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Jenin, hotspot of violence

Malte Ian Lauterbach reports for Berlin Story News from the West Bank about the situation in Jenin and the nearby refugee camp, where fighting breaks out every day, where 20.000 people live in poverty and without hope in a tiny area.

Israel, November 23.11.2022, XNUMX.

Two violent explosions shook Jerusalem just a few minutes apart. Explosive devices exploded at two bus stops, a 16-year-old Jew from Canada was fatally wounded and died in a hospital in Jerusalem on the same day. Another died of his serious injuries a few days after the attack.

Dozens of others were still in mortal danger many days later, seriously wounded by shrapnel from the bombs, which, according to an Israeli army spokesman, were of “extremely high” quality. Almost 80 kilometers away, in the Palestinian city of Jenin, a young Israeli Druze is in hospital in intensive care. His father and immediate family are in the room with him when they hear tumultuous noises in the hallway. His father goes to the door when ten heavily armed men suddenly break into the room, cut off the young man from his life-support instruments and kidnap him to the nearby refugee camp.
At this point the narratives diverge - the Israeli army insists that the man had already died in the hospital. However, the family describes that the man was still alive when the life support instruments were removed.
The ten men belong to the Islamic Jihad group in Palestine (PJJ), which killed 19 Israelis in the spring of that year in the worst wave of terror since the second intifada. In August, the group fired more than 2000 rockets into southern Israel. Since the wave of terror at the beginning of the year, the Israeli army has significantly increased its activity in the West Bank, with arrests and fighting in the streets occurring almost every day.
The two events, which are closely linked, shocked the entire country, without exception. Not only the extremely precise bomb attack, which was explicitly aimed at Orthodox Jews, but also the kidnapping in Jenin concerned the military in particular. An army officer who spoke to me in the evening compares the events in Jenin with those during the second intifada, a painful turning point for Israel and the officer himself, who was injured in combat and was hospitalized for weeks.
It has been a long time since the situation in the region was as tense as it was that evening.

Sign on the road to Jenin


That same evening, a short video clip appeared on social media in which five masked men presented their weapons to the camera. The short clip of Arabic music is interrupted and one of the men declares in Arabic that if the Palestinian Jihad did not hand over the body, Jenin would be burned to the ground.
They, too, remember the bloody days of the last decade, when Palestinians dragged the body of an Israeli soldier through the streets of Ramallah after brutally torturing him to death.
Whether it was these threats or the hasty Israeli talks with Palestinian leader Abbas that ensured the body was delivered before sunrise, only time really knows. The young man was buried that same morning; he would have turned 18 a few days later.
A dark day for Israel and the entire Middle East.
Shortly before these events, I was actually in Jenin and the refugee camp in question as part of my research for the series of articles “Traces of Terror”. I was also waiting at the bus stop in question, like thousands of others. To explain how the events in Jenin came about, one only needs to take a look at the situation on the ground.

Nablus, West Bank. November 10.11.2022, XNUMX

“Well, actually the situation is quite simple. They kill one of our men, we kill one of their men. That's life," says the taxi driver with a laugh when I ask him about an attack on a border crossing in the north of the country. One or more men had opened fire with a heavy machine gun the previous evening; apart from minor damage to a building, no one was injured. By we, he explains to me a little later, he means the Islamic Jihad group in Palestine (PJJ), a group that emerged in the Gaza Strip in 1987 and has carried out several attacks on civilians and soldiers in Israel in recent months, killing more than 20 people. With its general He means the Israeli army, which regularly arrested suspected members of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine in the West Bank, who had planned or carried out attacks in Israel or who had become conspicuous through other criteria.

Qalandiya in the West Bank – bombed out buildings in the background, traffic chaos in the foreground.

As the sun slowly sets, we are on our way to the Palestinian city of Nablus. We pass by a mixture of shops selling skinned cows, men whose faces have been burned by the sun and holes in their teeth by poverty; burning mountains of garbage accompanied by collapsed or otherwise destroyed but still inhabited buildings and in total contrast, a sports car dealership that sells expensive sports cars that cost more than 99.9% of the residents will earn in their lifetime.

In few regions is the gap between rich and poor as extreme and as clear as it is here. No wonder that the Palestinian government, which rules from the wealthy city of Ramallah, has little foothold here.

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Nablus was founded by the Romans almost 2000 years ago and the historic old town is lined with sandstone buildings from the heyday of the Islamic Empire and the Romans.
Nablus itself is considered one of the commercial and cultural centers of the West Bank, with an internationally renowned university and gigantic shopping centers.

