Operation Defensive Shield and the Battle for Jenin, 2002 Part I

In September 2000 the Palestinian people, represented by Yasser Arafat, his Fatah Party, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), began a low-intensity war against the state of Israel over a spectrum of grievances ranging from the original founding of Israel in 1948, to the failure of the Palestinian–Israeli peace talks brokered by US President Bill Clinton. That war was known as the Second Intifada, or the Al Aqsa Intifada. The Arabic word Intifada is translated as “uprising,” and from 2000 to 2005 it manifested as strikes, protests, and a clandestine war of rocket and terror attacks against Israel by various Palestinian groups. The Intifada ended in 2005 when a series of events including the death of Yasser Arafat dramatically decreased the terrorist attacks from within the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

The violence waged against Israel increased to unprecedented levels in 2002 and early 2003. Attacks were occurring inside Israel at a rate of one every three to four days. In March 2003 the violence reached a new level: nine attacks occurred between March 2 and 5. These were followed by suicide bomber attacks on March 9, 20, and 21, as well as numerous gun and grenade attacks. The attacks culminated with the suicide bomb attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya on March 27, which left 30 dead and 130 injured. March became one of the bloodiest months of the Intifada as 130 Israelis died in terrorist attacks. The Israeli government, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, responded by ordering the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to take action to prevent further attacks. The response from the IDF was Operation Defensive Shield.

Operation Defensive Shield was a large Israeli offensive military operation designed to significantly degrade the ability of a variety of Palestinian groups to attack Israel. The plan called for a massive movement of conventional Israeli military forces into the occupied West Bank territory to seize and destroy bomb factories and weapons caches, as well as kill or arrest Palestinian militant fighters, leaders, bomb-makers, and financiers. It was the largest military operation in the occupied West Bank area since Israel seized the territory from Jordan in 1967.

The concept of the operation was to rapidly, and in overwhelming force, occupy the Palestinian urban areas which were the bases from which various organizations staged terrorist operations into Israel. In phase one, the towns would be secured and access to the towns would become controlled. In phase two, the IDF would systematically raid known or suspected bomb-making facilities, and search residences suspected of harboring weapons or known members of terrorist groups. In the course of these operations the IDF planned to arrest and detain known or suspected members of a variety of terrorist groups. Specific raids were also planned to kill or arrest specific members of the terrorist leadership.

The Palestinian leadership did expect a response from the IDF, but they did not know exactly what form that response would take. The size and complexity of the operation came as a complete surprise to Yasser Arafat. The only Palestinian area that was prepared for the Israeli assault was the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. Under very able leaders, the Palestinian fighters in Jenin had some time to prepare a relatively sophisticated defense of the part of the city in which they were based. This was one of the reasons that Jenin became one of the centers of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli offensive.

The Dilemma of the West Bank

The total population of the area called the West Bank was about three million residents including over half a million Israeli settlers. Most of the people lived in the major urban centers of the area. The population was predominately of Arab descent and Muslim (75 percent). The Arab Muslim population divided into two major groups: the original inhabitants of the region, and refugees who had come to the West Bank from Israel, mostly during and following the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. The refugee population numbered approximately 800,000 individuals, living in 19 camps. Two significant minority communities lived in the region: Christian enclaves which had been integrated into the communities of the region for centuries made up approximately 8 percent of the population; and Jewish settlers, who had moved into the region and established highly segregated communities after the Israeli conquest of the area in 1967, made up about 17 percent.

The six objectives of Operation Defensive Shield were the six most populous cities in the West Bank: Jenin, with a population of approximately 50,000; Tulkkarm, approximately 55,000; Qalqiliya, approximately 40,000; Nablus, approximately 125,000; Ramallah, approximately 25,000; and Bethlehem, with a population of approximately 25,000. In total about 325,000 civilians lived in the urban areas subject to Israeli operations. Though most of the population was sympathetic to the attacks on Israel, only a small portion was actively engaged in supporting terrorist activity.

