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Under Fire: Report from Jenin Refugee Camp on Israel’s Largest West Bank Attack in 20 Years

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Israel attacked the Jenin refugee camp this weekend in what some are calling the largest military operation in the occupied West Bank in 20 years. Israel claims to have attacked militants in the camp, but camp residents say they were targeted by airstrikes and ground troops. Palestinian health officials say the massive two-day military offensive killed 12 Palestinians and injured at least 140 more. This continues a pattern of escalating violence by Israel against Palestinians, including attacks by settlers against residents of the occupied West Bank. We speak with Mustafa Sheta, general manager of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, who shares his firsthand account of the attack and describes it as an effort “to end the concept and the idea of resistance in Palestine.” Amjad Iraqi, senior editor at +972 Magazine, describes Israel’s doctrine of “mowing the lawn” in Palestine and calls this weekend’s events part of “the maintenance of an apartheid regime.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp are facing widespread destruction after Israel withdrew troops today following what some are calling the largest military operation in the occupied West Bank in 20 years. The Jenin refugee camp is home to around 11,000 people. Israel attacked what it said were militants in the camp with drone-fired missiles and ground troops. Palestinian health officials say the massive two-day military assault killed 12 Palestinians, injured at least 140 more. The head of Jenin Hospital reports most of the wounded were shot in the head and chest. The Israeli military claimed it was targeting militants, but residents of the camp say they were targeted by airstrikes and nonstop ground fire. Israeli bulldozers destroyed roads out of the camp and left just a single road for ambulances to evacuate the wounded. Doctors Without Borders said Israeli troops fired tear gas several times into a hospital. Today, thousands are taking part in a funeral procession for the victims. Jenin’s mayor lamented the U.N. has, quote, “failed us,” and accused Israel of war crimes.

This is 63-year-old refugee in Jenin Jihad Hassan.

JIHAD HASSAN: [translated] This reminds me of the 1948 Nakba. People left their houses because of fear. Today also, people left because of fear, but also because of the bombs, which target civilians and others. The Israeli army doesn’t differentiate between armed and unarmed. …

The difference in 2002 and today is the military machines. Today, the military artillery is stronger and heavier. Now they use drones. Before, they used Apache weapons. I was injured in 2002 by shrap metal from a rocket in my leg. But this time the military artillery is stronger and heavier.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza earlier today in response to rocket fire from the besieged enclave.

Days before raiding Jenin, the far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultranationalist government announced Israel would buy 25 F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States at the cost of $3 billion.

In response to the raid, the White House defended what it called Israel’s, quote, “right to defend itself.” Palestinian American Congressmember Rashida Tlaib condemned the operation and said, quote, “Congress must stop funding this violent Israeli apartheid regime,” Tlaib said.

All of this comes amidst more than 450 attacks on Palestinians by settlers this year alone and as thousands of Israelis protested Monday against Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul and severely curtail the powers of the judiciary.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Haifa, Amjad Iraqi is a senior editor at +972 Magazine, where his latest piece is headlined “In Jenin, Israel is unveiling the next phase of apartheid.” And in Jenin, Mustafa Sheta is with us, the general manager of The Freedom Theatre. He wrote a piece for Mondoweiss titled “'The gravity of the situation cannot be understated': an eyewitness account from the Israeli assault on Jenin.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mustafa, let’s begin with you, inside the refugee camp. Can you describe what took place over these last two days?

MUSTAFA SHETA: In fact — thank you for hosting me in this meeting.

In fact, during the last two days, we faced really a horrible and difficult situation by this Israel big military attack of Jenin, which started by rocks that targeted the middle of Jenin refugee camp. We talk about one kilometer. They targeted the people, the refugees in Jenin refugee camp. They are around 15,000 persons. They all live there. And they targeted them. And until — under this title, they came here to clean the yard, and they want to end the concept and the idea of resistance in Palestine through Jenin refugee camp.

It was a really difficult situation for the people where they are living in a hard condition without electricity from the first time of this invasion, without water. They destroyed the infrastructure of the Jenin refugee camp and in Jenin city. And they tried to enter and to make a siege around the camp to make it alone and to put all the people under this attack from the first time. We consider that it’s like collective punishment against any person in Jenin, against anything, against the theater, against the trees, against the walls. They destroy the cars. They destroy the houses. It’s like — as what I said, it’s like collective punishment against the people. Already they are stand, and they support the resistance, and they support the fighters in Jenin refugee camp. So, it was really hard, really difficult for the children, for the women, for the old people, and including the normal people in Jenin in general.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mustafa Sheta, why has Jenin emerged in recent years as such a focus of Israeli repression and attacks? What is particular about the Jenin camp that Israel is so concerned about?

