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Palestinians, Facing Political Stagnation, Despair After Israeli Raid

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Palestinians, Facing Political Stagnation, Despair After Israeli Raid

When he learned that the Israeli army had launched a raid this week to comb for weapons and explosives in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, Mahmoud Sarahat and his friends mobilized to fight back. His comrades shot at Israeli soldiers, while he helped evacuate the wounded and the dead, he said, retrieving their guns to give to other fighters.

After two days of violence left 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead, the Israelis pulled out on Wednesday, leaving behind damaged homes, broken infrastructure and renewed rage at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But it was mixed with frustration with the Palestinians’ own leaders for their failure to chart a better future for their people, much less to protect them.

“We want the Authority to leave,” Mr. Sarahat, 23, said of the Palestinian Authority. “They left us for dead.”

Israel called its 48-hour incursion into Jenin, which it said was aimed at rooting out Palestinian militants, a necessary operation to prevent attacks on Israelis: It said all 12 Palestinians killed were combatants, and at least nine were claimed as fighters by militant groups.

But Jenin residents described the raid as two days of terror that highlighted their growing sense of despair, vulnerability and abandonment across the West Bank.

While Palestinians overwhelming consider Israel responsible for their predicament, many have also grown frustrated with the Palestinian Authority, a political body created decades ago as a sort of state-in-waiting, which has limited administrative powers in parts of the West Bank. Now, the Authority offers little more than jobs whose salaries it struggles to pay, and many Palestinians view it as ineffective, or as a subcontractor for the occupation.

The Palestinian Authority employs tens of thousands of security forces charged with law enforcement inside Palestinian communities. While the forces are expected to rein in Palestinian armed groups and keep them from attacking Israelis, they do so inconsistently, at least in part because their members sympathize with the fighters.

The forces’ leaders communicate directly with the Israeli military to avoid clashes, but they cannot directly defend their people from Israeli forces. Nor can they protect Palestinians when Israeli West Bank settlers attack their towns.

Popular resentment overflowed this week when Palestinian officials arrived at the funerals of some of the 12 Palestinians killed during the Jenin raid but were chased off by mourners who chanted, “Get out! Get out!” and “For shame!”

Maj. Gen. Akram Rajoub, the most senior Palestinian Authority official in Jenin, acknowledged the frustration but accused Israel of undermining the body.

“What has brought the Authority to this point? It’s the occupation’s criminality and its refusal to provide any political solutions,” General Rajoub said.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusation that their government has undermined the Authority. As for the Jenin raid, they have said it cleared out a safe haven for militants who attack Israelis.

“They target civilians and they hide behind civilians,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on Wednesday. “And we denied them that possibility while avoiding civilian casualties.”

The Palestinian Authority continues to pay salaries to tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, but the body has been sidelined there since 2007, when Hamas, a hard-line militant group, seized control of the territory.

The West Bank is ultimately controlled by Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads one of the hardest-line government in the country’s history, packed with officials who oppose Palestinian political aspirations. Peace talks aimed at ending the conflict and creating a Palestinian state fizzled out nearly a decade ago with no solution, and world powers like the United States, which had long pressured both sides to keep them going, seem to have given up.

The Arab world, too, is increasingly looking away.

A handful of Arab states have established diplomatic relations with Israel in recent years, casting aside the longstanding demand that Israel first resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. Others states, such as Saudi Arabia, have expressed a new openness to formal ties but have yet to announce them, despite concerted efforts by the Biden administration. Yet other Arab countries remain deeply hostile to Israel but are too mired in their own crises to offer the Palestinians anything more than rhetoric.

A Palestinian poll conducted last month found that half of respondents believe that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would benefit the people. The authority’s 87-year-old president, Mahmoud Abbas, was last elected to a four-year term in 2005, but remains in charge. Eighty percent of poll respondents said they want him to resign.

“They can’t count on their leadership,” said Khaled Elgindy, a scholar of Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The region has abandoned them. The Arab states have de-prioritized their cause. There is no such thing as a U.S.-led peace process and there is no interest in starting one.”

That has created “a sense of Palestinian despair,” he said.

That sentiment coursed through conversations in Jenin as residents sifted through the wreckage of this week’s raid.

The Israeli incursion, centered around the Jenin refugee camp, a poor area for Palestinians who fled or were chased from their homes around the time of Israel’s creation in 1948 and their descendants, considered refugees by the United Nations. Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, but Palestinians hope it will be part of their own independent state someday.

The camp is actually a densely populated neighborhood with about 14,000 residents. On Thursday, signs of destruction were everywhere. Burned cars and rubble from damaged buildings blocked roads and men worked around the neighborhood to fix broken electricity lines and waterworks.

Many buildings had holes in their walls that residents said the Israelis had made to get inside, effectively to use these homes as cover. Residents who had fled the camp during the raid returned to find that soldiers had occupied their homes and destroyed belongings.

Before dawn on Monday, Israeli soldiers cracked through the wall of the al-Saadi family’s apartment building, jolting them awake, said the mother, Shadia al-Saadi. Soldiers soon herded the 12 family members into a living room, took away their phones, zip tied the wrists of the males under age 50 and ordered everyone to stay silent.

There they remained for about 10 hours, with soldiers even standing outside the door when they went to the bathroom, Ms. al-Saadi said. The soldiers so terrified her 9-year-old daughter that the girl vomited repeatedly.

“We were hostages,” Ms. al-Saadi said.

As the family waited, soldiers outside clashed with Palestinian gunmen and bulldozed roads, where the Israeli military said they unearthed roadside bombs and tripwires to set them off.

After the raid was over, the family discovered that the soldiers had used the building as a temporary base and rummaged through their belongings. Furniture had been overturned, windows shattered and clothes and dishes had been yanked from wardrobes and cabinets.

“We don’t even want to fix the house anytime soon because they will probably come back and destroy it again,” Ms. al-Saadi said.

Another fighter, Mohamad Abu al-Kamel, 28, explained how the struggle against Israel had defined his life. He recalled as a child seeing his home destroyed by Israeli soldiers during a battle in the camp in 2002. The Israelis had killed two of his brothers and jailed his father, he said. He spent time in an Israeli prison for his involvement with armed groups.

Now, he carried a rifle inherited from one of his slain brothers and intended keep fighting, he said. His wife had recently given birth and he planned to pass the struggle to the next generation.

“I will teach my son what my father taught me: to fight for this camp and for our honor,” he said.

Hiba Yazbek reported from Jenin, West Bank, and Ben Hubbard from Istanbul. Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from London.

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