Palestinian residents of the Jenin refugee camp encountered scenes of widespread destruction Wednesday as they emerged from their homes and returned from nearby shelters following the most intense Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank in nearly two decades.
The two-day offensive, meant to crack down on Palestinian militants after a series of recent attacks, destroyed the camp’s narrow roads and alleyways, sent thousands of people fleeing their homes and killed 12 Palestinians. One Israeli soldier also was killed.
While Israel claimed the operation had inflicted a tough blow on the militants, it remained unclear whether there would be any lasting effect on reducing more than a year of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The offensive also further weakened the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s erstwhile partner in battling militants, which already had little control in the camp to begin with.
Israel launched the invasion in the camp, long known as a bastion of Palestinian militants, on Monday, saying its goal was to destroy and confiscate weapons. It carried out air strikes and sent in hundreds of troops in an operation that was reminiscent of the bloody period two decades ago known as the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel’s open-ended occupation.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, condemned the raid, calling the Israeli operation in Jenin “horrific.” He said there were reports that 80 per cent of dwellings in the refugee camp were either destroyed or damaged.
“They wanted to destroy the camp completely and they failed to do so,” he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. “It’s state terrorism in action.”
At the request of the United Arab Emirates, the U.N. Security Council has scheduled closed consultations on the Jenin violence for Friday.
Mr. Mansour said the Palestinians want the council to take action to protect their people, disarm Israeli settlers and authorize a temporary international presence.
Faraj al-Jundi, an ambulance worker, said he and his family fled their home and stayed with a relative after it was hit in an air strike on Tuesday.
“They targeted the house, the windows, the doors,” he said as he returned home on Wednesday. “We have a destroyed house. We have broken windows. It’s all gone,” he said. “This aggression is really awful.”
Palestinians slowly filled the streets of the camp, a densely populated area of some 24,000 people that was turned into a ghost town during the offensive. Roads were destroyed, with piles of broken asphalt, stones and rocks lying on the sides. Cars were smashed and scorched, and shops were closed as people gathered in the streets and offered food to one another. Workers fixed broken power lines, slowly restoring electricity for residents, while running water remained disrupted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that Israel had wrapped up a “comprehensive action against the terrorist enclave” and that similar missions would take place in the future.
“Jenin was to be a safe haven. It no longer is a safe haven,” he said. “This is just the first step. It’s by no means the last action that we will take.”
Some of the scenes from Jenin, including massive army bulldozers tearing through camp alleys, were eerily similar to those from a major Israeli incursion in 2002, which lasted for eight days and became known as the battle of Jenin.
Both operations, two decades apart, were meant to crush militant groups in the camp and deter and prevent attacks on Israelis emanating from the camp. In each case, the army claimed success, only to be dragged into new cycles of military raids and Palestinian attacks.
This week’s raid had wide support across Israel’s political spectrum, but some critics argued the impact would be short-lived, with slain gunmen quickly replaced by others.
“As usual, these things are best taken in proportion. To the security establishment, this is a successful operation thus far, but it holds no real chance of effecting a fundamental change in the state of affairs in the West Bank,” wrote Amos Harel, military affairs commentator for the Haaretz daily.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autonomy government administers parts of the West Bank, has rejected violence against Israelis, but has effectively lost control over several strongholds of gunmen, including Jenin.
Amateur videos posted on social media showed angry residents of Jenin hurling stones at the Palestinian Authority police headquarters after the Israeli military’s withdrawal.
Mass funerals for the Palestinians killed in the raid drew thousands of mourners. At one stage, participants booed representatives of Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, chanted their support for a local militant group and ran them out of the cemetery.
“We are angry at them,” said Mohammed Abu Ali, another camp resident. “They didn’t intervene or stand by our side. Not one person from the Palestinian Authority stood by us.”
Such sentiments could make it difficult for either Israel or the Palestinian Authority to restore control over the camp and other militant strongholds.
Many Palestinians see the actions of the gunmen as an inevitable result of 56 years of occupation and the absence of any political process with Israel. They also point to increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Although the Palestinian Authority has condemned the Israeli crackdown, it is deeply unpopular because of corruption and its security co-ordination with the Israelis. The two sides, which have almost no political dialogue, maintain security ties in a shared effort to control Islamic militant groups.
Summing up the raid, the military said it had confiscated thousands of weapons, bomb-making materials and caches of money. Weapons were found in militant hideouts and civilian areas alike, in one case beneath a mosque, the military said.
The Israeli military has claimed it killed only militants, but it has not provided details.
The large-scale raid comes amid a more than year-long spike in violence that has created a challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have called for tougher action against Palestinian militants only to see the fighting worsen.
Over 140 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, and Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have killed at least 25 people, including a shooting last month that killed four settlers.
Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.