By Vasco Cotovio, Nic Robertson, Kareem Khadder and Luis-Graham Yooll, CNN
Mohammed Abu al-Hayja was sleeping alongside his wife and two young daughters last month when loud gunfire woke them up. Minutes later, Israeli soldiers rammed down his door and burst through his apartment.
“They spread through the house in seconds,” 29-year-old al-Hayja told CNN. “Two soldiers came up to me, told me to get up, one told me, ‘Leave your daughter with her mother,’ and then he took me and cuffed my hands behind my back.”
Al-Hayja’s traumatic run-in with Israeli security forces happened as they carried out what they described as a counterterrorism operation in the center of the Jenin refugee camp on January 26. The building they targeted is just a few meters from his home.
“The security forces operated to apprehend a terror squad belonging to the Islamic Jihad terror organization,” the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli Security Agency and the Israel Border Police said in a joint statement, hours after the raid.
Ten Palestinians were killed in Jenin, including an elderly woman, according to Palestinian officials. Another Palestinian was killed in what Israel Police called a “violent disturbance” near Jerusalem hours later, making it the deadliest day for Palestinians in the West Bank in over a year, according to CNN records. As violence spiraled in the region, at least seven people were killed and three injured in a shooting near a synagogue in Jerusalem a day later according to Israeli police.
In Jenin, Al-Hayja recalls the events of January 26 clearly, explaining that after being handcuffed an Israeli soldier took him to the bathroom and made him kneel down, before wrapping a towel around his head.
Restrained, blindfolded and stuck in his bathroom, al-Hayja then started hearing gunfire from inside his apartment. “I could hear it, and if I concentrated I could hear one of the soldiers talking to my wife,” he says.
Al-Hayja says he was able to convince the soldiers to let him go to his wife. Still blindfolded, he crawled to his living room, as bullets flew above him.
Israeli soldiers had removed one of his couches and set up a firing position by the window to provide cover for their units engaging Palestinian gunmen nearby. Using apartments like al-Hayja’s to provide cover fire is “standard operating procedure,” a spokesman for the Israeli military told CNN.
Representatives of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) visited Jenin in the days after the incident and spoke to al-Hayja and his family. “Their children were noticeably traumatized,” Adam Bouloukos, director of UNRWA Affairs in the West Bank told CNN. “This kind of invasion violates not only international law but common decency.”
As Israeli soldiers fired, the Palestinian gunmen fired back, holes from their bullets dotting the family home’s doors and walls. Al-Hayja showed CNN a bag of spent bullet casings he says the Israeli soldiers left behind. “They fired a crazy number of bullets,” he added.
While they did, al-Hayja and his wife lay on the floor clutching their young daughters for more than three hours. Their oldest daughter is 2-and-a-half, the youngest 18-months-old. “Honestly, I thought I had maybe 1% chance of making it out alive,” he said.
Moments later an explosion rocked the apartment. He later found out that Israeli soldiers had mounted a second firing position in his bedroom.
They sawed off the window bars and fired a rocket at the building the gunmen were in, with scorch marks smudging al-Hayja’s ceiling.
“I said to myself, we are going to die,” he said.
A traumatized community
From atop al-Hayja’s building, the sprawling Jenin refugee camp spreads toward the horizon and up the hills. What were once temporary tents, is now a more permanent-looking slum of sandstone houses, cobbled on top of each other.
Down below, lies the building targeted by Israeli soldiers. The structure was so damaged after the raid that local officials decided it was safer to bulldoze it down. On the rubble, people have placed banners with the faces of some of those killed — “martyrs,” they read — and a lone Palestinian flag.
While this operation was one of the deadliest in years, for residents here, such Israeli incursions occur all too often. Posters remembering other people killed in confrontations with Israeli security forces over the years line walls across the neighborhood.
The IDF says these raids are targeted, aimed at terrorists, and that they open fire when those they are searching for fire at them.
But people in Jenin see it differently. “The Israelis raid the camp and they fire at anything that moves,” paramedic Abdel-Rahman Macharqa told CNN.
The 31-year-old has seen multiple gun battles in Jenin and says the situation is becoming increasingly riskier, even for those who save lives, like him.
“They [Israeli soldiers] have fired at me five times,” Macharqa said. “We don’t feel safe, even in uniform.”
“When we say goodbye to our wives and children to come to work, we know we could become martyrs,” he added.
Macharqa witnessed part of the raid in Jenin as it unfolded on January 26. The paramedic tried to help one of the three civilians whom Israeli officials say were killed there, along with seven gunmen.
“They opened fired on him and he was hit three times,” he recalled. Macharqa said he pulled the man away and attempted to resuscitate him, but he died.
“We deserve to live,” Macharqa said. He feels frustrated, not just by Israeli actions, but also what he sees as the passive attitude and double standards of the international community.
“Israelis claim he is a terrorist, but Ukrainians, when they defend themselves from the Russian invasion is that terrorism?,” he asked.
‘Born into the war’
On the day of the raid, Ziad Miri’ee peaked out of his door after he heard gunfire. He saw an Israeli soldier firing through his car to hit a young man from his neighborhood.
“Our neighbors over there tried to pull him out (of the street),” he said. “The kid died.”
Miri’ee, 63, says he was one of the Jenin camp’s oldest residents, but he also believes the situation has been getting worse.
“In 2002, when they raided the camp and bulldozed the houses it was much easier than the three-and-a-half hours of last week’s raid,” he said. At the time, during the second intifada, Israeli forces occupied the camp, destroying around 400 homes.
“2002 was a child play compared to the incident here last week. We couldn’t step a meter outside the house because the bullets were coming in,” he said.
Miri’ee believes the situation is bound to get even worse, as frustration with the occupation grows, the lack of future on the horizon is driving more and more young people to join the ranks of militant organizations such as the Islamic Jihad.
“Yes, there’s more [fighters] from this generation,” he says. “This generation was born into the war.”
Upstairs from Miri’ee, al-Hayja is still shaken by the traumatic experience. Inside his home there’s no room for bravado, just concern over the safety of his daughters.
“I don’t interfere or get involved in these things, I just go from my work to my house and it all landed on my head,” he said. “You are in your city and you are not safe, you are in your house and you are not safe.”
“You are not safe from this occupier who occupies your land” he added. “You are not safe at all.”
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