Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived Wednesday in the northern West Bank city of Jenin on his first visit in over a decade, a week after the largest Israeli counterterror raid there in years.
Twelve Palestinians — all of whom Israel says were combatants — and one Israeli soldier were killed in the two-day raid on Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp, a regular site of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and armed Palestinian factions.
The raid on the camp, which Israel views as a terrorism hub, employed hundreds of troops, as well as drone strikes.
Soon after the raid, several top officials of Abbas’s Fatah party, including deputy chairman Mahmoud Aloul, visited the camp only to be heckled by crowds of angry residents.
Abbas arrived on Wednesday by helicopter.
He laid a wreath at “the new martyrs’ cemetery,” according to the PA’s official Wafa news agency, which made a point of stressing that “nine martyrs who died in the recent aggression” were buried there.
“Jenin camp is the icon of struggle, steadfastness and challenge,” said Abbas.
He pledged the reconstruction of the camp would begin immediately.
“I say to everyone near and far, this country is safe and its authority will remain one… we must get rid of the occupation and we say to them: leave us, we are here to stay,” he said.
His office said earlier he was due to review the “progress of work in the reconstruction of the camp and the city.”
Ahead of Abbas’s arrival, hundreds of soldiers from the presidential guard were seen patrolling the streets of the camp and snipers took positions on rooftops.
Video shared on Palestinian social media showed PA security forces appearing to block several Israeli military vehicles from entering Jenin. There was no immediate comment from the Israel Defense Forces.
تغطية صحفية: "عناصر من حراسة أمن محمود عباس يوقفون جيبات عسكرية للاحتلال حاولت الاقتراب من جنين تزامنا مع زيارة عباس للمخيم". pic.twitter.com/dW7mVwmXsJ
— وكالة شهاب للأنباء (@ShehabAgency) July 12, 2023
The PA leader’s visit “is a strong and important message… that he stands with the Palestinian people in their resistance to the occupation,” Atta Abu Rumaila, Fatah’s secretary-general in the camp, told AFP.
But Abdullah, a resident of the camp who gave only his first name, appeared to cast doubt over the purpose of the visit.
“What is more important is what happens after he leaves, and whether they (the Palestinian Authority) continue caring about the camp,” he told AFP.
The Jenin refugee camp was established in 1953 when the West Bank was under Jordanian annexation to house some of the 760,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the fighting surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948, an event Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “catastrophe.” Israel captured Jenin and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. The PA later established a presence in Jenin and other parts of the West Bank as part of the 1990s Oslo Accords.
Over time, the camp’s original tents have been replaced by concrete, and it now resembles something closer to a neighborhood.
The camp, which houses some 18,000 people, was also a hotbed of terror activity during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, which for Israelis became synonymous with the suicide blasts and bus bombings that led to the deaths of over 1,000 civilians and soldiers. The uprising also saw intense clashes with Israelis troops that left over 3,000 Palestinians dead.
Over the past 18 months, the security situation in the camp has deteriorated, with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority having little real presence there.
Abbas, 87, last visited Jenin in 2012 but did not tour the camp at the time.
While the PA remains somewhat present in the city, it has largely abandoned the camp to local armed groups such as the Jenin Brigade, which Israel alleges is backed by Iran.
Abbas had previously visited the camp itself in 2004 while running for the PA presidential election after the death of leader Yasser Arafat.
During that trip Abbas famously exchanged hugs and kisses with Zakaria Zubeidi, a senior figure in the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades terror group, who for years was on Israel’s most wanted list before his capture. Zubeidi was briefly on the lam in 2021 after a high-profile prison break.
Abbas’s leadership has come under criticism from Palestinians over rampant corruption in the PA and the lack of any progress toward independence. Just 17% of Palestinians are satisfied with Abbas’s leadership and 80% want him to resign, according to a Palestinian public opinion poll in June.
Since taking office in December, several ultranationalist ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government have called for the Palestinian Authority to be disbanded.
Experts were skeptical of the impact of Abbas’s visit to Jenin.
“Through his made-for-camera visit, Abbas wants to show that he and his Palestinian Authority are firmly in control of Jenin,” Hugh Lovatt, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.
“In reality, making a rare visit outside of his Ramallah fiefdom will do little to re-establish the Palestinian Authority given the deepening crisis of legitimacy it is facing and the rise of Palestinian armed groups.”