Did the int'l community do enough to stop Jenin weapons threat? - analysis

Iran wants to slowly build the terror infrastructure in the northern West Bank, as it did with its proxies and partners in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.

 Explosives found by IDF in the Jenin refugee camp on July 3, 2023  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Explosives found by IDF in the Jenin refugee camp on July 3, 2023

In March, Israel marked one year since Operation Break the Wave had begun in 2022. The IDF said at the time that “over the past year, Israel has seen an uprise of terrorist attacks, which has led to the death of 45 Israeli civilians, foreigners and security personnel.”

Jenin has become the center of threats against Israel and more than 50 attacks have originated in the city in the last year and a half. While Israel has also carried out operations in Gaza, such as Shield and Arrow, and elsewhere, including the continuing “war between the wars” campaign in the region, Jenin is a constant threat.  

As Jenin collapsed into lawlessness and terror groups and gunmen were increasingly visible in the city, there has been a lack of attention on this issue by countries that back the Palestinian Authority. What this means is that there was not a sufficient concern among many of the actors and stakeholders who play a role in the West Bank. Illegal weapons threaten the US and Western backing of the Palestinian Authority and also threaten UN institutions.

The instability in Jenin is part of a wider pattern of instability, backed by Iran, that threatens Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf. This means that the threats from Jenin undermine the diplomacy that has seen wider regional integration in the last year.  

Jenin is a threat in large part because of illegal weapons that have flooded into the city. In the last several years the gunmen and terror groups active in the city increasingly pose with M-4 style rifles, similar to M-16s. Last November at The Jerusalem Post, we began carrying out research into the type and origin of the rifles and also the types of accessories the terrorists were adding to the rifles. Since then the illegal rifle problem has expanded. The terror groups have begun using explosives, such as IEDs, to target vehicles. They have also built improvised rockets.

 Smoke rises amid an Israeli military operation, in Jenin, in the West Bank July 4, 2023. (credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Smoke rises amid an Israeli military operation, in Jenin, in the West Bank July 4, 2023. (credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

The increased threats continued through December 2022 and into January.  

The presence of mountains of illegal rifles, many of them with modern sights and accessories is clear from photos openly posted online by terror groups. In one particularly infamous photo from last year, more than a dozen M-4 style rifles are visible. In another gunmen are seen posing with up to five rifles slung over their shoulders. The presence of the weapons have been noted by experts such as Joe Truzman, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The terror infrastructure has grown and those like Truzman have documented through online social media threads and other articles the nature of this threat.  

Smuggling of weapons to Jenin is also part of Iran’s open plans for destabilizing the West Bank. Khaled Abu Toameh noted in a recent article at the Post that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror organization is arming groups belonging to the ruling Fatah faction in the West Bank. PIJ has also used Iranian funds to buy weapons and influence in the West Bank.  

Iran's plans to slowly infiltrate the West Bank

The overall context here then is not just about lawlessness or lack of Palestinian Authority control. There is a much larger factor that involves Iran’s plans to slowly infiltrate the northern West Bank, and also the factor of the awareness of other countries in the region and the international community regarding this threat. Jenin clashes are often seen as local and they are generally reported as such. That means that while part of the city is festooned with weapons and while Iran-backed PIJ and others stored munitions and constructed command and control centers and build IEDs, when Israel does carry out raids it is generally presented as taking place in a kind of vacuum. Israel’s increased use of advanced methods, such as using UAVs or helicopters, is also under the spotlight. That spotlight does not appear to fall fully on groups like PIJ and their activities. 

In part, PIJ has been able to move under the radar because it does not control either Gaza or the West Bank. It has also been the focus of tailored operations in the past such as Operation Black Belt in 2019. This enables PIJ to often be seen as an isolated problem, rather than part of the larger Iranian infrastructure in the region. However, the fact that Iran’s supreme leader hosted PIJ in mid-June and the frequent tendency of Iran’s messaging and meetings to coincide with a rise in tensions, shows that this is not in a vacuum. Iran is openly seeking to raise tensions in Lebanon and to move around its PIJ pawns in places like Jenin and the West Bank. A lack of regional and international focus on this issue likely plays a role in fueling the terrorists as they seek more influence.  

The lack of monitoring by regional actors of the weapons threat in Jenin is not due to lack of funds. Since April 2021, the United States has said it “provided over half a billion dollars in assistance for the Palestinians, including more than $417 million in humanitarian assistance for Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, $75 million in support through USAID,” and other funds. The EU also announced a 2022 budget financial assistance package of more than $200 million earlier this year.  

There is no doubt the weapons threat in Jenin presents many challenges. On the one hand, there are the gunmen and terror groups that obtain the weapons. Iranian-backed PIJ and others seek to create more terror infrastructure and use new weapons such as IEDs. The smuggling of arms also fuels gun violence in Israel and other areas of the West Bank. Hundreds of rifles and weapons have been interdicted in the last year by authorities.

The Palestinian Authority also lost control in Jenin. The tactical challenge of finding weapons is difficult because it takes time to find them and usually M-4 rifles can be hidden easily. Iran likely understands this. It wants to slowly build the terror infrastructure, as it did with its proxies and partners in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. The challenge for the region, during an era of increased regional integration and diplomacy, is to check this rise in threats.