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In the West Bank city of Jenin, Israeli raids and strikes leave Palestinians wary

People walk through the ruins of Al-Ansar Mosque in Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank that was hit last week by an Israeli airstrike.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
People walk through the ruins of Al-Ansar Mosque in Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank that was hit last week by an Israeli airstrike.

JENIN, West Bank — The mosque is unrecognizable. The stairway to the upper floor, now lacking a wall to support it, is leaning strangely. Pillars holding up the ceiling are bowing. Rubble is piled up outside. And through the holes in the floor, a man peers into the basement where Israeli security forces say Palestinian militants were storing weapons.

The Israeli airstrike that destroyed the Al-Ansar Mosque in Jenin on Oct. 22 was an unusual occurrence for the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces usually favor ground raids instead. At least two Palestinians were killed, officials in Jenin say.

In the days since, Israeli security forces have mounted at least three raids on Jenin, all of them deadly. In total, at least 11 Palestinians have been killed in Jenin in just over a week, Palestinian officials say.

Beyond Jenin, across the West Bank, Palestinians say that Israel has tightened restrictions and Israel's security forces have stepped up operations since the Gaza-based militant group Hamas launched attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 people.

Young men stand in front of recently dug graves of people killed by Israeli forces in Jenin. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in the three weeks since the war began.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Young men stand in front of recently dug graves of people killed by Israeli forces in Jenin. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in the three weeks since the war began.

Israel says it is targeting militants and that its actions are necessary to counter what it calls terrorism.

Most of Israel's fighting has focused on the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based. Israel's military has killed more than 8,000 and injured more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza in the last three weeks, health officials in Gaza say.

While Israeli raids are not new to Palestinians in the West Bank, they have stepped up since Oct. 7. From the start of 2023 through Oct. 6, 197 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank, according to an Associated Press tally. But since the start of the war, Israeli security forces have killed more than 100 Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinian officials say, and 1,500 more have been arrested.

A family next door to the mosque

For decades, Jenin and its densely populated refugee camp have been a place where Palestinian militants have been active. Over the years, militants from Jenin have carried out suicide bomb attacks and armed assaults on Israeli settlers.

Noor Damaj sits where he was on the night of the Israeli airstrike that hit the mosque next to his home in Jenin.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Noor Damaj sits where he was on the night of the Israeli airstrike that hit the mosque next to his home in Jenin.

The mosque airstrike came after midnight on Oct. 22. When it hit, Noor Damaj was outside drinking tea with relatives in an unfinished apartment above his uncle's home, next door to the mosque.

"I wanted to go down and see what had happened to my family. I could not even get in," Damaj says. "There was so much dust and gunpowder we could barely see."

Itaf Damaj stands in the doorway of her home where she and other family members were trapped from the rubble of the strike on the mosque next door, in Jenin.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Itaf Damaj stands in the doorway of her home where she and other family members were trapped from the rubble of the strike on the mosque next door, in Jenin.

Rubble from the mosque had piled up against their home's exterior doors, he says, trapping them outside and other family members inside. It took an hour and a half to clear.

No one in the family was injured, but there is enough damage that they are currently staying with family elsewhere in Jenin.

Their home is so close to the mosque, says Damaj's aunt, Itaf Damaj, that she thought it impossible that Israelis hadn't known they were there.

"I am sure their planes have taken pictures of us. I am sure they know there are civilians living next to the mosque. But they didn't care," she says.

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said the target of the strike was an "underground terror compound" at the mosque that was being used by members of Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad.

Noor Damaj (left) looks on as a fellow Jenin resident surveys the mosque destruction through a bedroom window at his home.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Noor Damaj (left) looks on as a fellow Jenin resident surveys the mosque destruction through a bedroom window at his home.

"The mosque was used by the terrorists as a command center to plan the attacks and as a base for their execution," the military said, adding that it had received intelligence that one such attack was "imminent."

Local residents say the mosque had a basement and a tunnel that served as an emergency exit to an alleyway nearby.

Asked how he felt about the presence of militants at the mosque, Noor Damaj answers simply: "They are part of our society."

The road toward the Al-Ansar Mosque is blocked to vehicles in Jenin. Palestinian militants have been active in Jenin over the years.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The road toward the Al-Ansar Mosque is blocked to vehicles in Jenin. Palestinian militants have been active in Jenin over the years.