Large Palestinian refugee camps were located adjacent or near five of the six urban areas targeted by the Israelis (the exception being Qalqiliya). The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) established the refugee camps in 1948, but they were camps in name only. More than 60 years after they were established, the camps resembled typical poor Middle Eastern neighborhoods. In many ways they were similar to the type of complex casbah building configuration that the French army had faced in Algiers. The buildings were low two- to three-storied flat-roofed buildings, made of concrete and brick, built around courtyards and narrow alleys. Most housed multiple families, and often a small group of buildings housed members of an extended family. The streets were typically wide enough for a small car, but many were pedestrian access only and just a few feet wide. The camps were integrated into the local communities economically, though they maintained a strong self-identity. The camps were largely self-administering, and had all of the amenities of the surrounding community including power and water. In some camps, such as the one in Jenin, local militant groups dominated the population, despite the presence of PA police and administrators. In total, approximately 180,000 refugees resided in the 10 camps associated with the cities targeted by the IDF.

The Israeli army was divided into an active force and a large reserve force. For Operation Defensive Shield, 30,000 reservists were called to active duty, allowing the IDF to mobilize several reserve brigades and division headquarters. The IDF ground forces were organized into three commands: Southern, Central, and Northern. The Central Command commanded Operation Defensive Shield while Southern Command monitored the Gaza Strip and the Northern Command remained focused on Syria. Each command had two to three active divisions, each commanded by a brigadier general; each active division had one to three brigades. The primary combat formation of the IDF ground forces was the brigade, which was assigned to a division but which, for operations, could be assigned to any division headquarters depending on the needs of the mission. IDF brigades were of three types: armor, mechanized infantry, and paratrooper. The brigades participating in Defensive Shield were either mechanized infantry, or paratrooper. Elements of the armored corps, as well as special forces, engineers, and air force attack helicopters, supported the infantry brigades. Each of the major objectives (cities) of the operation was assigned to an active division headquarters, and that division commanded the various brigades and supporting units attacking that particular city.

The IDF operations in the West Bank were aimed at disrupting three terrorist organizations, and by implication they also had to deal with a fourth organization that was armed and a potential adversary. The latter was the PA police forces. These forces were responsible for law and order in the West Bank, and were loyal to the PA led by Yasser Arafat. Thus, although they were not actively attacking Israel, they were expected to oppose the IDF incursion into the West Bank. There were three primary militant groups in the West Bank. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade specialized in suicide bombings as well as gun attacks. In 2002 they were covertly sponsored by the Fatah party, a relationship that was only admitted to after Operation Defensive Shield. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad was a small but deadly group that originated in Egypt and after several migrations was based out of Damascus, Syria. They had a close association with the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon and through them with Iran. The last important active terrorist group opposing the Israelis in 2002 was Hamas. Hamas was the political rival of Fatah and had its strongest support in Gaza. However, like the other groups, it had a strong presence in the West Bank. Hamas was responsible for the very deadly Park Hotel attack just prior to the Israeli offensive. All three groups used the urban centers of the West Bank as bases for operations in and against Israel. They also used those bases to manufacture weapons, as recruiting and training stations, and to plan and conduct propaganda campaigns.

The IDF Responds to the Terrorist Attacks

Operation Defensive Shield began on March 29 as Israeli military forces launched into the West Bank to seize control of the city of Ramallah. The major objective in Ramallah was the headquarters of the PA and Fatah, and its leader Yasser Arafat. The IDF attacked Ramallah with a combined infantry and armor force supported by attack helicopters. IDF forces quickly penetrated into Arafat’s Tegart Fort compound and surrounded him in the offices of one building. By the end of the day the IDF had secured the city with no losses to the attacking forces. A curfew was imposed and the IDF then began to systematically seek and arrest known and suspected terrorists. Over 700 individual arrests were made. Thirty defending Palestinian militants and PA police were killed. Arafat remained in his headquarters, with all communications cut off, under house arrest, until May.

Two days after the seizure of Ramallah, April 1, the IDF seized the two border towns of Tulkarm and Qalqiliya. The IDF operations were not seriously resisted in either town. In Tulkarm nine militants were killed and the Tegart Fort used as the headquarters for the PA in the city was destroyed by an air strike. The next day IDF forces moved across the border into Bethlehem. That operation, thought to be relatively simple, turned into an international incident as the IDF surrounded and laid siege to 32 militants and over 200 hostages in the Christian Church of Saint Mary, thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

No substantial fighting units were thought to be in Bethlehem and the city itself borders on Israel proper, so staging and moving into the city were not considered major problems. For this reason, the mission was assigned to the IDF Reserve Jerusalemite Brigade, an IDF reserve unit. There was a high-value person list for Bethlehem whose arrests were a priority task of the operation. The IDF knew, from previous experience, that one course of action the militants could pursue, if given the opportunity, was flee to the Church of Saint Mary. This had happened on at least one previous occasion. For this reason the Jerusalemite Brigade was supported in its mission by the elite Air Force Shaldag commando unit (also known as Unit 5101). One of the commando’s missions was to secure the church to prevent its use as a sanctuary.

