Palestinian militants in Jenin (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)

July 11, 2023   4 mins

The armoured column drives slowly north out of Jenin. On one vehicle, a bleary-eyed Israeli soldier leans on a massive Vulcan cannon. “Fucking Saigon,” he mutters when I ask about the recent battle. He’s not far off: his unit has just finished fighting in the city’s refugee camp, using the Vulcans, originally intended as anti-aircraft cannons, to blast the upper floors of homes.

That was 21 years ago, at the peak of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, in which entire divisions occupied the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. Back then, their targets were the militant organisations who had been waging a suicide bombing campaign within Israel during the Second Intifada.

Last week, I stood on the same spot as the Israeli soldiers who had once again occupied the Jenin refugee camp started to leave. Most of them hadn’t even been born in 2002; here was just another generation of Israelis and Palestinians fighting for the same little piece of land in yet another round of this interminable conflict.

Not everything was the same, however. Two decades on, Israel’s tactics are markedly different. This time, they deployed a much lighter operational footprint — without the tanks, armoured personnel carriers and massive firepower of 2002. Instead, they were mounted on nimble armoured tactical vehicles, with aerial cover provided by drone strikes. They also had better intelligence, pinpointing the locations of the militants’ weapons stores and command posts. And they spent much less time there: two days, rather than 11.

Another key difference was that, in 2002, the entire West Bank was in turmoil, with the Second Intifada raging in every town and village. Last week, with the exception of a few individual clashes, beyond Jenin the region was tense but largely calm. The death toll was therefore lower, with 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier killed (compared with 53 Palestinians and 23 Israelis in 2002). But while the fighting was more limited, look close enough and one can discern the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jenin, the northernmost city in the West Bank, is relatively isolated from the Palestinian Authority’s administrative capital in Ramallah: it is unique in not having Israeli settlements built around it, and is close to Israel’s heavily Palestinian cities across the border. For a short period in the middle of the 2010s, there was talk of “the Jenin Model”, for what some called “an economic peace” or “shrinking the conflict”.

Thousands of the city’s residents had work-permits in Israel, and thousands of Israelis flocked to Jenin to shop and do business. After the Second Intifada ended in 2005, Israel gradually handed back control of the cities to the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA). By that point, exhausted by the conflict and the damage done to the local economy, many Palestinians were more interested in rebuilding their lives than resisting the Israeli occupation. Until 2020, militant activity remained at the lowest level in decades, as the PA’s security forces maintained order in the town, cooperating closely with the Israeli army.

Then came the pandemic and the return of Israeli roadblocks, which were designed to stop the spread of Covid-19 but succeeded mainly in suffocating the nascent economic revival. These came along with a series of power struggles within the local Palestinian apparatus and the resulting vacuum was filled by a group of young gunmen who took over the refugee camp, producing videos of themselves strutting with assault rifles on social media. Then some of them began carrying out shooting attacks on Israeli patrols and settlements, and even further afield inside Israel.

Israel’s initial response was to launch a series of arrest raids, aimed at capturing or killing the leaders of what became known as Kataib Jenin, the Jenin Brigades. But then, six months ago, a new Israeli government came to power, under the veteran prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who returned to office thanks to an alliance of far-Right parties, representing the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. They demanded a much wider and deadlier military operation in the West Bank. The Jenin operation was what they got.

For many years, it was Hebron, the southernmost city of the West Bank, also isolated from the PA’s centre in Ramallah, that was regarded by many on both sides as the main hub of Palestinian resistance. After all, Hebron is not only surrounded by Israeli settlements — it has a settlement within its old city with constant Israeli military presence. But despite the many sources of tension within the city, and the de facto eviction of hundreds of Palestinian families from their property around the settlement in the old quarter, other districts have flourished.

Drive into Hebron from its northern side, which is under Palestinian control, and you discover a boomtown with new malls and building projects. “Many of the families here have relatives living in the Far East, especially China, and Hebron has become a centre of trade that was barely disturbed during the pandemic,” one local businessman tells me. “It’s not that anyone here is happy with the settlers or the occupation, but people here also have what to lose.” Roughly 10% of the West Bank’s population live in Hebron, but an estimated 35% of its trade goes through there. Unlike in Jenin, where the attempts to build a new economic future of the city mainly came from outside, with the Israeli and Turkish governments trying to push an ambitious industrial zone project, in Hebron the financial initiative has come from the city’s population itself.

The same is true of the armed resistance. While the “legacy” Palestinian organisations tried to posthumously claim the affiliation of the 12 young men (four of them teenagers) killed during the recent Israeli incursion, the real power currently in Jenin’s refugee camp is the Jenin Brigades — a group that has been in existence for barely two years and owes allegiance to none of the established movements, though it is happy to accept money and arms from Iran.

It is a new form of resistance to Israeli occupation, which is no longer based on the old ideological and hierarchical lines dividing the rival Palestinian movements. Instead, it resembles a franchising model, where the local franchise-holders control their small fiefdoms. A similar framework has emerged in the Balata refugee camp of Nablus, the West Bank second-largest city.

Crucially, these developments are cause for concern within both Israel and the PA — proof of how little power they have over the general direction of the West Bank. But they are also worrisome for those supporters of the Palestinian cause who have hoped to see some form of collective leadership. For the past 16 years, since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, the main split within the Palestinian movement was between the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Last week’s round of bloodshed in Jenin, however, heralded a future in which the area becomes a series of warring enclaves. The result is twofold: an unending security headache for Israel, but unless some unity evolves, also a perpetuation of its occupation.

Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent for Haaretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Bibi
The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.