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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With Israeli raids in the West Bank, ‘there’s no such thing as sleeping at night’

Samir Jaber, a restaurant owner at the Jenin refugee camp in Jenin City, West Bank, Dec. 7, 2023. The Jenin refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is a focal point of what Israeli officials describe as counterterrorism operations across the territory. (Afif Amireh/The New York Times)

By Christina Goldbaum and Hiba Yazbek

Mangled pipes poured sewer water into what remained of the road. On either side of the runoff were piles of broken pavement, churned up by bulldozers. The archway at the entrance to the neighborhood had been demolished; the gnarled hull of a black car sat nearby.

Almost all of the residents of Jenin, a more-than-70-year-old refugee camp turned neighborhood in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, had fled in recent weeks. Of the handful who remained, few dared venture out onto the street. They knew that at any moment the quiet could erupt in the paw-paw-paw of gunfire and the hissing hydraulics of bulldozers as Israeli security forces carried out a new raid.

Since the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the Jenin refugee camp — long known as a bastion of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation — has been a focal point of what Israeli officials describe as counterterrorism operations in the West Bank and an extension of their war in the Gaza Strip.

Across the occupied territory, Israel has conducted near-nightly raids. In the Jenin camp, it has done so every few days, sometimes twice a day, and has arrested at least 158 people, according to Israeli authorities. Palestinian officials say at least 330 residents have been arrested and 67 people killed, including an 8-year-old child.

It is the deadliest two-month stretch that the camp has experienced in recent memory, described by residents as a relentless siege. The local armed resistance has been pummeled — for now, residents say.

“The new generation will come back stronger because of everything they are seeing now,” warned Salah Abu Shireen, 53, a shopkeeper in the camp. “The war, the killing, the invasion, the raids — it will all fuel even more resistance.”

Formally established in 1953, the Jenin refugee camp has been celebrated for decades by Palestinians as a symbol of resistance against Israeli rule. Nearly every resident here has had at least one relative jailed or killed, helping forge a sense of common destiny. Posters of slain fighters line the streets and children carry farewell notes, akin to wills, on their phones in case they are killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Since it was first built, the camp has morphed from a smattering of temporary tents to a neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings squeezed into the heart of surrounding Jenin city. But in recent weeks, the raids have left the camp, an area of less than half a square mile, battered.

Electricity lines have been damaged, water tanks punctured and paved roads turned to little more than pebbles and dirt. The stench of sewage hangs thick in the air. Over the past two months, about 80% of the roughly 17,000 residents have temporarily moved to the surrounding city, local leaders say.

Today, the camp’s warren of roads and alleyways is mostly empty, save for the few children chasing one another in games of tag. Dangling from the concrete facades of buildings around them are small white cameras and loudspeakers — part of the ad hoc warning system residents set up to alert one another to incoming convoys of Israeli military vehicles.

When the electricity was cut and the sirens could not blare, people turned to Telegram channels on which spotters on the outskirts of the camp offered warnings, or relied on children who ran through the streets screaming, “The army is coming! The army is coming!”

Since the raids began, Fida Mataheen, 52, and her relatives have often stayed awake until dawn, anxiously checking for alerts. “There’s no such thing as sleeping at night in the camp these days,” she said. “We are always lying awake, waiting.”

Standing in his falafel restaurant, one of the few businesses still open, Samir Jaber, 52, worked over a pan covered in an inch-thick layer of oil. Light streamed into the restaurant from a smattering of small punctures in the doors, scars from an explosion during a raid about a month ago, he said.

After a raid that destroyed the road, Jaber began leaving the camp each night to sleep in the safety of an apartment in the city. But he returned to the restaurant each morning to serve the few customers still milling about the neighborhood. “This is our camp; this is our home,” he said. “They are trying to displace us, but we’re not leaving here.”

This month, a well-known leader, Muhammad Zubeidi, 26, was killed in a clash with Israeli security forces. The Israeli forces confirmed they had killed Zubeidi, whom they identified as “the Jenin Camp Commander” and an operative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group based in Gaza.

News of his death reverberated across the camp like a death knell for this generation. Young people ran to the scene of the clash in disbelief, they said. There, they found a building turned to rubble and Zubeidi’s shoes splattered in blood.

The fighters “were a symbol for all of us in the camp; they were defending us, they were fighting for our future,” Walid Jaber, 18, said from a hospital bed after being shot in the leg during a raid. A pendant with a photograph of Zubeidi hung around his neck. “We will not forget them. We will all seek revenge for their blood.”

Days after Zubeidi’s death, his father, Jamal, 67, sat in their family’s home welcoming mourners who had come to offer condolences. The family was renowned in the camp, and posters memorializing cousins and sons and brothers who had died fighting Israeli forces covered the walls.

“What the Israelis are trying to do with all this destruction is create a state of despair and drive a wedge between the people in the camp and the resistance — so people blame the resistance fighters,” Jamal Zubeidi said. “What the Israelis don’t realize is that our biggest strength is our unity.”

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