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Jenin, West Bank
At the gates of Jenin’s government hospital on Wednesday, dozens of armed Palestinian militants and their families gathered to collect their dead, just hours after hundreds of Israeli soldiers withdrew from the city’s sprawling refugee camp.
A foul stench filled the hot summer air, much of Jenin was left without running water or power during Israel’s largest incursion in the occupied West Bank in decades.
The bodies of young men were brought out one-by-one, each tightly tied to a stretcher, with some wrapped in the flags of their armed factions. At least one body was adorned with an AK-47 rifle.
The father of one of those killed, a 19-year-old fighter, stood proudly in the crowd outside the hospital, receiving a seemingly endless stream of hugs and condolences.
“My son sacrificed himself for this land,” Firas Abu Al-Wafa boasted loudly. “My son told me he did not want to get married or have a family, all he wanted to do was to dedicate his life to Palestine, to fighting the occupation.”
Celebratory gunfire rang out as thousands of people marched through the streets of Jenin and its camp on Wednesday to follow the funeral processions that quickly turned into a mass demonstration of resistance, with Palestinian armed factions declaring victory just for withstanding Israel’s firepower.
The Israeli military says all of the at least 12 Palestinians killed in its near 48-hour operation were combatants, and that its operation aimed to break the mindset that Jenin is a “safe haven” for militants.
But the Palestinian fighters parading through the streets in broad daylight, with weapons strapped to their chests, showed that they remain unbroken and defiant. The Jenin Brigade, a faction affiliated with the wider Islamic Jihad group, said eight of the dead, ranging in age from 16- to 21-years-old, came from among their ranks.
Meanwhile, United Nations experts have stated that five children were among the dead.
For many Palestinians, Jenin is a name and a place synonymous with suffering and resistance. The refugee camp was first established in 1953 for Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes after Israel’s creation in 1948.
Now it is a built-up and densely populated area with one of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the West Bank, according to the UN. An estimated 17,000 Palestinians live in an area that is less than half a square kilometer (0.16 square miles) in size.
The urban landscape and tight warren of alleyways left families caught in the crosshairs of what Israel says was a targeted assault on weapons depots, command centers and what it calls terror tunnels.
A CNN team on the ground saw one headquarters for the Jenin brigade that had been reduced to a pile of rubble by an airstrike. At another blast site, the remnants of what appeared to be a factory for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were left strewn in the ruins. At least 50 shooting attacks toward Israelis have emanated from Jenin, according to the Israeli military.
But UN experts accuse Israel’s forces of inflicting collective punishment on Jenin that may amount to a war crime. More than 100 Palestinians were wounded, including civilians.
Thousands of residents were forced to flee and returned to widespread devastation, with hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed, and schools that provided education to thousands of children shuttered due to the lack of basic services, according to UNRWA.
Hanaa al-Shalaby, 40, says she and her three young daughters were pinned down by the fighting for hours. They were eventually able to flee but then returned to find their home had been heavily damaged.
“Our home, all the material things – they can be replaced, but how can I rebuild the psyche of my little girls? How will they ever feel safe again?” al-Shalaby said through tears.
The whole back wall of the girls’ room was blown out leaving chunks of rubble on the small beds made up with pink sheets. Al-Shalaby told CNN from her home that her daughters are traumatized, refuse to eat and have barely slept in days.
“My youngest, she is only 7 years old,” al-Shalaby said, “she says she wishes she was never born. She says I should never have birthed her into this horror.”
With Israel’s West Bank operations dramatically escalating, 2023 is on track to be the deadliest year in the occupied West Bank since the UN began recording casualties in 2005, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Last year was the deadliest year on record for both Palestinians and Israelis across the West Bank and Israel in more than a decade.
More than 150 Palestinians, among them 28 children, have been killed in the West Bank this year, and most were shot by Israeli forces with live ammunition, according to the NRC. The number of dead include those who Israel says were actively fighting Israeli troops, but human rights group attest dozens of civilians have been killed as well.
Settler violence against Palestinians in recent months is also on the rise, as far-right ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government call for unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank to be expanded and turned into full settlements.
More than 440 settler attacks on Palestinians ranging from physical assault to property damage were recorded by the UN in the first half of this year alone., according to the NRC.
As the bloodshed escalates, Jenin remains an enclave on its own, part of the just 20% of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that is under the full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
But the PA has, for years, taken a hands-off approach with the camp, dwindling its “security cooperation” with Israel in Jenin to almost nothing, an Israeli official said last year.
And resentment against the PA, widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual, is palpable. During the funerals for those killed in the incursion, small crowds shouted “get out” at PA officials in attendance, others threw stones at the PA governor’s heavily fortified office.
The power vacuum in Jenin has allowed an armed insurrection to steadily grow in a place where there is little left for a deeply marginalized and long-neglected population. “Martyr” posters are plastered on many of the walls of the refugee camp, and most depict young men from various militant factions killed in the constant cycles of violence.
With Netanyahu reserving the right to send Israeli troops back into Jenin if his government deems it a security threat again, many residents feel certain another raid is imminent.
But Najwa Lahluh, a mother of five who returned to find her home completely torched, says that for her family there is nothing left to fear.
“Our willpower is strong,” she told CNN as she walked through the blackened remains of her living room. “Even if the occupiers return again and again, even if they occupied us every day, every hour, we are not afraid. Why would be afraid? Our home is already gone.”
Israel says it has significantly weakened the militant groups based in the Jenin camp, but it has also deepened the hatred and motivated the resistance in this city, already known among Palestinians for always fighting back.