MUSTAFA SHETA: We are live, in fact, in political area. I mean, all the people here, they are refugees. They have political identity. They have issue until this moment after 75 years. Until this moment it’s not solved. They ask for right of return. They are live in areas, it’s not for them — I mean, for the refugees.

The idea, it started from not just from 2002, started from long time, from the first day of established the camp in '54. After that, the different resistance, from the First Intifada in ’87, where is the refugees, they are involved for liberate Palestine, and in 2002, in the big invasion happen in Jenin, where Israel think by their using the hard power, when they attack Jenin and big invasion happen in 2002 and killed the people. Talk about 53 persons were killed in Jenin. They destroyed the core of Jenin refugee camp. They think, by that way, they end the idea of the way of thinking about resistance and revolution. But they don't know. The new generation, really, they are born in 2002. They are now lead this resistance in Jenin refugee camp. And by this way, it’s not stop here.

I mean, all the time, why Jenin? Because we are still in the same feeling about injustice. And the people here, they think all the time they must be involved in this kind of resistance, because they protect their dignity and their common identity about the concept of refugee, the concept of right of return and liberate Palestine and end the occupation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’re the general manager of The Freedom Theatre. Could you talk about the significance of the work that you do, and whether your theater was targeted, as well?

MUSTAFA SHETA: In fact, The Freedom Theatre, we are lucky because we have like a unique story. The idea of The Freedom Theatre started with a Jewish woman — her name, Arna Mer-Khamis — when she came to Jenin during the First Intifada and established the Childhood Center in Jenin city and Jenin refugee camp. And that’s why that, to provide the space for children to expression and talk about themselves. Later, Juliano, her son, will rejoin to her mother, and they established together the Stone Theatre in the middle of Jenin refugee camp. It was the first theater in Jenin.

The idea of establish already theater here, it’s about find the space just to talk about the story from Jenin and Jenin refugee camp and how we can put the people, already they have like real story and important story about the Palestine case, the Palestine question, in the light.

So, after that, in 2002, during the invasion, the Stone Theatre destroyed by Israel. And Juliano himself, he made his film, an important film. It’s called Arna’s Children. It’s a talk about what’s the core of this dispute and conflict and the occupation in Palestine.

Later, in 2006, when we have The Freedom Theatre by Juliano and Zakaria Zubeidi, when we have the theater again, we consider it’s part of resistance. We raised the idea and the concept of cultural resistance here, where we provide the space for and create and raise the critical and brave voice here. That’s important for our people, and this is one of our impact work with our people, where we provide the space for when the children, they don’t already — they have any yard or any space in this one kilometer to play, to game, where we will provide the space for the talent from the camp to come here and to be like — not just to be professional actor, to be like social leader, believe in freedom. And when we talk about the whole concept of freedom, freedom end the occupation, freedom of thinking, freedom of choosing. All of that, we protect that and put it in our interest, in our focus, in our goals, too.

So, we have this impact, and they have this kind of relationship. The people in Jenin refugee camp, they consider The Freedom Theatre is really important for them, because already we have like this bridge between what’s the reality happened here and the international and the people outside of Palestine, because we are talk about Palestine through this creative language, through theater and the performing arts.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to also bring in Amjad Iraqi, senior editor at +972 Magazine. He’s speaking to us from Haifa. Amjad, you have said the Jenin operation, the Jenin assault, is being carried out in the context of Israel’s, quote, “mowing the lawn” doctrine as a means of maintaining its apartheid regime. Can you explain? And talk about who exactly is behind it and the significance of, the day before the attack, the U.S. approving more weapon sales to Israel, bringing their total of planes to — what? I think it was 75 attack planes.

AMJAD IRAQI: Thank you, Amy, and to Democracy Now!, for having me.

So, in a nutshell, the idea of mowing the lawn is a doctrine that has been promoted by the Israeli military for quite a while and is mostly associated with Israeli army policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip, particularly targeting the political group Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other militants. And the idea of mowing the lawn or mowing the grass is essentially this idea that the Israelis have that if there is no permanent solution to really eradicate these Palestinian militant groups, then the idea is that you’re in a constant cycle to basically undercut their capacity temporarily until the next round. And this is what we’ve been seeing put in full force, especially since the beginning of the blockade of Gaza in 2007.

