With Israeli Raids in the West Bank, ‘There’s No Such Thing as Sleeping at Night’

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 Gaza.

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 the Israeli authorities. Palestinian officials say at least 330 residents have been arrested and 67 people killed, including an 8-year-old child.

The refugee camp has been raided by Israel repeatedly, sometimes twice day.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

It is the deadliest two-month stretch 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.

Surveying the damage after clashes in the refugee camp,Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

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, around 80 percent 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.”

Mahmoud, right, the 3-year-old grandson of Fida Mataheen, in Jenin City.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

Ms. Mataheen’s only comfort comes from when she hears resistance fighters joking and laughing in the street outside, she said. Knowing they are relaxed is often enough to lull her to sleep. But if she hears them fall silent and the clacks of rifles being picked up, she knows something is amiss. Her relatives — who live in the apartments above hers — will then run down to her first-floor apartment, hoping for safety there.

Earlier this month, their apartments were raided twice in one week, she said. Couches were overturned, drawers pulled out and clothing strewed across the floor, photographs show. Her daughter-in-law returned home to find her toilet overflowing, she and two other relatives said.

Life in the camp had already become untenable, Ms. Mataheen said. Her daughters-in-law had to ask neighbors for clean water for cooking, and, when the electricity was cut, her sons had to take their phones to a nearby hospital to charge. Her 3-year-old grandson, Mahmoud, began wetting the bed. Her youngest grandson, age 1, could sleep only if cuddled in her arms.

“It was so full of life, so full of energy — now that’s gone,” Ms. Mataheen said, describing the camp. “It’s like they are seeking revenge for what happened on Oct. 7 — but we didn’t do that,” she said.

The family has now left for a house they rented in Jenin city. The few residents who remain in the camp are determined topreserve a semblance of normal life.

Samir Jaber, a restaurant owner.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

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.

“Would you like some fish?” his neighbor joked, nodding toward the stream of sewer water running across the torn-up street outside.

“Only if you caught it yesterday,” Mr. Jaber replied.

“Yeah, it was like a river then,” the neighbor conceded.

After a raid that destroyed the road, Mr. 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.”

Jenin Government Hospital.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

While Jenin experienced raids before the Hamas attack, residents described the recent incursions as more aggressive and more frequent than ever before. The cumulative effect of raid after raid has wornon people, they said. It has also chipped away at the organized armed resistance that residents viewed as their protector.

Earlier this month, a well-known leader of the resistance, Muhammad Zubeidi, 26, was killed in a clash with Israeli security forces. News of his death reverberated across the camp like a death knell for this generation of resistance. Young people ran to the scene of the clash in disbelief, they said. There, they found a building turned to rubble and Mr. Zubeidi’s shoes splattered in blood.

Walid Jaber, 18, with his grandmother at the hospital in Jenin.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times

The resistance 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 Mr. Zubeidi hung around his neck. “We will not forget them. We will all seek revenge for their blood.”

Days after Mr. Zubeidi’s death, his father, Jamal Zubeidi, 67, sat in their family’s home welcoming mourners who had come to offer condolences. The family was renowned in the camp for being part of the resistance, 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,” Mr. Zubeidi said. “What the Israelis don’t realize is that our biggest strength is our unity.”

Jenin refugee camp.Credit…Afif Amireh for The New York Times
Back to top button