Normally sleepy Jericho becomes hot spot in spiral of West Bank violence

Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR
Tires burn in protest at the entrance to Aqbat Jabar refugee camp, a densely populated urban slum in Jericho that is home to 13,000 people.

JERICHO, West Bank – Israeli security forces killed five Palestinians during an early morning raid Monday in the normally sleepy city of Jericho. The bloodshed in a tourist town – famous for its archaeology and winter villas – comes amid the worst violence in the West Bank in nearly two decades.

The Israeli army said two of those killed were captured on surveillance camera video Jan. 28 preparing to attack a Jewish-run restaurant with assault-style weapons on the main road outside Jericho. The pair have been the target of an intensive manhunt.

Hours after the operation, blood was still drying on the walls of a small shed next to large villas across the road from the Aqbat Jabar refugee camp, a densely populated urban slum that is home to 13,000 people. Young men from the camp burned tires in protest and set up barricades around the camp.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confiscated the bodies of the five slain men and reported no Israeli casualties. During the manhunt, soldiers erected checkpoints around Jericho, creating hours-long waiting lines as they searched vehicles and checked identifications.

Israel in recent months has launched a series of deadly raids in Palestinian cities and villages as part of its “Breaking the Wave” operation. The IDF is seeking to suppress the spate of violence targeting Israelis by lone-wolf attackers and newly emerging Palestinian armed groups, largely centered in the northern cities of Jenin and Nablus. These groups are small, decentralized, led by young men and often organized on a very local level, outside of the main Palestinian political parties, making them harder to penetrate or control.

It is unusual for militants to be from Jericho, instead of Nablus or Jenin. Jericho is a quiet farm town and tourist spot in the Jordan Valley, known more for its “Banana Land” theme park than for armed groups. It is a stronghold of the increasingly unpopular Palestinian Authority, led by the Fatah party, and was home to Saeb Erekat, former Palestinian peace negotiator who died in 2020.

Jericho is also popular with Christian pilgrims, who take a cable car up a nearby mountain to see the place where tradition says Jesus fasted and was tempted by the devil.

Residents condemned Israel’s operations as collective punishment and said the violence would not end until the occupation of Palestinian land did.

“The occupation is the problem,” said Jamal Omar, chair of the committee charged with the Aqbat Jabr refugee camp administration. “All Palestinians are now afraid for their children.”

The spreading violence, analysts have warned, is the product of a combustible combination of a deep political void among Palestinians and the return of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads Israel’s most right-wing government to date. Members of Netanyahu’s coalition include settler activists and Jewish nationalists calling for annexing the West Bank and harsher policies against Palestinians.

Ayman Daraghmeh, a former Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said the group in Jericho was “close to” but not organized or led by Hamas.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said more violence would follow in response. “Our people and their resistance will not delay in responding to this crime,” he said.

The IDF released a photograph showing the weapons confiscated during the raid: five assault rifles, one handgun, a homemade gun and ammunition. The widespread presence of illegal weapons has been contributing to the lethality of the current wave of violence.

In the Jan. 28 restaurant attack that the IDF said two of the slain men carried out, the militants fired a single round before one of their guns appeared to jam. No one was hurt, but Israeli officials warned that many could have been injured or killed in the assault, which took place a day after a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem. An Israeli raid in Jenin on Jan. 26 targeting a militant cell killed 10 Palestinians, including a woman in her 60s.

Awni Lafi, the father of Malik, one of the alleged attackers at the restaurant, stood in the chilly funeral tent, receiving mourners on Monday. He was waiting for his son’s body to be returned by the IDF. Lafi said he didn’t know his son had bought a gun. He called him “a smiling boy who was good to his mother.” He worried that more young men will follow his path.

Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR
The mourning tent for Malik Lafi. The flag shows the family’s support for Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

Jericho is in a part of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, set up in the 1993 Oslo accords as a step toward a Palestinian state. But two decades later there is little belief on either side in a two-state solution, as Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, have spread throughout the West Bank.

Even before Monday’s raid, camp residents were recovering from a large Israeli incursion Saturday morning that in part targeted the Awadat family.

During that operation, said Adel Awadat, 61, two shoulder-launched missiles struck his house around 7 a.m. without warning while he and four other family members, including his 16-year-old nephew, were inside. An Israeli soldier then called and told the family to come outside as a bulldozer barricaded the front exit.

Soldiers made male members of Awadat’s extended family, who live in the neighboring homes, strip down and stand in the cold and rain, he said, while women and children were put into nearby jeeps.

Some 12 male members of the Awadat family were arrested that night, and six remain in jail, said Hasan Awadat, 27.

One day after the raid, the Awadat family was already beginning to rebuild their bullet-ridden, heavily damaged home.

“Jericho has always been safe. We heard about these things happening elsewhere but never imagined it here,” said Mais Awadat, 28, seated in her relatives’ house with gaping holes. “Now it feels worse than the second intifada,” she said, referring to the period of intense clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinians in the early 2000s.

On Monday, women crowded into a home adorned with a Hamas flag to mourn four of the other men killed – brothers Ibrahim, 27, and Refat Awadat, 21, and their cousins Adham, 22, and Thaer Awadat, 28.

Over the past two years, their grandmother Saadiya Awadat said, her grandsons had closely followed the cases of Palestinians killed and houses demolished by Israeli forces. Angry and frustrated, she said, they had shown increasing interest in violence and martyrdom.

Hanadi Awad, 41, struggling to speak amid her grief, said she had no idea that her son Adham and his friends possessed any weapons. But after the Israeli raid on the camp Saturday, they briefly passed by to say their goodbyes bearing guns. “Praise God he is a martyr now,” she said.

Qassam, 19, an aluminum worker who declined to give his family name as he attended one of the funerals, agreed that Jericho was not known before for its militancy, but said he fears that could be changing.

“We have a friend who is now so angry. He keeps talking about getting a gun and shooting Israelis. We try to calm him down. But it’s not easy. I feel like the whole atmosphere is changing,” he said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR
Adham Awadat’s mother at the mourning gathering.