek, the advocacy director for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, described the situation. “You’re being displaced and re-displaced and denied your dignity and the right to be free within your homeland.”

The Israeli attack represents a major escalation and the most intensive campaign in the West Bank since perhaps 2002, when Israeli forces destroyed parts of Jenin. But it also builds on an exceedingly violent year in Jenin and across the occupied West Bank, including ongoing Israeli raids on Palestinian homes there to crack down on grassroots resistance groups that use violence against the Israeli military. In May 2022, prominent Palestinian American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead covering the Israeli raids of Palestinian homes in Jenin.

Though Israeli forces appear to have ended the campaign on Jenin, experts told me that there are risks of this continuing and such large-scale attacks on West Bank cities becoming the new reality. This year so far has seen a tremendous number of Palestinian deaths in the West Bank, more than 130 Palestinians killed so far this year, and is on track to overwhelmingly surpass 2022, which itself had set a tragic milestone, more than anytime in the past 15 years, of 146 Palestinians killed in the West Bank.

Many factors have contributed to this tense and dangerous moment. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has resulted in daily injustice for Palestinians since 1967, and that has been supercharged by the current extreme-right Israeli government that is emboldening settler violence, the annexation of Palestinian land, and settlement expansion. That encroachment has led to both new armed Palestinian militant groups and individual acts of violence — like last week when an Israeli military raid in Jenin killed seven Palestinians, seemingly leading to a retaliatory Palestinian shooting of four Israeli settlers, which then led to more settler violence against Palestinians, all within three days. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has supported what it referred to as an Israeli policy of “self defense,” further empowering the Israeli government at a time when Israelis had grown divided over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. For their part, young Palestinians are disenfranchised and see a Palestine Liberation Organization that offers no hope for political rights.

So while the attack on Jenin represents a radical departure, it is also part of the way the Israeli occupation works. At any point, the next campaign could begin, in Jenin or in another city.

The “Gazafication” of the West Bank

The shape and scale of this attack was new. The journalist Amjad Iraqi, writing in +972 Magazine, described the Israeli operation on Jenin as the Gazafication of the West Bank.

Israel has blockaded the occupied territory of Gaza for years and aggressively bombed Palestinians there as part of its counterterrorism campaigns in recent years. Hamas, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist group, in effect runs the government there. Palestinian militants have launched rockets into Israeli territory, and in response, Israel conducts operations against militants there that it calls “mowing the grass.” But that violent process has largely stayed in the confines of Gaza.

With over 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the territory has not experienced such an intensive bombardment. But now that dynamic appears to have changed.

The strict Israeli military occupation of the West Bank has largely rooted out the kind of organized resistance factions that have threatened Israeli national security interests. But a new generation of Palestinians has begun to resort to violence in response to the Israeli military, settler violence, and against Israelis in other situations.

The Israeli government described its military activity in Jenin as self-defense. “We’re not trying to hold the ground. We’re acting against specific targets,” said Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.

These grassroots military groups have attacked Israeli soldiers, but analysts have questioned the extent of the threat that disparate Palestinian groups represent beyond occasional, uncoordinated attacks. “Their offensive operations have been confined to occasional, small-scale attacks on Israeli military outposts, checkpoints and settlers,” according to the International Crisis Group’s field reporting. “As things stand today, this new generation of armed groups does not yet seem to pose a major security threat. Interviews with residents, Fatah members and PA officials in Nablus suggest that the groups are small, disjointed and scattered, without clear leadership.”

Tariq Kenney-Shawa, an analyst with the Palestinian research network Al-Shabaka, emphasizes the power asymmetry between the Israeli military and Palestinian military groups. “In Jenin refugee camp, they’re defending themselves from an Israeli invasion of the camp. They’re engaging in armed confrontations with soldiers who are part of one of the most advanced and most well-trained militaries on this planet, that has access to some of the best technology out there,” he told me.

Experts have been warning of a third intifada, or uprising, among Palestinians given their intense disenfranchisement at a time when the Israeli government appears to be moving forward with normalization deals with Arab states and leaving Palestinians behind. Israel might have conducted this week’s raid to weaken organized resistance groups, but experts said it might only further inflame resistance.

Ayman Yousef, a political scientist at Arab American University in Jenin, says the attacks have brought about “a huge solidarity among Palestinians.” He worries that this unification among Palestinians will cause Israel to view this operation as a failure, which could lead to further escalatory and retaliatory measures from Israel, including the possibility of targeted assassinations. “There is a backlash of this Israeli operation, a kind of reverse result, in that people are more prepared to fight till the last drop, as they say,” he told me.

Jenin looms large in Palestinian life and has been an epicenter of Palestinian resistance. In 1953, the refugee camp was established, and nearly 50 years later during the second intifada, Israeli forces used jets and bulldozers to destroy parts of the camp. “The young people in the camp are still refugees today; their grandparents, or great-grandparents, had been expelled from Haifa by what became the Israeli army,” Abdel Razak explained. “We’re looking at a generation that’s only known the violence of the second intifada and its aftermath.”

“You’re talking about a camp and city with neighborhoods that are completely destroyed, still besieged, still unfree, and now with damaged infrastructure, being separated and confined, like Israel did with Gaza,” Abdel Razak added. “If we are not addressing the root causes of apartheid and simply now go back to the situation of a few days ago, when is the next time?”

A former Israeli official told the New York Times that the next raid could come anytime, “even tomorrow.”

Can the US’s approach to the Israeli government change?

The Israeli government pursuing the raids and attacks of Jenin are the most extreme right-wing in the country’s history. And many of its leaders in key cabinet positions have been clear in their intentions.

In June, when Palestinian gunmen killed four in the West Bank, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened retribution against the West Bank, referring to it by the name that Israeli settlers often use. “It’s time for a military operation in Judea and Samaria, and to take down buildings from the air,” he said.

As Abdel Razak told me, “Even with such an Israeli government that is so blunt, and so clear of their intentions, international impunity is as strong as ever.”

The Biden administration has drawn the line by not meeting with the most extreme cabinet members and representatives of this Israeli government. And last month, the US said it was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli Defense Ministry’s announcement of 5,000 new settlements in the West Bank. But even as US public opinion has begun to shift toward a more favorable view of Palestinians, that level of forthright condemnation has been lacking in the past few days with respect to Jenin, with the exception of a few members of Congress.

“We support Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups,” the White House said. And a State Department spokesperson said, “It is imperative to take all possible precautions to prevent the loss of civilian lives.”

“Because an operation like Jenin doesn’t get any condemnation, it basically gives a passive green light to the government to continue with such operations,” says Mairav Zonszein of the International Crisis Group.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.