JENIN, West Bank — Beneath a sign showing Saddam Hussein alongside various well-known shahids (martyrs), the residents of Jenin’s refugee camp are engaged in heated debate. At issue is whether to put up a banner commemorating the “shahid” Nashat Milhem, the Israeli Arab terrorist who killed three Israelis in a shooting attack in central Tel Aviv on January 1.
Jenin refugee camp became a violent symbol during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. It was here that the toughest battle against the Israeli army took place: 23 Israeli troops were killed, 13 of them in the single worst incident to take place during the operation, and dozens of Palestinians were killed. The residents of the camp have been seeking new heroes ever since, but not everyone is eager to accept the idea of the monument to Milhem.
A worker in a nearby clothing store says that putting up such a sign will bring Israeli troops and Shin Bet personnel to the camp. “Why do we need that now?” he asks.
After the tough and tumultuous years that the camp endured, today, even as the “intifada of knives” rages elsewhere, local residents are enjoying one of the calmest periods they have experienced over the past decade. And many don’t want it to end.
Nashat Milhem, the Arab Israeli man who carried out the shooting attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016. (Israel Police)
“There have been no Jews here for months, and the Palestinian Authority has not come in either,” says M., a former wanted man who served a four-year sentence in a PA jail and was an inmate in an Israeli prison before that.
“So you see: Everybody here is calmer.”
M., a father of three, knows all the Israeli reporters on Palestinian affairs by name. During the Second Intifada, he accompanied Zakaria Zubeidi, the commander of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, around the camp. Zubeidi has lived in Beitunia (Ramallah) ever since the PA forced him to move there so that it could keep a close eye on him.
M. and a few of his friends are waiting for passengers in the camp’s downtown section, near the Sheikh Khalifa Mosque. The Jenin Refugee Camp Barbershop is near us, and the group of men in their 20s and 30s run a Jenin-style gypsy cab service in which passengers travel from one place to another in the camp — for money, of course.
The Jenin checkpoint where a Palestinian teenager tried to stab Israeli security personnel before being shot and killed on October 24, 2015. (Israeli Ministry of Defense)
“How do you explain the fact that no resident of the camp took part in the ‘intifada of knives’ over the past three months?” I ask him.
“It’s not an intifada. It’s a fad,” he says. “Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Jericho — nothing is happening in any one of those places. Things have calmed down even in Hebron. True, people were killed there, but it’s a passing phase. The ones that created this intifada were the media and Facebook.
“And let’s be honest,” he continues. “What did we gain from the Second Intifada? What did we get? Those of us who live here in the camp paid the heaviest price. And what did that do for us? Did we get representation on the Revolutionary Council [one of the leadership groups] or on the Central Committee [Fatah’s supreme leadership group]? So why should we take part in this? What will we get out of sending a kid to stab somebody with a knife? Just yesterday [Monday], some teenager tried to stab a person near Hermesh. Did that get anybody upset?
“Still,” he notes, “I can tell you one thing: As long as there is an occupation, these ‘fads’ will keep on coming back, again and again. It will never be over.”
Is the ‘stabbing intifada’ about to fade away?
This overall assessment by M., who spent his best years in Israeli and Palestinian prisons for terrorist activity, is not unique among the residents here or in other refugee camps.
Many people in Jenin and in the other large refugee camps in the West Bank do not believe that the violent outbreak of recent months will last, or that it will lead to change. This is true of both Jenin and of Balata, near Nablus — both camps that played a leading role in the terror attacks and conflicts during the first two intifadas.
All this may have to do with deeper processes that are going on in Palestinian society, including the “defamiliarization” that the inhabitants of the refugee camps feel toward the Palestinian Authority and the people who live in the cities.
The lack of participation by the residents of the large refugee camps in the West Bank is one of the main reasons why this intifada has not become a mass uprising three and a half months after it began, and is even showing the first signs of fading.
Realizing this, Hamas is trying to escalate the conflict by engaging in shooting and suicide attacks. But the number of stabbing and ramming attacks is declining, as is the number of those taking part in demonstrations.