The deep-rooted problems in Jenin

More than 10,000 people live in the refugee camp, a part of Jenin packed with squat concrete houses and apartment buildings separated by steep, winding alleys. Most residents are descendants of Palestinian refugees from the conflict around the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and object to the Israeli occupation that has lasted for decades.

Israeli security forces have periodically raided the refugee camp. In July, hundreds of troops stormed the camp, backed by airstrikes. It was by far the largest operation in years that Israel had conducted in the West Bank.

Things had grown relatively quiet since then, residents say — until last week. In quick succession came the Israeli airstrike, then a drone attack that killed three, and then another raid that left at least one Palestinian dead, according to Palestinian officials.

Sarah Zakarneh, 5, and her family live around the corner from the Al-Ansar Mosque. The family was sleeping when the airstrike hit and after waking up they fled to a family member's house outside of town.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Sarah Zakarneh, 5, and her family live around the corner from the Al-Ansar Mosque. The family was sleeping when the airstrike hit and after waking up they fled to a family member's house outside of town.

On Monday, at least four Palestinians were killed by an Israeli aircraft as security forces carried out a fourth raid, officials from both Israel and the West Bank said. Israeli bulldozers dug up streets and dozens of Palestinians were arrested.

Some residents are frightened.

Ma'in Zakarneh (right) with his wife, Yasmin, and daughters Salma, 1, Sarah, 5, and Maie, 3, at their home in Jenin.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Ma'in Zakarneh (right) with his wife, Yasmin, and daughters Salma, 1, Sarah, 5, and Maie, 3, at their home in Jenin.

Around the corner from the mosque, Ma'in Zakarneh was asleep when the airstrike hit on Oct. 22. After a moment of shock, he and his wife rushed to gather their three young daughters and drive to a family member's home outside of town.

"All my daughters were crying, were panicking, were in a state of shock," he says. "I felt like we were about to die."

In July, Zakarneh told NPR he wanted to move to the U.S. to escape the violence, as his wife and one of their daughters are American citizens. They applied several years ago, they said, but their case hasn't gone anywhere yet.

Maie Zakarneh, 3, passes in front of a view of Jenin refugee camp. More than 10,000 people live in the camp.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Maie Zakarneh, 3, passes in front of a view of Jenin refugee camp. More than 10,000 people live in the camp.

Now, they say, it feels even more urgent.

Zakarneh's wife, Yasmin Radwan, sent an email to the State Department last week, begging for their case to be expedited. She showed NPR the email, in which she described their proximity to the airstrike and the ongoing violence. "We are not living in [safety] and peace. Every day, we see militants walking around in the streets," she wrote.

The problems in Jenin are difficult to solve, Zakarneh says. He has a good job, a nice house and a family to care for — but not everyone in the refugee camp has a life like that. Many of Jenin's residents are young, impoverished and unemployed.

Boys look at a ripped T-shirt and blood on the ground at the site of an Israeli drone strike that killed two teenagers and one 20-year-old in Jenin refugee camp.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Boys look at a ripped T-shirt and blood on the ground at the site of an Israeli drone strike that killed two teenagers and one 20-year-old in Jenin refugee camp.

"I'm very sad because most of our friends have gone"

Just a few days after last week's airstrike on the mosque, an Israeli drone strike killed three young males in Jenin — two teenagers and a 20-year-old, according to witnesses. A fourth, another teenager, was killed in gun fighting that followed, witnesses said.

Hours later, their blood was still on the ground. So too were scraps of metal: leftover pieces of the homemade explosive devices they were holding, witnesses said.

"During counterterrorism activity in the Jenin Camp, armed terrorists fired and hurled explosive devices at Israeli security forces," the Israeli military said in a short statement. "In response, an IDF UAV struck the terrorists. Hits were identified."

A young man sits by the fresh graves of the two teenagers and one 20-year-old killed in the recent Israeli drone strike in Jenin.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A young man sits by the fresh graves of the two teenagers and one 20-year-old killed in the recent Israeli drone strike in Jenin.

The strike hit just outside a cemetery where Palestinians killed by Israeli forces are buried. The cemetery is full, locals said. Those who died in last week's attacks were all buried at a new graveyard nearby.

Last Wednesday afternoon, about 12 hours after the drone strike, a few mourners were lingering at the fresh graves.

A 13-year-old boy named Tarik says the dead were friends of his brother. "I'm very sad, because most of our friends have gone," he says.

He personally wouldn't have held the homemade explosives, he says. But when asked what his future holds, he has only one answer: Muqawim, freedom fighter.

Nuha Musleh contributed reporting in Jenin and Ramallah.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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