The operation was executed against sporadic and ineffective resistance and the town quickly came under IDF control. However, the Shaldag unit was delivered by Israeli Air Force helicopters to its positions a half hour late. That was sufficient time for armed militants to escape capture and find sanctuary in the Catholic church, and to take hostages. The church was quickly surrounded by IDF infantry and tanks and a 39-day siege began. Over the course of the next five weeks, the siege and IDF tactics and actions were subjected to the scrutiny of the international media and the subject of much diplomacy. During the siege, eight militants were shot and killed by IDF snipers stationed around the building. Two Israeli border police were wounded in one of the several small firelights that occurred. In the end, however, the siege was ended diplomatically with all the hostages released unharmed, and 39 militants going into exile in Sicily and Europe.

The major focus of Operation Defensive Shield was the two urban areas attacked on April 2 and 3, Nablus and Jenin. Nablus was considered the most difficult mission for several reasons: it was located deepest in the West Bank, it was the largest in total population, and it had the most refugee camps and the largest refugee population at over 70,000. Because of this the mission of seizing the city was assigned to the active army West Bank Division under Brigadier General Yitzhak Gershon. For the mission the division had two veteran Israeli brigades: the Northern Command’s Golani Infantry Brigade and the Paratrooper Brigade. The IDF activated a reserve armor brigade and assigned it to the division to provide support for the infantry.

Operations in Nablus began on April 3 and took about five days to complete. By April 8 the last militant fighters holding out in the old city casbah decided to surrender. The Israeli plan to capture the city was relatively simple. The Paratrooper brigade was responsible for clearing the Balata Refugee Camp, the largest in the West Bank with over 20,000 residents packed into a maze of buildings in .25km2. The brigade would then move west and enter the casbah, the old city quarter. The Golani Brigade moved through the city and attacked the old city quarter directly. Both brigades were extremely successful in accomplishing their mission of killing or capturing militants while at the same time minimizing civilian casualties, collateral damage, and most importantly, minimizing Israeli casualties, but they took dramatically different tactical approaches to achieving their aim.

The Golani Brigade, as mechanized infantry, took an equipment-centric approach to attacking Nablus. The general tactic was to work as an engineer, infantry, armor team. Tanks overwatched the tactics and suppressed enemy fire or potential enemy positions with machine-gun and tank fire. If the building being assaulted was occupied, the tank softened it up with fire from its main gun. The infantry assault was led by an engineer D9 bulldozer. The armored bulldozer was impervious to all Palestinian fire and it cleared the approach to the building of booby-traps, mines, and in many cases widened the alley or street so that it was large enough for the infantry carriers and tanks to follow. Once at the building, the D9 used its blade to collapse a wall and then withdrew. The dozer was followed by an Achzarit heavy armored personnel carrier. The carrier brought the infantry right to the building where they dismounted and attacked into the building through the breach created by the dozer. This method was a slow, firepower-intensive method that did a lot of damage to buildings but kept the advancing IDF force under armor protection most of the time. Special forces snipers also worked with the advancing mechanized force, picking off Palestinian fighters at long range as they attempted to flee, or maneuvered against the flanks of the advancing vehicles and infantry.

A different, but no less effective approach was used by the paratroopers. Though they had access to attached mechanized infantry, tanks and dozers, the paratroopers as a standard did not have the firepower or armored protection of the mechanized infantry so they could not use the same tactics. The paratroopers advanced using tried and true urban fighting techniques. As a tactical standard they refused to recognize and use windows and doors, and instead advanced primarily through the interior spaces of adjoining buildings. The paratrooper technique was to create mouse holes between buildings using explosives or pick axes, and move by squads along multiple planned routes, each route planned through a series of adjoining buildings. Stairs were also avoided and the troops moved between floors by blasting holes through floors and ceilings. The goal of the paratrooper advance was to reach their objective without ever appearing on the open street or alley. The paratroopers also employed their snipers to great effect. The snipers, firing from concealed positions and great distances, picked off targets as the advancing infantry forced the defending Palestinians to retreat or reposition.

