JENIN, West Bank — Even amid the terrible destruction that has transformed parts of Jenin into pits of jumbled masonry, the bullet-pocked tower of the Palestinian government headquarters stands out — not for the relatively light damage it sustained but for who caused it.
Whereas homes in this West Bank city have been demolished by Israeli troops, roads have been churned up by Israeli bulldozers and storefronts have been disfigured by Israeli gunfire, the offices of the Sultah, or Palestinian Authority, were attacked by Palestinians themselves during a noisy protest over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Disgusted with the authority’s inability to protect its own people or stand up to Israel, militants in the crowd aimed their bullets at the government compound after its security forces tried to break up the demonstration.
“The Sultah started firing live rounds at us to stop it, so the guys fired back,” said Abu Hamzeh, a bulky 37-year-old fighter with the Jenin Brigade, a cross-factional Palestinian resistance group that includes members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah.
His comrade in arms beside him, hand on the butt of a weathered-looking M4 rifle, warned of Palestinians’ growing anger with their nominal rulers alongside their antipathy toward Israel.
“When things get beyond the limit, it’s a problem,” said Abu Mohammad, 33. “When you pressure us, there will be an explosion. We’re facing both Israel and the Sultah.”
Since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched its multipronged cross-border attack on southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people and capturing more than 200 others, the Israeli government has stepped up what it calls counterterrorism operations across the occupied West Bank alongside its relentless offensive in Gaza. The United Nations says that more than 120 Palestinians, including 33 children, have been killed by Israeli security forces or settlers in the West Bank.
In the last week, restive Jenin, long a militant hotbed, has become the site of near-daily raids involving scores of Israeli soldiers, dozens of armored vehicles and even airstrikes that have killed at least a dozen people, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel says the incursions target terrorists who have attacked Israelis in the past or are planning to do so.
Although much of their fury is directed at Israel, many in Jenin accuse the Palestinian Authority of abandoning them, saying its leaders are more concerned with their own survival and its security forces with pursuing Palestinian armed groups at Israel’s behest than they are with protecting Palestinian lives.
“When Palestinian Authority security personnel withdraw from the streets, people here start stocking up because they believe an Israeli incursion will soon follow,” said Mustafa Sheta, who heads the Freedom Theater in Jenin’s refugee camp, echoing a common view that the local security forces are too cozy with their Israeli counterparts.
The Palestinian Authority, which was founded as a proto-state administration as a result of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, manifests itself mainly as a sprawling bureaucracy across the West Bank, where it has limited powers. In Gaza it has none, after the violent ouster there of its ruling party, Fatah, in 2007 by Hamas, its top rival.
As yet, there does not seem to be any movement to drive out Fatah and the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank as well, which would create a dangerous power vacuum.
But disenchantment with the authority — its weakness, inefficiency and corruption scandals — has been brewing for years. And the idea that Fatah and the authority could reestablish control in Gaza if Israel succeeds in its goal of extirpating Hamas seems ludicrous to many Palestinians, who consider Mahmoud Abbas, the authority’s octogenarian president, as moribund as the administration he heads. Although Palestinian Authority presidents serve a four-year term, Abbas was voted into office in 2005 and has not held an election since.
As Israel pursues its punishing ground offensive in Gaza and the casualties mount, the Palestinian Authority’s impotence only comes into sharper relief. On Tuesday, in response to reports that Israel hadin Gaza, Palestinian groups called for protests and a West Bank-wide strike Wednesday.
1. Palestinian fighters’ weapons sit inside a home in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank. 2. A Palestinian fighter displays items he dug out of the rubble in the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on a mosque in Jenin. 3. A view of the Jenin refugee camp. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Israel remains in de facto control of the West Bank and coordinates with the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus to stop Palestinian militant attacks, either through the authority’s security personnel or through its own operations — a deeply unpopular policy that critics say reduces the authority to little more than Israel’s guard dog.
There was a time when the Palestinian Authority represented hope for Jenin. In 2008, six years after Israel demolished vast swaths of the city during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Jenin was seen as a model of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, in matters of both security and economic investment that would bring peace through prosperity. Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then the defense minister, called it a “great success” that, “done right, we think could become an example.”
Few believe that now, especially not in the Jenin refugee camp, a decrepit neighborhood running up a steep hill, whose 14,000 residents are refugees and their descendants from the 1948 “Nakba” — “catastrophe” in Arabic — referring to the mass displacement of Arabs that accompanied Israel’s independence.
