Jenin’s threat to Israel and the region - analysis

Rocket fire, explosives targeting vehicles, and the need to use armed drones and helicopters, reflect a serious escalation.

 A PALESTINIAN gunman fires toward Israeli troops in Jenin this week.  (photo credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN gunman fires toward Israeli troops in Jenin this week.

Jenin is increasingly becoming a hub of terrorist threats and infrastructure in the West Bank, with the surrounding area continuing to pose an increasing challenge to Israel. It is a threat to the region because Iran has been encouraging its proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to expand operations.

These operations, combined with acts of other gunmen from the area, now include the use of explosives and ambush attacks, as well as rockets, such as on Monday.

Israel has had to step up its methods to combat the attacks, including the use of a combat helicopter with live fire last week and a drone on Wednesday. To confront the threat, the stakeholders in the region, including the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the US and other partners, will need to take the attacks seriously.

Videos posted to social media by a group calling itself the Ayyash Battalion showed two rocket launchers. It was a simple rocket, but that doesn’t mean more sophisticated ones can’t be made. The video was allegedly taken near the village of Nazlat Zayd, about eight kilometers west of Jenin. The village is located north of Yabad and about four km. from Umm el-Fahm in Israel. Mevo Dotan, a Jewish community in Samaria, is located south of that. There have been attacks in this area in the past, as recent as two weeks ago, last month and also in March 2018.

Jenin's history as a terrorist hub

In 2001, Jenin was a central terrorist hub at the height of the Second Intifada. A list compiled by the Foreign Ministry mentions numerous attacks. In May of that year, Mevo Dotan resident Zvi Shelef was killed in a shooting attack near Tulkarm; in November, fellow resident Hadas Abutbul was killed driving near Shaked; and in September 2002, Yosef Ajami was killed in the same area.

 Palestinians and members of the media react during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 19, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)
Palestinians and members of the media react during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 19, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)

At the time, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades took responsibility for the attacks. More killings followed, including Zion Boshirian in 2003, Victor Kreiderman in 2004 and St.-Sgt. Yair Turgemann in October 2004.

Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, moving army units back into Palestinian towns and cities that had been under PA control since the 1990s. After Ramallah, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Bethlehem, the army targeted Jenin on April 1.

What followed was the battle of Jenin in which 23 soldiers and at least 27 Palestinian gunmen were killed. Some compared the battles in Jenin refugee camp to the battle of Stalingrad, nicknaming it Jeningrad because of the house-to-house fighting and the “resistance” in the camp.

The city was as known for its central role in fighting Israel, as it is now. Zakariya Zubeidi, who became the leader of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the city, was a central figure. He faded into a bit of obscurity over the years and eventually was arrested by the PA and later by Israel in 2019. He briefly escaped from prison in 2001 before being recaptured.

The city has always been challenging for authorities. Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor, teacher and artist, was murdered in Jenin on April 4, 2011. Even the peace activists were driven out, either in spite of, or because of, supporting peace.The city fell to gang violence as well. Qadoura Moussa, the governor of the district, died in 2012 of a heart attack while dealing with the gun violence in the city. At the time, The New York Times reported, “Brig. Gen. Radi Assidi, commander of the [Palestinian] security forces in the region, said people throughout the West Bank ‘realize that law and order started in Jenin, so any lawlessness that starts in Jenin could spread throughout the West Bank.’”

Another governor, Talal Dwaikat, was appointed.

“Jenin will not be a place for the gangs,” he said. “Jenin will be a place of security.”

The PA tried to crack down over the following years. The situation, nevertheless, got worse. In early 2022, the PA detained Zubeidi’s son, Mohammad al-Zubeidi, leading to clashes with the Palestinian security forces. Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khader Adnan was a target of an assassination attempt in March 2022, which an article at Al-Monitor suggested might have been linked to tensions between the PA and PIJ.

As the PA has retreated from Jenin, leaving a power vacuum, Israeli raids have increased. A large number of young men want to fight Israel, the journal EIPSS reported earlier this year.

“You realize they are wanted only because instead of an iPhone; they have a Nokia. To dodge drones. And yet they are jihadists. No connection with al-Qaeda,” the report said, adding that the men were just fighting the “occupation.”

The similarities to 2002 are clear. This Week in Palestine ran a report in 2021 about how Jenin was now returning to the spotlight after 20 years. Shireen Abu Aqleh, who would become a victim of clashes in Jenin in May 2022, wrote in October 2021: “It was like going back to 2002 when Jenin lived something unique, unlike any other city in the West Bank. Toward the end of al-Aqsa Intifada, armed citizens spread out all over the city and publicly dared the occupation forces to raid the camp.”

Jenin is different, she wrote, adding: “At first sight, life in Jenin may appear normal, with restaurants, hotels, and shops that open their doors every morning. But in Jenin we have the feeling that we are in a small village that monitors every stranger that comes in.”

This is now the city and the region that presents the greatest challenge to Israel in the West Bank in 20 years. First it was clashes with PIJ and other gunmen. These groups are fueled by arms that flood the West Bank. The arms trade has increased, and even if hundreds of firearms have been found by the IDF, there are many more M-4s and M-16 variants out there, with modern sights and accessories.

PIJ is backed by Iran and encouraged to expand its attacks and use new tactics. Israel is also increasing the types of methods it must employ. A Hermes 450 Zik drone was recently used to take out a terrorist cell. However, the use of rockets on June 26 presents a new potential front against Israel.

As Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out last week, the images from Jenin “create the impression that certain parts of the West Bank, particularly Jenin, are beginning to resemble the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, where the IDF faced similar tactics by Palestinian terror groups and Hezbollah.”

Rocket fire, explosives targeting vehicles and the need to use armed drones and helicopters reflects a serious escalation. Iran is watching. It tried in 2018 to fly munitions from Syria to the West Bank via a drone. It has recently hosted Hamas, and it would like to spread the instability from Jenin to other areas – all while pushing a diplomatic offensive in the Gulf.

The PA will have to crack down on the threats in Jenin. The US and the West, which have backed the Palestinian Security Forces, will need to take the emerging threat seriously.