As the Palestinian militants lost men and were gradually forced back they were equally frustrated by their losses and their inability to inflict any significant damage on the attacking IDF forces. Finally, in the face of dwindling resources, lack of success, and mounting casualties, the Palestinian groups in the casbah surrendered. The IDF suffered only one casualty in the battle and that was due to friendly fire. The Palestinian defenders lost approximately 70 fighters. Most surprising, given that intense combat in the midst of a large civilian population continued for five days, was the lack of significant collateral damage. Only eight civilians were killed in the fighting in Nablus, and despite employing bulldozers, tanks, and demolitions, only four buildings were completely destroyed, though hundreds were significantly damaged. The IDF took several hundred prisoners in the battle and killed or arrested numerous top-level experienced militant leaders.

Operation against militants in Jenin began on April 2, the day before the attack at Nablus, with IDF forces moving into the city and sealing it off from outside communications and support. Of the two cities, the IDF analysis was the Jenin operation would be the easier to accomplish: the city was not nearly as big as Nablus, it was very close to the Israeli border, the refugee population was less than half the size of that in Nablus, and all the refugees were located in a single camp. Because of these considerations, the forces assigned to Jenin were not as robust: the mission was assigned to a reserve division commanding the 5th Reserve Infantry Brigade, reinforced by a battalion from the Golani Brigade as well as special forces, armor, and engineers.

The IDF forces operating in Jenin were organized under Reserve Division No. 340 under the command of Brigadier General Eyal Shlein. The 5th Reserve Infantry Brigade and a battalion of the Golani Brigade occupied the city of Jenin on April 2, 2002, and by the end of the first day they had the bulk of the city under control. That was the prelude to the major part of the operation which was to move into and establish control of the Jenin Refugee Camp. The Jenin Refugee Camp was located in the southwest portion of the city; it was only about 0.5km2 (one-fifth square mile). Access into the refugee camp was carefully controlled by a consortium of Palestinian militant groups who had erected barricades and checkpoints on every avenue into the camp. On April 2, using loudspeakers, the IDF broadcast its intention to occupy the camp and requested all civilians leave the area of military operations. Most of the camp’s 16,000 residents chose to evacuate the camp, however many did not leave until the lead army units began to move into the area. Still, 1,000–4,000 civilians remained in the camp throughout the fighting, alongside several hundred dedicated militant fighters.

The several hundred fighters in the city of Jenin were different from any other group of fighters yet met by the Israelis during Operation Defensive Shield. Though, like the militants in the other cities, they comprised members of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority security forces, this group within Jenin decided to subordinate themselves to a unified command inside the camp. This unusual situation was due to the presence of Abu Jandal, who was a uniquely capable and charismatic leader. He was a veteran of the Iraqi army, had fought in Southern Lebanon, and was the leader of the coalition of the various militant groups in Jenin. He understood that though it was impossible to beat the Israelis militarily, it was very possible to achieve a strategic political victory in Jenin, while losing the tactical battle in the camp. To do this they needed to make the taking of the camp a lengthy, and most importantly, casualty-producing battle for the IDF.

On April 3, after completely isolating the city from all outside communications and access, including ensuring that no media organizations had access to the operation, the IDF entered the camp. The 5th Brigade moved into the camp slowly and methodically from the northeast. They were very wary of exposing themselves to casualties. Many of the reservists were less than enthusiastic about being called to active service with no notice, and some disagreed with the political policy behind the operation. They were also nervous because they had almost no training in urban warfare techniques. At Nablus a reserve tank crew had refused to obey orders to attack into the city because they felt unprepared for urban battle. A brigade commander eventually convinced the soldiers to go into battle. At Jenin there were no combat refusals, but the 5th Brigade’s officers were very conscious of the soldiers’ lack of training in urban combat. The brigade also had leadership challenges. The brigade commander had only taken command of the brigade a few days before the operation began. On the first day of operations in the city a very experienced company commander was killed by a militant. This resulted in the officers approaching the battle with even more caution than usual, and the 5th Brigade advanced slowly and methodically throughout the battle.

As the 5th Brigade moved slowly and steadily to breach the perimeter of the camp, the IDF complicated the defenders’ problems by launching another attack from the southwest. This attack was conducted by Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade. In addition, a company from the Nahal Brigade attacked the camp from the southeast. Both of the main attacks, the 5th Brigade and the attack of Battalion 51, were supported by special forces and air force Apache attack helicopter. Elements of the elite Shayetet 13 (naval commandos) and Duvdevan (counterterrorist commandos) special forces units were operating in the city as well. However, jet aircraft support and artillery support, as in Nablus, were prohibited.

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