Hussein Shibly looks out Saturday from his home, which was damaged in the Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank this month. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Shibly and his neighbors are reeling from Israel’s largest military operation in the occupied West Bank in decades, a two-day incursion that unleashed firefights and air attacks on these steep streets densely packed with houses.
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Israel said the assault on the Jenin refugee camp, long known as a bastion of armed Palestinian militancy, was a security imperative — to erode the strength of an expanding terrorist base. At least 50 attacks inside Israel this year originated here, officials said. The 12 Palestinians killed in the operation were all known militants, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
But for families trapped in the camp by fighting, it was 44 hours of terror. Thousands of residents did manage to flee. Others hunkered down in bedrooms and bathrooms. Few suffered the range of horrors endured by the Shiblys.
Hussein, 69, was up late watching television Sunday, his usual routine after years spent working the night shift at an Israeli meat processing plant. He was born in this camp, where at least 14,000 people, possibly many more, are packed into an area measuring less than half a square kilometer. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. Raids by Israeli commandos are common.
That night, rumors of a big operation were swirling. But no one knew what was coming.
Around 1 a.m. Monday, Hussein saw a report on Israeli news: IDF soldiers had entered the camp. Then he heard drones, many of them. “They are going to bomb,” he thought. Then came an explosion.
The Shibly family lives in nine apartments in three connected houses owned by Hussein and his two brothers. They are accustomed to Israeli raids. Within minutes, dozens of members of the extended family had rushed to the basement.
Almost 50 people were crowded in the low dark spaces that Hussein’s nephew Fadi uses to breed parakeets. Scores of birds fluttered and screeched as gun battles raged outside. All through the night and all day Monday, the family listened and waited, lighting candles after the power went out a few hours into the fight.
“The children were terrified,” Hussein said.
But Fadi, 34, worried about his pregnant wife and 3-year-old son in the crowded basement, stayed in his second-floor apartment. With his family huddled low in a living room, Fadi kept watch through a small bathroom window.
The Shibly compound, high on a steep street, commands a wide view of the camp. He could see Israeli troops moving below. Neighbors called neighbors with updates.
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“Now they are going into Jaffar’s,” Fadi recalled. “Now they are raiding your cousin’s house.”
Around 11 p.m. Monday, he got this call: “Fadi, they are coming to you.”
He heard a racket downstairs, and, suddenly, the two doors of his apartment crashed in simultaneously, shattering the frames. About 12 soldiers poured in, all clad in body armor and wearing headlamps.
Fadi, with his son crying in his arms and his wife clutching his side, stood before them and pleaded in Hebrew: “Easy! Easy! A little one here!” he remembers saying.
“Your ID,” the leader commanded in Arabic. “Where are the terrorists?”
The soldiers blew out the candles, cuffed Fadi with plastic ties and ordered the three into the living room. Through the open door, they watched the troops search through cupboards. One set up at the wide kitchen window. Soon, he began firing in long bursts with his automatic rifle. Bullet casings fell by the hundreds onto the tile floor.
“Please!” Fadi shouted. “The boy is terrified.”
Below, the other family members were in despair. Fadi had stopped responding.
“We thought he was dead,” Hussein said. “The women were screaming and crying.”
The firing continued. Fadi’s wife asked to get a toy for the child, and a commander led Fadi to a bedroom filled with plastic trucks and scooters. When the soldier saw a toy machine gun by the door, he swore, Fadi said, hit him on the shoulder with his rifle butt and pushed him back to the living room.
They asked to join their family in the basement. The commander said no, Fadi recounted. They all would be leaving soon, he told them.
About midnight, calls came from a loudspeaker: “Get out! Get out! You will be safe.”
The people in the basement scrambled to gather documents and diapers and rushed to the courtyard, where they found a firetruck, a Red Crescent team and Fadi’s family. They surrounded them, hugging and crying, as a medic cut Fadi’s cuffs off.
“Walk out together,” a firefighter advised them. “Men should stay in a group with the women and children so they will not get shot.”
They picked their way down the lanes, over rubble and downed cables. One long street was plowed like a farm furrow where Israeli bulldozers had intentionally detonated explosives embedded in the pavement.
Once outside the camp, the family spread out to the homes of relatives. Hussein was glued to the television.
Late Tuesday, he saw reports that a shoulder-fired missile had struck near the Abdullah Azzam mosque in his neighborhood.
“I saw that it wasn’t the mosque that was harmed; it was our house,” he said. “I watched on TV, fire eating up my son’s house.”
It was still smoldering when he returned Wednesday morning, a few hours after Israeli forces pulled out of the Jenin camp. Fadi’s apartment was littered with bullet casings.
Hussein said that there had been no reason to target their compound — that no one in the family was involved with militant groups, and that none were wanted by the Israelis.
“We all have permits to work in Israel. They know us well,” said Hussein, recalling his years working side by side with Israeli Jews on a kosher-compliance team, led by a rabbi, that monitored animal health conditions.
The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on why the Shibly house might have been targeted.
On Friday, as a surveillance drone hovered overhead, life was returning to the compound. Women cooked in Hussein’s ground-floor apartment. Fadi tended to his birds. About 20 of them had died of lack of food during the incursion, he said.
The United Nations has called for donors to help rebuild Jenin. The United Arab Emirates pledged $15 million on Thursday. But Hussein is skeptical.
“We hear about money on the news, but we never see any of it,” he said. He has little faith that things will change. Jenin will remain poor, and Israeli forces will return.
“They will be back,” Hussein said. “They said they wanted to eliminate resistance in Jenin. But they will not.”