The camp, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the West Bank, is steeped in the culture of resistance against Israel’s occupation. At night, residents place metal hedgehogs at the camp’s entrances to stymie armored vehicles, while keeping a close eye on anyone coming in, for fear of Israeli undercover agents. Almost no building is free of a martyr poster, and the cemeteries overflow with those killed in clashes with Israeli troops. Since July, a fourth graveyard has had to be opened.
Sitting in a living room with martyr posters of Abu Mohammad’s relatives who were killed while fighting together with the Palestinian security forces they both now revile, Abu Mohammad and Abu Hamzeh — the two men’s noms de guerre — complained at length about how the Palestinian Authority’s economic policies had plunged people into debt and poverty, forcing them to rely on handouts rather than fight the occupation. The authority’s security coordination with Israel they viewed nowadays as nothing less than treason.
In many ways, the two fighters’ lives tracked the trajectory of the souring relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the people it ostensibly governs.
Both had once been members of the security apparatus for years before Israel’s suspicions of militant links led to their being imprisoned — Abu Mohammad by Israel, Abu Hamzeh by the Palestinian Authority — and then fired from their jobs. Faced with few prospects and a new ultranationalist Israeli government they see as intent on empowering settlers and frustrating hopes of Palestinian nationhood, they joined the Jenin Brigade, making them wanted men in the eyes of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The group was formed in 2021 with funding from Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and brings together different armed factions in joint pursuit of the refugee camp’s defense.
1. Samira Salahat pours water onto her son Izz Al-Deen’s gravesite to pay her respects at the Jenin cemetery. 2. A cemetery at the Jenin refugee camp. 3. Abla Al Aabed, center, mourns her son, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Jenin. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The rift with the authority had been growing for some time, the two men said, but the chasm had never been as wide as now, with Israel’s military giving settlers free rein and mounting a security dragnet that has killed scores of Palestinians in the West Bank since Hamas’ Oct. 7 incursion.
“I’ll throw away my gun, but come protect me,” Abu Mohammad said, in a challenge to the Palestinian Authority. “Stop them from entering my home, beating my mother, wife and children, and I’ll throw away the gun.”
Failing that, he added, the authority should move out of fighters’ way rather than help Israel neutralize them.
“If anyone — Muslim, Arab, Christian, Jew — comes near the weapon I use to fight the Israelis, I’ll kill him,” he said.
Abu Hamzeh issued his own warning to the Palestinian Authority and its forces.
“We hope our brothers in the security apparatus know the right path against the occupation, because when it comes to the West Bank, Israel will do like it did in Gaza and won’t show mercy to anyone, to neither us, Sultah security personnel, women or children,” he said.
Although the Jenin refugee camp has long been in Israel’s crosshairs, the military’s recent raids display a different level of ferocity, residents say.
On Monday, Israel deployed drones, snipers and dozens of armored vehicles, including two bulldozers that tore up streets and infrastructure near the camp, leveled the iconic arched gate over its entrance and destroyed a sculpture commemorating the 2002 Israeli incursion. Four men were killed and nine other people were wounded, Palestinian health authorities said.
Late on Tuesday, Israeli special forces teams surged into Jenin, broke into the house of a top Fatah leader in the city and beat him and his son before taking them into custody, residents said. That was followed by yet another incursion involving bulldozers, drones, snipers, dozens of troops and airstrikes. They withdrew several hours later, leaving three Palestinians dead and a trail of bullet-scarred walls, ripped-up asphalt and destroyed cars.
On Oct. 22, a pair of missiles lanced through the roof of Al Ansar Mosque, blowing up the main hall, shredding two Jenin Brigade fighters and nearly killing a third, witnesses said.
Afterward, said a militant who identified himself only as Ahmad, the Israeli intelligence officer responsible for the area, who goes by the nom de guerre Captain Iyad, called fighters’ relatives.
“He phoned up the families of all the guys. Called my wife, told her: ‘Ahmad escaped this time. If he doesn’t give himself up at 7 a.m., consider him a dead man,’” Ahmad said, a sardonic look on his face because it was already past 8 a.m. when he recounted the story to a Times reporter.
He and other members of the Jenin Brigade expect no mercy from the Israelis, nor any help from the official Palestinian leadership.
“Every one of us knew the moment we carried the rifle we were dead men,” he said, adding: “We’re not going anywhere.”