Reportage. It doesn’t look much like “explosive clearance work.” Rather, the 20,000 residents feel they have suffered a brutal collective punishment.

The Israeli army withdraws from Jenin and Palestinians return to a destroyed camp

On Tuesday night, as Israeli troops were leaving Jenin, Ibrahim Fayed, who had been staying with acquaintances in a suburban neighborhood of the city, decided not to go out into the streets like other residents of the refugee camp, which has been the scene of “Operation Home and Garden,” a deceptively tranquil name which is a shorthand for air raids, destruction and killing.

“I didn’t trust the Israelis, I thought the withdrawal announcement was a trap and I chose not to go home right away as others did,” he tells us, with a faint trace of a smile. Fayed, a laborer, doesn’t have anything like a comfortable house with a garden here in the refugee camp, like those of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank that PM Netanyahu wants to protect. But it’s his home – poor, small, but still his home. And he hopes to find it safe and sound. When he finally enters the camp, he’s in for a shock, and so are we.

Israeli military bulldozers, behemoths with tracks several meters tall, have smashed and dug up the asphalt surface of the roads left and right, destroying part of the water supply system and electricity poles. The camp is without power or internet. Military commanders have claimed in recent days that this destruction was supposedly due to the need to “eliminate explosives” that armed groups had allegedly positioned under the asphalt or on the sides of roads to hit armored vehicles, “putting the Palestinian civilian population at risk first of all.”

It doesn’t look much like “explosive clearance work.” Rather, the 20,000 residents feel they have suffered a brutal collective punishment. There aren’t many buildings that are completely destroyed and burned to the ground, but some have suffered serious damage. And they will have to be repaired before families can return to live there.

The Tawalbeh mosque in the center of the camp, which was damaged by shelling and where the Israeli military claims it found weapons and explosives, also needs repairs. Its windows have been shattered and its doors damaged. “My house is in one piece!” says Ibrahim Fayed loudly, breathing a sigh of relief.

We bid him farewell and go further to see the condition of the Freedom Theatre, one of the rare places that offer opportunities for cultural production for the youth of Jenin and the refugee camp. It was founded by Arna Mer, a Jew married to a Palestinian, who devoted part of her life to the refugees, promoting acting among the youngest children. Her story had enthralled the world 20 years ago, which her son, actor Juliano Mer, had recounted in a celebrated documentary, The Children of Arna, made after the 2002 siege of Jenin.

Juliano was murdered in 2011 by unknown perpetrators, just hours before the kidnapping and murder of Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza. The Theater of Freedom is still there, but the blasts from two rockets have damaged the building’s entrance.

A few meters from the theater, entangled like metal sculptures condemning the war, are the fire-blackened frames of six cars that had been tucked away in a small alley between two apartment buildings. The owners thought they had put them in a safe place. It didn’t turn out as they had hoped.

There’s a frenzy in the streets, with political slogans and religious chants heard in the distance from the funerals of the 12 Palestinians killed by Israeli special units. In the ravaged streets, through sometimes-deep mud, thousands of people are accompanying the dead, wrapped in Palestinian flags and resting on wooden boards carried on the shoulders of relatives and friends. They walk towards the cemetery at the end of the camp, accompanied by fighters armed with machine guns, some with their faces covered, others not.

They are carrying the flags of almost every Palestinian organization, secular and Islamist, and are calling on the name of the “Jenin Brigade,” a symbol in the northern West Bank of the Palestinian armed struggle against the occupation. There are also flags of the Fatah movement, but militants around here don’t identify with its leadership, linked to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian National Authority.

“The Sulta (Authority) is asleep,” many in Jenin tell us, commenting on the PNA’s lack of a meaningful reaction as Israeli armed forces entered Jenin. On Wednesday, when Mahmoud Al Aoul, Fatah’s number two, arrived in the refugee camp and tried to deliver a message of solidarity and support to the residents from a stage, he was drowned out by insults from the crowd and chased away by hundreds of people chanting “Barra, barra!” (“Get out, get out!”).

Another funeral, this time attended by thousands of Israelis, was held at the military cemetery at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where Special Unit Sergeant Egoz, who was killed Tuesday night by Palestinian gunfire, was buried.

At the end of Operation Home and Garden, Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed that the raids on Palestinian cities will not be “one-offs.” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reiterated the same. Yet, looking at the objectives the Israeli command put forward to justify the attack on the Jenin camp, namely “dismantling” armed groups and dealing a blow to Palestinian militancy in its stronghold, it’s hard to believe that the operation achieved the results it was aiming for.

Israel deployed at least a thousand soldiers, drones, intelligence, special units trained for months and many other resources. But the Jenin Brigade and other armed groups claim to have thwarted Israeli operations, succeeding in a number of cases to stop them in their tracks, in al-Damej, Nablus Street and Jabriyat. Are these just boasts? It’s possible. However, more than one analyst believes that the Israeli operation failed to deal decisive blows against the armed groups in Jenin.

The real cost, as always, is being borne by civilians. “Please limit your consumption of water and preserve the quantities you have available,” the Jenin municipality has told the camp residents. Dozens of workers have been working nonstop for hours to repair the water and electricity networks.

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