After Israeli raids, Palestinian police struggle in militant hotbed, reflecting region on the brink

JENIN, West Bank (AP) — Last month, after the biggest Israeli military raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank in years, Palestinians turned their wrath on their own security forces.

They unleashed gunfire, firebombs and pipe bombs at Palestinian security buildings in an outpouring of rage against the Palestinian Authority’s failure to protect them from the devastating July 3 raid and a long-running, deeply unpopular security alliance with Israel.

“The horrible events of that night reminded us of the lead-up to the Hamas coup in Gaza,” the head of police in Jenin, Brig. Gen. Azzam Jebara, said at a ceremony this week for officers who defended a police station from rampaging protesters. “It was a warning.”

Scarred by the Hamas militant group’s violent takeover of Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ forces in 2007, the Palestinian Authority has cooperated with Israel to suppress Islamist militant groups and keep the secular nationalist Fatah party in power in the West Bank. Hamas is both a major threat to Israel and the biggest rival to Fatah.

The July unrest exposed Palestinians’ seething resentment toward their semi-autonomous government and forced a reckoning for their beaten-down security forces, who in their blue camouflage uniforms have come to embody the tensions tearing at Palestinian society. Widely derided for working with Israel, the forces remain a symbol of Palestinian hopes for statehood.

Seeking to regain trust during a lull in Israeli military raids, Palestinian police have stepped up a campaign to restore order in the city of Jenin, long a bastion of crime adjacent to the militarized refugee camp.

But the force’s efforts to seize cars, cash and drugs have also revealed their limits. Unable to protect their people from radical Jewish settler attacks and near-daily Israeli military raids across the West Bank, Palestinian security forces described a law enforcement system on the brink of collapse.

“If we think we’re establishing control now, we’re fooling ourselves,” said Ibrahim Abahre, deputy head of Preventive Security, a domestic intelligence agency, in Jenin. “At any moment, the Israeli army could enter and everything could explode.”

Since the spring of last year, militants from the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinian forces have lost control, have carried out dozens of shooting attacks in the West Bank and Israel. Israeli soldiers have repeatedly raided the camp to kill and capture suspected militants.

On July 3, Israeli special forces entered the camp under the cover of drone strikes, killing 12 Palestinians, at least eight of them 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 over 20 years ago.

Nearly 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire across the West Bank in 2023, almost half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press. It’s the territory’s highest death toll in nearly two decades. Palestinian attacks on Israelis have killed 27 people this year.

Israel says its incursions are counterterrorism efforts prompted by the reluctance of Palestinian security forces to intervene against militants.

“There is a line 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 talk to reporters. “At some point, we just have to go in.”

Palestinians accuse Israel of trying to undermine their security efforts.

“They want to embarrass us,” said acting Jenin governor Kamal Abu al-Rub. The Israeli raids, Palestinian officials say, have inflamed tensions, stoked anger toward the Palestinian Authority and inspired more militancy.

“We understand the Palestinian Authority has lost power,” said Maj. Gen. Akram Rajoub, a longtime security commander and former Jenin governor. “But we are trying to control the chaos that erupts when Israel invades. Chaos is what undermines respect for the authority.”

In the camp, independent fighters drawn from a new generation of frustrated Palestinians have emerged from factions like Fatah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Militants say they’ve seen the Palestinian Authority, which promised them statehood, morph into a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation that can barely pay salaries or provide municipal services.

“Abbas can have his politics. My specialty is resistance,” said 32-year-old Abu Suleiman, who served as a major in the security forces before being suspended for his militant activity.

“Everything the Palestinian Authority does is in Israel’s interest,” he added from his living room, its shattered windows taped shut, walls pockmarked from July’s raid. He gave only his nom de guerre because he is wanted by the Israeli military.

At the funeral last month for those killed in the raid, jostling crowds shouted insults at senior officials from the ruling Fatah party and chased them out of 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 have failed,’” said 51-year-old Nidal Naghnagheyeh, the head of a committee running social support programs in the camp.

A week after the raid, 87-year-old Abbas visited the camp for the first time in over a decade to display solidarity. Palestinian security forces began to rebuild their presence in Jenin — a bid to show they can impose order without Israeli interference. Israel’s army scaled back its operations in the camp to allow for that, the Israeli military official said.

Palestinian authorities have deployed 1,000 new security officers from Abbas’ presidential guard across the city of Jenin. They have set up checkpoints to catch criminals who long have taken refuge in the city. Militants are lying low, officials say, rather than shooting in the air and showing off their M-16s in the streets.

In the weeks since, police say they’ve seized scores of stolen cars from the streets, confiscated hundreds of narcotic pills and arrested 364 criminals, including over a dozen wanted in cold murder cases. Authorities are preparing to inaugurate a local prison.

Vendors without permits have been expelled from Jenin’s outdoor market and sent outside the city center.

But the law-and-order campaign does not extend to the territory’s greatest source of instability — the Jenin refugee camp. Police say they won’t disarm gunmen wanted by Israel or make arrests in the camp, underscoring the complexity of the security situation.

But even the stepped-up police tactics have rankled gunmen, who drive stolen cars to commit shooting attacks, carry smuggled weapons and own unlicensed vegetable stands. Last month the mayor, who helped devise the Jenin market makeover, narrowly escaped when peddlers angry about losing their income opened fire on his car.

“At night we face the Israeli army and during the day the Palestinian Authority is now after us,” Abu Suleiman said, adding that he had been stopped this week by plainclothes Palestinian police and almost opened fire, mistaking the men for undercover Israeli soldiers. “At some point, hell will break loose.”

Jebara, the police chief, said authorities’ failure to dismantle militant groups is tantamount to the failure of the Palestinian national project, which officers like him had hoped they were building.

“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?”

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Isabel Debre