Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (centre) arrives in a landmark visit to the Jenin camp on July 12, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

JENIN: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas vowed Wednesday to rebuild the Jenin refugee camp during a rare visit that came a week after a deadly Israeli raid left much of it destroyed.

Abbas described the camp as an “icon of struggle” during his first visit in over a decade to the camp in the northern West Bank city.

Twelve Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed last week in the two-day raid on Jenin, the largest in years by Israeli forces.

The raid on the camp, which Israel views as a “terrorism hub”, employed hundreds of troops as well as drone strikes and army bulldozers that tore up streets and damaged scores of houses.

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Several top officials of Abbas’s Fatah party, including deputy chairman Mahmoud Aloul, had visited the camp soon after the raid, only to be heckled by crowds of angry residents.

On Wednesday, Abbas expressed determination to back Jenin’s reconstruction and security.

He described the camp as an “icon of steadfastness and struggle”, in a short address as crowds of supporters cheered.

“We have come to say that we are one authority, one state, one law,” he said, warning against anyone who “tampers with the unity and security of our people”.

He further vowed to oversee the reconstruction of the camp and the city to restore it “to what it was or even better”.

‘Important message’

As he concluded his visit, Abbas laid a wreath on the graves of Palestinians who lost their lives in recent Israeli raids.

A number of Arab countries have announced aid for the camp after last week’s offensive.

Ahead of Abbas’s arrival, hundreds of soldiers from the presidential guard were seen patrolling the streets of the camp, an AFP journalist said, adding that snipers had also taken positions on rooftops.

His 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.

Prior to his arrival, a group of children were chanting “Katiba, Katiba, Katiba” at the camp in support of local armed group the Jenin Brigade.

The Jenin camp was established in 1953 to house some of those among the 760,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 when Israel was created, an event Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “catastrophe”.

Deteriorating security

Over time, the camp’s original tents have been replaced by concrete, and it now resembles something closer to a neighbourhood.

The camp, which houses some 18,000 people, was also a hotbed of activity during the second “intifada” or uprising of the early 2000s.

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 had not toured the camp at the time.

While the PA remains somewhat present in the city, it has largely abandoned the camp to 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 Palestinian presidential election after the death of leader Yasser Arafat.

Experts were sceptical of Abbas’s visit on Wednesday.

“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.”