Now, you’ve seen variations of this military policy practiced in many respects, but what we’ve been seeing in the past few days in Jenin is that doctrine being played out in full force. I mean, this operation itself is not happening in a vacuum. For the past year and a half, the Israeli army has been focusing on cities like Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank, where it’s been actively targeting Palestinian militants and their weapons. But, of course, as Mustafa was describing, this has come at the complete punishment of the populations over there, especially the refugee camps, very much in the same kind of methodology as what we’re seeing in the Gaza Strip. And as those confrontations have escalated between militants both against the army and against settlements, and sometimes against cities inside Israel, that the army is coming under more and more pressure to actually go in as a ground invasion. And even two weeks ago, we saw, as you described, the first time that they returned to air power through Apache helicopters, which I believe were supplied by the United States, and then, two days later, through a drone strike, and, basically, these being the first airstrikes in the West Bank for the first time since the Second Intifada, even though they have of course been very much the modus operandi in the Gaza Strip.

So, this is that manifestation that we’re seeing. This is the philosophy that’s playing out basically as the maintenance of an apartheid regime, that includes Gaza and the West Bank, and that this is the solution that the Israeli authorities are seeing, from the political echelon to the military establishment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amjad Iraqi, could you place what’s been happening there over the last few weeks and months in the context of the most extreme right-wing government that Israel has had in its history and the decision of the new Netanyahu government to begin to accelerate more and more settlements in the West Bank?

AMY GOODMAN: I think we’re going to —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, yeah, I think we may have lost the audio. Let’s go back to Mustafa Sheta. Mustafa, your response to that same question? The decision by the Netanyahu government to begin once again to accelerate settler expansion on the West Bank, to what degree has this contributed to the rising tensions there?

MUSTAFA SHETA: I think, you know, Netanyahu, he and his government, in fact, they are really failed. They are really failed in what’s happened in Jenin. And I think they want to send the important messages to their people. I think it’s for — like, we can say it’s like political benefits there. They try to say, “We are still strong. We are still can control.” After the military operations happened in Jenin and in West Bank, before that, in — before 'til days — we are in the same condition for two years, in fact. And there are — nothing changed. I mean, they are still continuing to punish us, to attack us. And I think this kind of policies, it's not just how — not the Israeli people or not the government and, for sure, not the Palestinian. They are still in the same condition, and without — we can say, without any benefits for any person, any party.

So, I expect this government will fail, and maybe it will not continue. In the first day of this government established, I said I don’t expect there’s something good will come with it. It will be worse and worse, especially for the Palestinian. I don’t know if you heard about Netanyahu’s statement and speech when he said he don’t believe in two states now. We are two — don’t believe in two states in this condition. We are believe in one state. That state, it will be Palestine in the future, because all this condition, it’s like Israel eat itself now in this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Sheta, as we wrap up, if you can respond to the possibility the Israeli government is saying that they reserve the right to go back into Jenin to continue this assault, and also the significance of the thousands of people, Israelis, who were in the streets protesting, but they were protesting against Netanyahu dismantling the Israeli judiciary? Were there Israeli protests against the assault on the Jenin refugee camp, where you are, Mustafa?

MUSTAFA SHETA: In fact, I expect Israel, they will return to Jenin, maybe after two days, two weeks or one month. We don’t know. We know they don’t achieve their goals until this moment.

The protests in Israel, the demonstrations in Israel against Netanyahu, it’s not start from now. It’s not just about what’s going on in Jenin. They have a lot of interior problem, like with the Israeli law, too. But I don’t expect there is something will get changed in Israel with the Israel policies. The people already elect — they elect Netanyahu and the right wings. They are still control for the political seats in Israel, with Ben-Gvir and all these right-wing parties. So, I don’t expect there is something big changes with Netanyahu policies, especially he gets support from U.S. U.S. government, they said they are support Israel to protect themselves. U.K. government, they say the same. They said, “We are support, and we understand, we accept how Israel protect themselves.” But in the same time, no one talk about what’s happened or what’s going on with the world people, with the normal people in Jenin refugee camp or for the people in Palestine, already they fight for to get their rights and get their liberation.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Mustafa Sheta, general manager of the Jenin Freedom Theatre and speaking to us from the refugee camp, and Amjad Iraqi, senior editor at +972 Magazine, speaking to us from Haifa.

Next up, we go to France to look at what’s driving a week of protests over the police killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old teenager of North African descent. Stay with us.

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