Sabr, a friend of M.’s and also a former wanted man, tries to explain.
Palestinian security officers rappel down a building next to a banner of PA President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank town of Jenin in 2012. The Arabic on the left reads ‘Our hero prisoners, the covenant is the covenant and the section is the section, your liberty will stay our first priority.’ The Arabic on the right banner reads ‘All your people (are) with you.’ (AP/Mohammed Ballas)
“Here in the camp, we’re a different country,” Sabr says. “There is no PA or Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) here. Every home here has a shahid or someone in prison. I was shot in the leg. And everybody — those who were killed, the prisoners, and the wounded — was left behind, forgotten. We fought and paid a price, and we were forgotten.
“Does the PA care about us?” he asks bitterly. “The brothers of the people who were killed back then, during the Second Intifada — do you think that they are going to go out to get killed, to fight? For what purpose? What will we gain from it? The stabbing intifada is a lie. One hundred fifty people were killed, 145 of them for nothing. Soldiers panicked and shot at people. This is the intifada of nothing.” (News agencies put the Palestinian death toll at some 140; Israel has identified more than 90 of them as attackers — killed in the act of trying to kill Israelis. More than 20 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian terrorists since the fall.)
More and more of the residents gather around us, nodding their heads in agreement. Says Hatem, 25, “Unlike the kids with the knives, we have rifles. And we don’t use anything else.”
M. quotes an ancient saying about war, giving us the Palestinian version. “The intifada: The intellectuals plan it, the poor lead it, and the cowards steal it. And that is what happened to us. The Second Intifada was stolen from us.”
‘If the Palestinians were to be offered the opportunity to live in a single state with the Jews, 95 percent would say yes and sign on it
So what do they want?
“Let us live in peace and quiet,” M. says. “We don’t want anything. We want to live together with the Israelis. We have no problem with that. They are our cousins. We will live with them in peace.”
But what about the Palestinian state? After all, the PA promises that it will win recognition for the State of Palestine.
“The Palestinian state is nonsense,” Sabr says. “Talks have been going on here for 20 years without results. We’re still under occupation. So let them open the border crossings for us, let us live normal lives, and that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, the Jews can live with me in the same building. That’s how we’ll be able to live in Haifa and in Tel Aviv. I’ll tell you more than that. If the Palestinians were to be offered the opportunity to live in a single state with the Jews, 95 percent would say yes and sign on it. 95 percent. To be done with it already. Enough.”
Muntaser, one of the men listening to the conversation, wants to have his say. “My family’s home used to be where Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood is today. If my family hadn’t fled in 1948, I’d be from Haifa today. I have no problem living with Jews. I have no problem with them. If they didn’t come into the camp, there would be no problems here either. Look — they haven’t come in for two months now, and there’s no disturbance. I have no doubt that these knife attacks are a mistake. You become a shahid for nothing. We’re fighting against a state, after all, so are a few kids with knives going to bother them?”
What about the Palestinian Authority?
Sabr goes on the offensive. “We have no hope or trust in the PA. We’re sick and tired of them. We have problems with them all the time, not just with the Jews.”
Sabr’s friend Yassin interrupts as soon as curses against the PA start to be heard. “I’ll explain it to you,” he says. “Those whom Israel arrested and released — the PA arrests them. And those whom the PA releases, Israel arrests. Do you get how it works between them?”
In Balata, waiting for the Islamic State
A drenching rain was falling on the day we visited Balata, 10 days ago.
Located on the outskirts of Nablus, Balata is the most densely populated refugee camp in the West Bank. It is where the First Intifada began and where the first cells of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were set up during the Second Intifada.
Groups of young men congregate at building entrances to warm themselves at the barrels in which wood is burning. In the absence of heaters or central heating, this too is a kind of solution.
One burning barrel is placed at the entrance to an improvised billiards club, a tiny room with a pool table around which a few young men are gathered. The tiny room is full of smoke. Nasser, 16, says that the young men from the camp are not taking part in the stabbing attacks because “there are no Jews here. There are no roadblocks either.” But that sounds a bit like an excuse.