Shopping center in Nablus


However, this apparent idyll quickly falls apart upon closer observation. There are battles on the streets of the old town almost every day and just recently there was an attempted attack on a group of pilgrims that was thwarted at the last second because the attacker's explosive device failed to explode.
After 21 p.m. the streets of Nablus become emptier, with isolated figures sharing the streets with the rats rummaging through the trash cans for something usable with their bushy tails.

The other side of Nablus: Garbage and rats on the streets

“We don’t go out at night anymore, it’s just not safe enough,” a man who runs a small hotel in Nablus tells me. It is also becoming emptier, only a few tourists come to Nablus and stay overnight. Overall, the security situation in Nablus has had a detrimental impact on both the local population and the city's economy.

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Explanation: West Bank, West Bank, Palestine and settlements

Palestine and the West Bank are two different territories, although they are often confused and used interchangeably. Palestine is a historical and political term that refers to the region formerly known as British Mandatory Palestine. The term is widely used by Palestinians to refer to the land they consider their homeland.
The West Bank, on the other hand, is a geographical region on the western bank of the Jordan River. The West Bank is one of the areas occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 and is currently partly under Israeli military control. The West Bank is home to many Palestinian towns, including the Jenin and Nablus refugee camps, as well as Israeli settlements, which have repeatedly caused conflict, particularly in recent years.
The conflict over Israeli settlements in the West Bank stems from the fact that the land is viewed by Palestinians as an integral part of a future Palestinian state. However, the Israeli government has allowed Jewish settlers to build homes and establish communities in the West Bank, which has caused tension and conflict with the Palestinian population.

One of the biggest challenges in resolving the conflict over Israeli settlements in the West Bank is the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians have a historical and religious connection to the land.
There are a number of reasons why Jewish settlers settle in the West Bank. Some are religiously motivated and want to live in the land that is sacred to the Jewish people. Others are drawn to the idea of ​​building a new community in a predominantly Jewish area. Some Jewish settlers are also motivated by political considerations and a desire to assert Israeli control of the West Bank. In some cases, settlers see the West Bank as a strategic location important to Israel's defense.

The difference between Palestine and the West Bank is important because it highlights the complex political situation in the region. Palestine is a symbolic and emotional term that is deeply rooted in the national identity of the Palestinian people. The West Bank, on the other hand, is a specific geographical region partially controlled by Israel. Understanding the difference between these two terms is important to understanding the conflict in the region and is complicated enough to warrant writing an entire series of articles.

Lion's Den
Nablus does not find peace that evening either, shots continue to echo through the night and the muzzle flashes of gunfire illuminate the night sky.
In the old town, a man and his heavy machine gun watch over the ancient streets from the roof of an ancient building. He belongs to the Lions'Den group, which is particularly active in Nablus.

“Memorial stone” in Nablus old town


Lions'Den is considered a new group that only formed in June of this year after battles with Israeli troops. Lions'Den is popular with many young people in Nablus; almost everyone has seen a video of them on TikTok. The old town of Nablus is lined with posters promoting 'martyrs' for Lions' Den.
These posters are all the same, young men armed with rifles and often the classic keffiyeh that their grandparents wore in the same conflict and a stoic look. They are all either dead or in Israeli captivity.

Banners in Nablus
Posters in the old town


These young men also had families, dreams, hopes and so much more.

I wanted to give meaning to the - in my eyes - senseless conflict, to understand why young men are so easily radicalized and die for a conflict that they themselves cannot understand, that began long before they were born .
An acquaintance once said to me “In situ veritas – on site, the truth.” If you want context about developments in the world, you have to go there yourself. My contacts in the region had advised me to meet with the United Nations office in the refugee camp in Jenin and talk to them about the situation on the ground.

So the next morning I set out to find the “truth”.

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Jenin, November 24.11.2022, XNUMX

My contacts at UNRWA – the United Nations relief agency for Palestine refugees in the Middle East – told me about the situation in the refugee camp in Jenin.

They spoke of a “humanitarian catastrophe” and this was easy to understand as I drove through the camp – the hopelessness in the air was almost palpable.

The camp, where 23.000 people live in less than half a square kilometer, is overcrowded and lacks basic services such as clean water and sanitation. Most people are impoverished and more than a third are unemployed.
There is also a lack of other infrastructure, many young people in the camp have no access to education and are at risk of being easily recruited by extremist groups. There are schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East for over 3000 young people, but most of them are very overcrowded.
So I spoke to Samir (name changed), who lives in the camp. He told me that he had lost all hope and dreams of a better future. “There is no future for us here,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “We have no opportunities, no training, no work. We are trapped here, living in fear and poverty.”

Refugee camp in Jenin

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been going on for decades, but the Battle of Jenin in 2002 finally radicalized the camp's residents. The increasing violence and terrorist attacks in the region have left many camp residents feeling scared and vulnerable.
The camp itself was created in 1953 to provide temporary accommodation for Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Over time, the camp became a permanent settlement and is now one of the largest refugee camps in the West Bank.

