JENIN, West Bank (AP) — Last month, after the largest Israeli military attack on a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank in years, Palestinians turned their anger on their own security forces.
They unleashed gunfire, firebombs and pipe bombs on Palestinian security buildings in an outburst of anger at the failure of the Palestinian Authority to protect them from the devastating July 3 raid and a long-running, deeply unpopular security alliance with Israel.
“The horrific events of that night reminded us of the build-up to the Hamas coup in Gaza,” said Jenin police chief Brig. General Azzam Jebara said this week at a ceremony for officers defending a police station from angry protesters. “It was a warning.”
Wracked by the violent takeover of Gaza by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ militant Hamas group in 2007, the Palestinian Authority has worked with Israel to suppress Islamist militant groups and keep the secular nationalist Fatah party in power in the Western Jordan bank. Hamas is both a major threat to Israel and Fatah’s biggest rival.
July’s unrest exposed the Palestinians’ furious outrage against their semi-autonomous government and forced a reckoning for their slain security forces, who in their blue camouflage uniforms have come to embody the tensions tearing Palestinian society apart. Widely derided for their cooperation with Israel, the armed forces remain a symbol of Palestinian hope for a state of their own.
In an effort to regain confidence during a lull in Israeli military incursions, Palestinian police have stepped up a campaign to restore order in the town of Jenin, long a stronghold of crime next to the militarized refugee camp.
But the force’s efforts to seize cars, cash and drugs have also exposed their limits. Unable to protect their people from radical attacks by Jewish settlers and near-daily Israeli military incursions into the West Bank, Palestinian security forces describe a law enforcement system on the brink of collapse.
“If we think we’re getting control now, we’re fooling ourselves,” said Ibrahim Abahre, deputy chief of Preventive Security, a domestic intelligence agency in Jenin. “The Israeli army could come in at any moment and everything could explode.”
Since spring last year, militants from the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinian forces have lost control, have carried out dozens of shootings in the West Bank and in Israel. Israeli soldiers repeatedly raided the camp to kill and capture suspected militants.
On July 3, Israeli special forces entered the camp under cover of drone strikes, killing 12 Palestinians, including at least eight militants, wounding dozens and leaving a trail of destruction. An Israeli soldier was also killed in the operation, which recalled one of the biggest battles of the second Palestinian uprising more than 20 years ago.
Nearly 180 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank in 2023, nearly half of them associated with militant groups, according to a count by The Associated Press. It is the highest death toll in the area in nearly two decades. Palestinian attacks on Israelis have killed 27 people this year.
Israel says its raids are counter-terrorism efforts, motivated by the reluctance of Palestinian security forces to intervene against militants.
“There is a limit to how many Israelis can be killed while the Palestinians work out their internal struggles,” said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “At some point we just have to go in.”
Palestinians accuse Israel of undermining their security efforts.
“They want to embarrass us,” acting Jenin governor Kamal Abu al-Rub said. The Israeli incursions, Palestinian officials say, have inflamed tensions, fueled anger against the Palestinian Authority and increased militancy.
“We understand that the Palestinian Authority has lost power,” said Major General Akram Rajoub, a longtime security commander and former governor of Jenin. “But we try to contain the chaos that comes when Israel invades. Chaos undermines respect for authority.”
In the camp, independent fighters have emerged from a new generation of frustrated Palestinians drawn from factions such as Fatah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Militants say they have seen the Palestinian Authority, which promised them statehood, become a subcontractor to the Israeli occupation that can barely pay salaries or provide municipal services.
“Abbas can have his politics. My specialty is resistance,” said Abu Suleiman, 32, who served as a major in the security forces before being suspended for his militant activities.
“Everything the Palestinian Authority does is in the interest of Israel,” he added from his living room, the shattered windows taped shut and the walls pockmarked from the July raid. He only gave his nom de guerre because he is wanted by the Israeli army.
At last month’s funeral for the victims of the raid, crowds shouted insults at senior officials of the ruling Fatah party and chased them from the camp. “Collaborators!” they chanted — a reference to Palestinian intelligence coordination with Israel.
“It was a natural, collective response to say ‘wake up.’ Your job is to defend and protect us here, and you failed,” said 51-year-old Nidal Naghnagheyeh, the head of a committee that social support programs in the camp.
A week after the raid, 87-year-old Abbas visited the camp for the first time in more than a decade to show solidarity. Palestinian security forces began rebuilding their presence in Jenin – an attempt to show they can impose order without Israeli interference. The Israeli military has scaled back its operations in the camp to make that happen, the Israeli military official said.
The Palestinian authorities have deployed 1,000 new security officers from Abbas’ Presidential Guard in the town of Jenin. They have set up checkpoints to catch criminals who have long sought refuge in the city. Militants are keeping a low profile, officials say, rather than firing into the air and showing off their M-16s in the streets.
In the weeks since, police seized dozens of stolen cars off the street, seized hundreds of narcotics, and arrested 364 criminals, including more than a dozen wanted in cold homicide. Authorities are preparing to open a local prison.
Unlicensed vendors have been expelled from Jenin’s outer market and sent outside the city center.
But the law-and-order campaign doesn’t extend to the area’s biggest source of instability: the Jenin refugee camp. Police say they will not disarm the gunmen wanted by Israel or make any arrests in the camp, highlighting the complexity of the security situation.
But even the reinforced police tactics have confused gunmen, who drive stolen cars to commit shootings, carry smuggled guns and own unlicensed vegetable stands. Last month, the mayor, who helped mastermind the makeover of Jenin Market, narrowly escaped when peddlers angry about losing their income opened fire on his car.
“At night we are face to face with the Israeli army and during the day the Palestinian Authority is now after us,” said Abu Suleiman, adding that he was stopped this week by plainclothes Palestinian police and almost opened fire , mistaking the men for undercover Israeli soldiers. “At some point all hell will break loose.”
Jebara, the police chief, said the authorities’ failure to dismantle militant groups amounts to the failure of the Palestinian national project, which officers like him hoped they were setting up.
“I joined the police force 21 years ago because I wanted to be accountable to my people, to impose sovereignty on our own land,” he said. “Now Israeli settlements have killed our state. Where does that leave us?”