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INSIGHT – Palestinian gunmen say they are fighting for Jenin, not foreign backers

By Ali Sawafta, James Mackenzie and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

JENIN, West Bank, Aug. 14 (Reuters) – Sitting in a building with bullet wounds in the city of Jenin, two fighters from Islamic Jihad – a militant group funded by Iran – celebrated what they say was a victory for the Palestinians over Israel’s largest operation in the West Bank in decades.

Israeli commanders said last month’s two-day raid on Jenin succeeded in seizing weapons and destroying infrastructure used by Iranian-funded fighters, who use an overcrowded refugee camp — where thousands live crammed into an area less than a half a square kilometer – as a base to attack and kill Israelis.

Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said on August 7 that Iran was trying to “put a ring around our necks” through militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the West Bank and its proxy Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.

While the fighters make no secret of the fact that money comes from Iran, for them the struggle is a local one, fueled by anger at the Israeli occupation, and they show no interest in the wider geopolitical issues, dozens of conversations with fighters show . and sympathizers in Jenin.

“We are sons of Jenin,” said one of the Islamic Jihad fighters, who identified himself as Abu Salah. A thin, bearded 36-year-old, dressed in black athletic gear and trainers, he said fighters felt they had no alternative. “We are surrounded and under siege. We have no choice but to fight.”

“It is true that Islamic Jihad is the main faction, but the main thing is that we are sons of Jenin,” he said, sitting amid pieces of masonry and burnt-out cooking gas canisters used as improvised bombs during the Israeli raid.

Islamic Jihad is a Palestinian faction that has vowed to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.

“Our goal is close to Islamic Jihad, but the motivation comes from Jenin,” the fighter said.

For more than a year, unrest has raged in the West Bank, a kidney-shaped region about 100 km (60 mi) long and 50 km wide that has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it was taken by Israel in the Middle East War. Middle East in 1967.

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Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly combatants but also many civilians, have been killed in Israeli raids since the latest wave of violence erupted in early 2022. During the same period, dozens of Israelis have been killed in shootings, stabbings or car-ramming attacks by Palestinians.

Israeli officials have repeatedly accused Iran of funding militant groups in the West Bank as part of a multifaceted campaign that includes attacks on Israelis abroad, funding for Hezbollah and a nuclear weapon-building program.

Many Palestinians see the indictment as a means of shifting focus from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlement building, which is considered illegal by most of the world, especially since the election of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. .


A traditional center of Palestinian resistance to Israel, Jenin has provided a fertile arena where the interests of Iranian security officials, shadowy financiers and rival Palestinian factions meet.

Nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the body created some 30 years ago under the Oslo peace accords, Jenin is an increasingly lawless space where PA officials, behind the high walls of the governor’s compound, can’t do much. then protest against the Israeli authorities. raid.

“This is an area without a government,” said Mahmoud Al-Saadi, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Jenin, who has worked there for decades.

According to the Israeli military, about 25% of families there are affiliated with Islamic Jihad, which receives about 90% of its funding from Iran, amounting to “several tens of millions of dollars” a year, an Israeli official said. Many of the Palestinian attackers who killed Israelis in Israel and the West Bank came from the area.

Tamir Hayman, general director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and former head of Israel’s military intelligence, said Iran cannot exert much direct control over what happens to its money.

“Iran spends a lot of money in the West Bank, but they’re not able to precisely target it or get terror agents to do exactly what they want, so it’s a bit hit and miss,” he said.

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“They send money by encouraging smugglers and smuggling through criminal gangs or whatever and have to hope that a big enough amount reaches Jenin camp and other places to make a difference.”

Asked if Iran is training and providing monetary and other support to Islamic Jihad, Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York said in an email: “Our assistance to Palestinian resistance groups is provided at their request. It is the international obligation of all states to strengthen and defend these groups against the occupation and to oppose the Israeli occupation forces.”

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab said it was no secret that the movement received Iranian support, but that there was “no direct connection between Iran and what is happening in Jenin or elsewhere”.


Surveys show overwhelming public support among Palestinians for armed groups as raids have intensified and attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian villages have become more brutal.

“If we didn’t have the support of the families here, we wouldn’t survive an hour,” said Abu Salah.

According to a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 71% of Palestinians support armed groups such as the Jenin Brigade, an umbrella group that includes factions such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and the “Den of Lions” in the nearby city of Nablus.

But as Israel’s relations with the wealthy Gulf states, which traditionally funded the Palestinian cause, have improved, a major source of money for the militant groups has dried up. That is the gap that Iran has been trying to fill.

Israel’s intelligence services make moving funds difficult, but criminal gangs and unscrupulous businessmen — “who take advantage of high commissions and don’t want to know why they’re being paid three times over” — provide an opening, said a senior Islamist official stationed outside the Palestinian Territories . first-hand knowledge of the mechanisms used to move money.

“There are always ways to get support, even if it seems almost impossible – they get it even from Israeli smugglers,” he said.

While security officials say they have seen a recent increase in arms and drug smuggling, Israeli officials and militant groups say Iranian support also comes from more sophisticated remittances.

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Sometimes the transfers involve criminals, and sometimes legitimate or quasi-legitimate companies help move money into the West Bank, the militant sources said.


Typically, wire transfers involve legitimate foreign currency letters of credit or orders for a variety of imported goods, usually at high valuations, from clothes to toys to shoes and household goods, mostly from China, four sources familiar with the mechanism said.

“They don’t ask questions, but the deal is that they hand over some of that money to a respected businessman with whom we do business and who passes it on to our military agent,” a leading Islamic Jihad source said.

Anywhere between a quarter and a third of the value of these transactions is passed in cash to Islamic Jihad Trust businessmen who take the money to the militant group, often using family ties to keep the transfers secret, the source said.

Automatic rifles, such as M16s, can cost $30,000 and in an area of ​​chronic unemployment, regular combatants say they can earn $300 to $700 a month from the Iranian-backed group.

Many of the weapons used by the Jenin fighters come from Israel itself, stolen and resold through criminal gangs, Israeli officials say. Some are smuggled across the Jordanian border, others are improvised in local workshops.

For the young men in the camps, inspired by the posters of martyrs plastering public spaces, the origin of the money used to pay for the weapons makes little difference.

“It is known that external funds come from Islamic Jihad,” said another fighter from the Al-Aqsa Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, the faction founded in the 1950s by Yasser Arafat, now the Palestinian Authority. leads.

“We don’t care who brings us the money.”

(Ali Sawafta and James Mackenzie reported from Jenin, Suleiman al-Khalidi reported from Amman; Additional reporting by Raneen Sawafta in Jenin, Maayan Lubell and Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Leila Bassam in Beirut and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Edited by David Clarke)

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