Context: Battle of Jenin

The Battle of Jenin took place in April 2002 during the Second Intifada. The fighting, sparked by an Israeli military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, which was the de facto stronghold of Palestinian militants, lasted for several days. The fierce fighting resulted in heavy losses on both sides.
In retrospect, the battle sparked controversy and international condemnation as the Israeli army was accused of using excessive force and causing civilian casualties. At the end of the battle, large parts of the camp were destroyed.
Ultimately, a United Nations fact-finding investigation found that there was no evidence of a massacre, but that some IDF actions may have violated international law. The battle had a significant impact on the conflict and further increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The battle also marked a turning point in Israeli military doctrine, as urban operations in contested areas are now viewed as significantly more dangerous.

The camp is still a stronghold and home to terrorist militias and smugglers and is therefore a frequent target of Israeli military operations.
The situation in Jenin is so tense that UNRWA contacts have declared a “24/7 state of emergency” because the lack of infrastructure has made the camp a breeding ground for violence and radicalization, including for groups such as the Palestinian Jihad. Without effective control by the Palestinian authorities and the IDF, it also makes it difficult for humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the camp's residents. The tense situation often means that people in the camp are nervous and suspicious of outsiders and unknown people are quickly mistaken for Israeli spies. So I was only able to take photos in the camp undercover, using a black garbage bag.

The hopes and dreams of the camp residents themselves are clear - a better future for themselves and their children. References are made again and again to the Israeli army and its operations. Firmly manifested here is the belief that peace can only be achieved without Israeli interference and through the provision of work and hope.

But the Palestinian Authority was also criticized for its inaction and lack of support for the camp's residents; here too, images of prosperity from Ramallah are familiar. Another resident of the camp told me that they were disappointed with Abbas and his people because they saw the people in Jenin as “rats in the dirt.”
The United Nations has also called on both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to take measures to improve the situation in the camp and address the needs of residents.
It is clear that without urgent action, the situation in Jenin will only continue to deteriorate and the cycle of violence and radicalization will continue - tragic events such as the hospital kidnapping are just another part in the endless spiral of violence.

Despite the challenges and hardships faced by the residents of the Jenin refugee camp, there is still hope for a better future that is only possible through international cooperation. The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government must also take measures to improve the situation in the camp and provide the residents with the necessary support and assistance - the first step would be closer cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to provide humanitarian measures enable and coordinate correctly.

A conversation along the vegetable market – hope, hummus and humor.

After my meeting with the UN relief agency, I was advised to take a look around the busy streets of Jenin. Virtually unmissable – and unheard – was the food market in Jenin, a lively and busy place, filled with the sounds of shouting vendors and the smell of fresh fruit, vegetables and baked goods. I have rarely seen a place that was so full of life. Here, too, I quickly stood out as an outsider - word quickly got around in the tight-knit city that I was writing about Jenin as a German journalist. In addition to daily business, the market also serves as an exchange for news and rumors.

Busy hustle and bustle in Jenin.

So I met Said (this name has also been changed), a man who was born in Jenin and, he said, would hopefully die there too, at his vegetable stand.
We sat down and swapped stories over a plate of hummus and pita, and despite our differences – and the language barrier – we found commonality in our laughter and the vibrancy of the market.

Said told me about his two sons, one who had been killed in the ongoing conflict and the other who had moved to Lebanon in search of a better life. His eyes were full of sadness as he spoke of his lost loved ones and how quiet his house had become.

Said at his vegetable stand in Jenin. (name changed)


He also mentioned the spiral of violence, spoke in a calm voice about the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians and together we realized that everyone involved only ever sees the violence of others. Hardly anyone, we noticed, has the chance to talk about the situation over hummus and pita.
When it was time for me to leave in the afternoon - the situation had become more unstable over the course of the day, I set off out of the city. I passed through the Israeli checkpoint without incident, and I watched as the soldiers told their own jokes and joked with one another.
At its core, I realized, humor unites all people. When nothing else remains, what remains is telling stories.

Checkpoint in Jerusalem.

Conclusion

Despite the two tragic events in Jenin and Jerusalem, life continues in the Middle East, there are daily battles between the Israeli army and various militias, and civilians continue to die in the conflict. And until the situation in Jenin changes drastically, people will still be radicalized there every day. Every day people will consider joining the “Holy War.” Simply because they no longer see any other options because poverty and the conflict have taken everything away from them.

The author would like to thank UNRWA and various Palestinian journalists who helped research this article and ensured that he was allowed to take photographs and research in Jenin.

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