Palestinian Leader Visits City Israel Raided, Trying to Signal Strength

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority made his first visit in years to Jenin, the battle-scarred and impoverished Palestinian city in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that was the target of a two-day raid by the Israeli military last week.

Mr. Abbas’s visit was an effort to demonstrate to both Israelis and Palestinians that he retains authority and control over Jenin, a city in which his security forces are passive spectators to street battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militias opposed to his rule.

Jenin is within the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank that has been nominally administered by the Palestinian Authority since the 1990s, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed diplomatic agreements, known as the Oslo Accords, that increased Palestinian autonomy within some parts of the territories that Israel captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But in recent years, areas of Jenin and other parts of the northern West Bank have become dominated instead by Palestinian militias that reject Mr. Abbas’s leadership and conduct frequent attacks on Israelis. As a result, the Israeli Army has increased its raids on the city and the wider region, like the one last week that killed at least 12 Palestinians. Mr. Abbas’s inability to prevent those raids has further dented his popularity among Palestinians, making it even harder for him to assert his authority over the city.

Mr. Abbas’s brief visit on Wednesday — widely reported as his first to Jenin in more than a decade — was a belated effort to rebuild his standing, as well as that of the authority itself. It came just days after some of his leading allies were booed by mourners in the city as they attended funerals for people killed during the latest Israeli operation.

Mr. Abbas’s efforts to end Israel’s occupation through negotiations and diplomacy are seen by many Palestinians as a failure, and a younger generation of Palestinians — including fighters in Jenin — wants to oppose Israel by force.

After arriving by helicopter at around noon from Ramallah, one of the few pockets of the West Bank where Mr. Abbas exerts tight control, he visited a neighborhood known as the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold that was widely damaged during the Israeli raid. The heavily built-up area is still known as a refugee camp because it is populated mainly by Palestinian families who sought refuge there during the wars in the late 1940s that surrounded the creation of the state of Israel.

“Brothers, I want to tell you that the authority came here to affirm its support for the people of Jenin camp and with its people in the city of Jenin,” Mr. Abbas said, standing in front of a restaurant badly damaged by the fighting last week.

“The Palestinian Authority is one authority, one state, one law,” he added.

Around a thousand elite troops from the Palestinian Authority secured the area ahead of Mr. Abbas’s trip. Officials festooned the streets with scores of yellow flags that connote support for Fatah, Mr. Abbas’s secular political movement. The flags largely obscured those of rival movements, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two Islamist groups that wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Mr. Abbas in 2007.

The authority’s troops were also filmed on Wednesday blocking an Israeli military convoy from entering the city — a scene so rare that many wondered on social media whether it had been staged.

But though Mr. Abbas’s visit was intended to demonstrate his authority beyond Ramallah, it also showed his fragility. To arrive by air, he had to borrow aircraft from the Jordanian government and secure permission from the Israeli military, which controls airspace over the West Bank.

To secure his safe passage to outer fringes of the Jenin refugee camp, Mr. Abbas’s security team had to work with the gunmen that dominate the camp. Palestinian officers removed roadside explosives from the area that had been planted by the militias — but only after being told where they were, according to Muhammad Owais, a fighter from the Jenin Camp Brigade, a loose union of local militiamen.

“No one wanted this visit,” said Mr. Owais, 18, in an interview. “We wanted to show our respect to him as a city because it would have been a disgrace for us not to. But he was just trying to whitewash his image.”

Mr. Owais portrayed Mr. Abbas as a distinguished visitor, rather than his national leader. “He is our guest here, and we respect all guests,” Mr. Owais said.

Despite the heavy police presence, the visit was chaotic and Mr. Abbas’s guards struggled to keep crowds of curious residents at a safe distance. Senior aides to Mr. Abbas, including a government minister, were occasionally forced to push back onlookers themselves.

The loudspeakers transmitting Mr. Abbas’s speech frequently failed, silencing him for seconds at a time. When he was audible, Mr. Abbas, 87, struggled to clear his throat, often filling the air with the sound of coughing. Two police officers attending the speech fainted in the heat, as temperatures neared 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the loudspeakers were functional, Mr. Abbas tried to create an atmosphere of unity.

“I would like to say to those near and far: The country is one, and will remain one,” he said.

“The hand that will break the unity of the people — and their safety, security and stability — will be cut off from its arm,” he added.

For some, his presence and words were welcome and even pleasantly surprising.

“I wasn’t expecting him to be interested in us,” said Islam Khrewish, 20, whose family owns a diner that formed the backdrop to Mr. Abbas’s speech. “But now he’s shown that he hasn’t abandoned us.”

But even among those charmed by Mr. Abbas’s visit, the president’s approach to governance and to the conflict with Israel remained unappealing.

An architect of the Oslo Accords, Mr. Abbas has long tried to achieve Palestinian sovereignty through diplomacy, negotiations and other nonviolent means. But with Israel now ruled by its most right-wing government in history, prospects of a Palestinian state are more distant than ever. Mr. Abbas’s approach is now seen as a failure among the Palestinian public, which largely supports a return to arms, polling shows.

“He’s been trying this for years and it hasn’t achieved anything,” said Mr. Khrewish. “It’s clearly a failed strategy. The right way is resistance. The Israeli Army will leave only by resistance.”

Many now also see the authority less as a vehicle for national emancipation than as a corrupt and authoritarian body that helps Israel police the West Bank. Mr. Abbas has not held national elections for 17 years, the Palestinian Parliament has not met for more than a decade, and Mr. Abbas now rules by decree.

Yet his control over the Jenin refugee camp remains tenuous at best, even after his visit on Wednesday. He left within an hour, without talking with members of the public.

Within half an hour of his departure, Mr. Abbas’s elite troops had vanished.

Once again, militia members were freely patrolling the streets with their assault rifles.

Source link