Fifteen-year-old Mohammed speaks more bluntly. “There aren’t any men anymore. The real men have been killed, or they’re in prison. The only ones left are spies from the PA or from Israel. So the residents are afraid to take part in terror attacks.”
The body of Ashraqet Qatnani, 16, lies near a bus stop in the northern West Bank, where she was killed while attempting to stab Israelis. (Samaria Region Council)
Izz, 21, says that Balata is out of the game because its residents had enough with the Second Intifada. “Each person cares about his job, about money. It’s not like it was then. The people who live here have given up, so they’re thinking about a better future someplace else.”
The neighborhood community center, named the Yaffa (Jaffa) Center, is located close by. There we meet Tayseer Nasrallah, a well-known Fatah official in the Nablus region. Just a little while ago he returned from the funeral of Ashraqet Qatnani, who was run over by former settler leader Gershon Mesika when she attempted a stabbing attack near the Hawara checkpoint in November of last year.
“We are not at the stage of an intifada,” Nasrallah says. “We haven’t reached that point yet, though we have reached the point of a popular outburst. The Palestinian people is not taking part here. There are limited events with limited participation. But it could definitely lead to an intifada. Israel’s actions lead to escalation — whether the actions are committed by settlers, such as the murder of the Dawabsha family (in Duma last July), or the daily attacks on civilians. But it’s also the actions of the army — the arrests, the shooting, the killing. Everything.”
Why isn’t this camp part of the “lone-wolf” intifada?
“Palestinian society is split in half. One part is in favor of this phenomenon (of knife attacks) while the other is against it. Those who are in favor base their position mainly on the fact that there is no partner on the Israeli side. There is no peace camp anymore. Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Rabin — they’re all dead. There’s no peace camp left in Israel. That’s why they think they have to act.
“On the other hand,” Nasrallah continues, “I thought and still think that there’s no need to go into a new intifada as long as we don’t understand where we’re going and what our goal is. In other words, we want a better life for our children instead of them just getting killed. I’m not saying that it’s a mistake, but I do think that we need to focus on popular resistance.”
So where are the refugee camps headed, then?
Suspects accused in January 2016 of belonging to an Islamic State terror cell in the West Bank: Ahmad Shehadah (left), Qusai Meswadeh (center) and Muhammad Zerrue (right). (Shin Bet press release)
“Look — there are clashes and attacks in places like Qalandiya and Shuafat, which are located near roadblocks. At first, we held demonstrations here in Hawara (nearby). But we realized that we shouldn’t invest too much in that.
“Honestly, there’s a feeling in the camp that we’re in a situation of ongoing neglect by the Palestinian Authority and that we never received anything from the PA that was worth the sacrifices that this camp made. That’s why the large camps, which suffered so much during the Second Intifada, are now saying, ‘Wait and see.’ Let’s see what the PA wants. It’s not just the people who live in the camps. People who live in other places are also waiting to see what happens. So far, this outbreak has not made much change in global or Israeli public opinion.”
How will it be resolved?
“I’m not sure,” Nasrallah acknowledges. “The talks with Israel were fruitless, and if the Palestinians go back to peace talks with Israel, that will be a mistake. We aren’t getting close to a Palestinian state, and the two-state solution has been completely destroyed.”
Tayseer Nasrallah’s friend, Abu Khalaf, sits nearby and listens. A former wanted man, he was shot 11 times by Israeli troops. After he was wounded and captured, he served a 10-year prison sentence in Israel. “The two-state solution has been dead for some time,” he tells us. “When the time comes, there will be one state here.”
“Israel doesn’t understand,” Nasrallah says. “There is extremism on the Palestinian side, and because all hope has been lost, the Islamic State will get to us, too, in the end. Abu Mazen believed in a two-state solution more than anyone, and his statements made even the Palestinian people angry. The PA is in an interim situation now. It keeps working in order to handle day-to-day issues, but it has no power to influence events. It becomes weaker with every passing day. I think that Israel does not really want the PA to survive; it wants the PA to cease to exist.”
Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli security forces at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, on October 11, 2015. (Flash90)