The recent Israeli military operation in the Jenin camp marks a change and escalation in Israel’s tactics in the West Bank as it tries to control Palestinian responses to the recent rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory, writes Paul Rogers.
On Monday 03 July, Israeli troops began an intense 48-hour occupation of the Jenin refugee camp, a small densely populated cluster of buildings with very narrow alleyways, a handful of streets and a usual population of around 17,000 Palestinians, many of them young third generation descendants of those displaced in the 1948 war. Operation ‘Home and Garden’ involved a brigade-sized force of elite troops together with Shin Bet intelligence agents and Magav border police, all supported by armed drones, attack helicopters, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and Caterpillar D9 armoured bulldozers.
The aim was to uncover military materiel, especially improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and destroy paramilitary infrastructure associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Thirteen Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed and the IDF claimed six improvised explosive device (IED) plants and three operations sites destroyed and 42 firearms recovered. Scores of Palestinians were detained, roads were ripped up, vehicles destroyed and electricity supplies to the camp badly disrupted.
Although there have been other Israeli incursions in 2023 – in Hebron, Nablus and Jenin – the operation was the most substantial carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank since the 2002 ‘Battle of Jenin’. It was prompted by a specific event but is more significant as it may indicate a longer-term change in IDF policy of maintaining control in the West Bank. While there have been numerous IDF patrols and raids in Palestinian areas, with at least 153 Palestinians killed in the first half of this year alone, the Israeli operations have been fairly small-scale until now.
An incident which appears to have prompted the Jenin raid took place on 19 June, when an IDF force raided the camp and was ambushed leaving Jenin, with five APCs damaged in what was a carefully planned operation. The IDF mounted a substantial force to recover the troops and the vehicles but this took nine hours and also involved several AH-64 Apache helicopters using air-borne weapons to attack the paramilitaries. Seven Palestinians were killed and seven IDF personnel were injured.
The impact of the ambush was summarised by the military journal Janes Defence Weekly:
“The ability of PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] to disable several Israeli vehicles in quick succession illustrates a heightened threat posed by the group, as well as an improved capability to prepare and to respond to Israeli security operations. In addition, Israel’s deployment of aircraft in response to the PIJ-led ambush also demonstrates the threat perceived by Israeli commanders during the operation.”JDW, 05 July 2023.
Israel is finding security in the occupied territories increasingly problematic and the reasons for this have to be recognised to understand their changing strategies. Over the past 75 years the IDF has been built up to make it a regional military power of formidable capabilities, ultimately backed up by nuclear weapons. Despite this power, where it has found problems is when it has intervened with ground troops, first in Southern Lebanon (1982-2000) and more recently in Gaza.
Gaza: an open prison in revolt
Armed clashes in the Gaza Strip between the IDF and Palestinians have been recurrent since Hamas, an Islamist resistance movement, seized control of the territory in 2007. Altogether, about 4,500 Palestinians have died in the violence, and up to 30,000 have been wounded. Casualties on the Israeli side have been far lower: about 120 killed and 1,700 wounded. Many tens of thousands of Gaza residents have been made homeless, many not for the first time.
The largest Gaza IDF operation was the seven-week-long ‘Protective Edge’ in summer 2014, designed to degrade Hamas’s civil infrastructure through air strikes and also suppress rocket fire from Gaza and destroy infiltration tunnels under the Israeli border fortifications. According to the UN, 2,251 Palestinians were killed and about 10,000 injured, around two-thirds of casualties being non-combatants. Civil infrastructure was also badly damaged, mainly by artillery bombardment and air strikes.
The IDF operation also involved a powerful ground force led by the elite Golani Brigade sent in to destroy the tunnels and missile launch sites. This proved deeply problematic with the brigade losing 13 soldiers killed on the first day alone and more than 50 injured, including the Brigade’s commander. Over the seven weeks the IDF lost 64 troops killed and 469 injured. While these pale into insignificance compared with Palestinian losses, for the IDF this was a significant casualty rate, showing that when their ground forces were opposed by very determined and well-trained paramilitaries fighting on their own home ground, potential losses could be unacceptable. Similar problems were experienced by the IDF in previous operations in South Lebanon, where the IDF lost several hundred personnel over 15 years.
The IDF approach to controlling Gaza has since depended much more on suppression through use of air power, especially the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, and more intensive use of intelligence, including remote use of facial recognition coupled with missile attacks to kill individual Hamas commanders. This is made easier for Israel given that Gaza is essentially organised as an open prison of two million people with near-total Israeli border control.
The West Bank under pressure
At least for the foreseeable future, Israel is unlikely to engage in major ground force interventions in either Gaza or South Lebanon, and this brings us back to the significance of the Jenin raid. The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War against Jordan, and Israel has systematically established Jewish settlements throughout the territory, including East Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1980, even though such settlements are illegal under international law.
Jewish settler numbers in the West Bank have increased by 16 percent in the past five years to 503,000, many of them ultra-nationalists and religious fundamentalists. A further almost quarter-million Jews have also settled in East Jerusalem, again disproportionately from ultra-Orthodox communities. This has happened as Israel itself has moved towards the hard right with ultra-nationalist and religious political parties currently holding the balance of power in the Knesset. The 8,000 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip were withdrawn by Israel in 2005, before it effectively locked the gates to the territory behind them.
The West Bank settlers have many privileges including high quality housing and schooling and are able to use strategic roads exclusive to them with easy commuting access to Israel through checkpoints at the separation barriers that surround the West Bank. Palestinians using the checkpoints to get to work in Israel typically experience queues of several hours a day.
The anger is intensified by often violent behaviour by Jewish settlers, especially the religious fundamentalists who believe passionately that all the land occupied by Israel is theirs by right, given to them by God. They frequently make life for Palestinians who have lived there for many generations extremely difficult. This adds to the huge frustration, resentment and anger among Palestinians, especially young men who provide a potential pool for recruitment into paramilitary groups.
Until now, the IDF has maintained the security of the settlers through shows of force: barriers, frequent patrols and selective killing of Palestinian paramilitary leaders. However, with frustration growing at the limbo of Palestinians, the paralysis of politics, and the growing impunity of settler colonialism in the West Bank, Jenin became such a centre for determined young paramilitaries that the recent action was considered necessary. It will most likely result in a short pause in activity in the Jenin camp but in the longer term will be a source of increased support.
Israel’s current bitter controversy over the Netanyahu government’s attempt to limit the power of the Supreme Court is not directly related to the security situation on the West Bank. However, its political survival is dependent on the support of the religious parties so there will be no let-up in the attempt to maintain control, making more Jenin-level raids probable. Even if this government falls, any other government will be faced with a settler movement determined to maintain its God-given right to the land, making a long term peace increasingly difficult to achieve.
At the same time, with the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community largely exempt from military service and the largely secular military increasingly divided and, in some quarters, at odds with the political direction of the nationalist governing coalition, Israel is increasingly at odds with itself and its drift to authoritarianism and indefinite colonial repression. With society polarised and the government weak, it may not be surprising if it looks increasingly for an enemy abroad – and Iran, Syria and Hizbollah are all to varying extents already at war with Israel – or to rally Israelis against the Palestinian enemy within, as a means to unify and distract.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: IDF. An Israeli soldier in Jenin Refugee Camp, July 2023.