The palm trees that line the roads in this desert city near the Dead Sea have been famous for millennia: “The plain of the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees,” as written in Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.
The Palestinian city’s beauty, archaeological sites, and history – with claims as one of oldest cities in the world, and the lowest below sea level – have long made it a staple on the international tourist circuit. It’s also home to weekend villas for many wealthy Palestinians.
Until earlier this year, Jericho was considered one of the quietest parts of the Israel-occupied West Bank where residents were more likely to encounter a tourist than an Israeli soldier.
Now parts of the city, especially the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp, are seeing decor more common in restive areas of the West Bank like Jenin or Nablus: Posters commemorating the “martyrdom” of locals killed by – as the Israeli military is described here – “occupation forces.” Bullet holes dot some of the homes. Nine people have been killed so far this year.
Aqabat Jaber refugee camp houses thousands of Palestinians who have lived there since fleeing or being evicted from their homes in 1948 during Israel’s founding. Israeli security forces say that there has been an increase in “terrorist activity” in the camp since the beginning of this year and that they are acting off “precise intelligence” to prevent future attacks.
One American-Israeli, 27-year old Elan Ganeles, was killed in a shooting attack just outside Jericho in February. Weeks earlier, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said militants tried to open fire at a nearby Israeli restaurant but their gun malfunctioned in the process.
To people like 10-year-old Rinad Hamdan, that’s a tough explanation to swallow.
Her brother, 22-year-old Mahmoud Hamdan, was killed on March 1 during an Israeli incursion to arrest those who had killed Ganeles. Sitting in her family’s living room as tears fall from her eyes, the younger Hamdan speaks beyond her years as her mother strokes her face. Giant banners with photos of Mahmoud line the outside of their house, and inside framed photos are everywhere.
“I don’t know what to do when I hear gunshots,” Rinad says. “I just leave it to God. I’m now used to it because the soldiers always come to the camp.”
Hamdan’s family says he was heading home from work when he was caught up in the Israeli incursion and shot. An IDF statement at the time said their forces shot “an operative attempting to flee the residence where the terrorists were located.” However, after an inquiry from CNN about Hamdan’s case, the IDF says that the incident is “under examination.”
As the head of the refugee camp’s community committee, Jamal Awadat is on the front line – not only of this violence but also the long-term deprivation of basic services caused by a months-long strike by Palestinian workers of United Nations programs, compounding the issues brought on by the Israeli military actions.
“The killing that you are practicing will not bring you any security in any way,” Awadat says. “The killing will create rebels. When you kill someone that has four brothers, one of them will want revenge.”
Awadat does not doubt that the young people around him are upset and restive. But that does not, he says, make them the terrorist threat that Israel claims they are.
“Those are youth that saw what is happening in the country – in Jenin, Nablus and in Palestine in general – so they decided to be rebellious,” Awadat says, referring to other cities that have seen a dramatic increase in new militant movements and deadly Israeli military raids.
The militant group Hamas claimed five of the nine killed in this refugee camp this year as their fighters. There is currently no indication that the other four, including two teenagers, were members of a militant group.
An IDF official tells CNN their forces have to enter the camp because of “several warnings of terrorist attacks.”
“Has this caused more people to be attracted to terrorism? We are acting with precise intelligence, our security interest is that those who do not engage in terrorism continue their lives in a routinely manner,” the official says.
Jibril Al-Aarda was asleep at home, his mother recounts, when gunshots rang out in the street. The 17-year-old heard that his cousin had been injured, ran outside to see what happened and was shot in the head, she says.
“How should I be feeling after losing one of my children? Something in the house is missing,” Jibril’s mother, known as Um Jibril, says as she tears up talking about the last time she saw him. “I miss him in every corner, in everything I do there is something missing, may God bless his soul.”
The IDF said in their statement at the time that during an arrest raid, “armed suspects fired at the soldiers, who responded with live fire. Hits were identified.” When asked by CNN about Jibril’s specific situation, the IDF responded – similarly to Hamdan’s case – that the events are “under examination.”
Um Jibril says her younger son has already been imprisoned once by Israeli authorities and that her older son is being held in prison on what’s called “administrative detention” – a controversial Israeli military procedure that allows authorities to hold detainees on security grounds, often for years. Photos and posters of both sons dominate the immaculately clean living room.
“We were never used to soldiers in the camp, they are now invading the camp every two or three days and terrorizing people.”
She denies having any knowledge of militants in the camp.
“This allegation is not true, our children are just kids. When you come to someone with a weapon and want to shoot at him his normal reaction will be throwing a stone – that will not harm the army,” Um Jibril says.
For weeks at a time this year, Israeli forces have set up checkpoints into and out of the city of Jericho, causing hours-long back-ups and effectively blockading the population of 25,000. An IDF official told CNN this was because “there was real intelligence about an attack that was planned to come out of this area, so what they had to do was make sure there were no terrorists leaving the city with weapons.”
It had a devastating impact on the city’s economy, Jericho’s mayor Abdul-Karim Sedir tells CNN. Not only did internal and external tourism drop, but everything from waste management to farmers’ harvests were impacted, costing the city $100 million in lost revenue this year alone.
While Sedir acknowledges there may be wanted militants in the camp, he urges the Israelis to rethink their strategy.
“The city is very quiet, and people don’t really understand why this is happening. Maybe there was a wanted person, but the reality is not the way they try to exaggerate it,” he says. “This killing every day and injuries and arrests escalates the situation and increases the number of resistance fighters; if Israel thinks that those collective punishment measures will reduce the number of resistance fighters, they are mistaken.”
Sedir says he fears that Jericho, known as the “city of the moon,” will lose its reputation as a calm oasis in the desert.
“Of course, I’m afraid, if the blockades continue during the next Eid holiday at the end of June, there will be an exodus of investors from Jericho and a large number of resistance fighters will be born which will transfer the city to a different rank.”