The bulletproof jeep stopped in a narrow alley, shrouded in smoke and fire, in the Nur Shams refugee camp, near the city of Tulkarm in Samaria, a stone’s throw from Route 6, Israel’s main north-south highway, and 10 miles from Netanya on the Mediterranean coast.
We got out next to a house sprayed with bullets from a brief shooting encounter. Several soldiers stood and looked at me, bewildered, a civilian in the heart of the war.
“You are the first Israeli journalist to come to Nur Shams since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002,” smiled one of the officers. We entered one of the houses. A child’s bicycle, a toddler’s swing and several Osher Ad and Rami Levy reusable supermarket bags greeted us.
We heard a loud explosion in the distance as we went further inside. Then we went out to what used to be part of the house, and there we saw enough explosive charges to wipe out a company of soldiers.
A short while after the assassination of Hamas No. 2 Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, hundreds of soldiers went into Nur Shams. Five battalions of combat soldiers, a tremendous amount of firepower; this was the 10th military operation in about two weeks. They have been sweeping for terrorists and their armaments, house to house, taking apart combat infrastructures that were built there over many years. As of Jan. 3, more than 200 suspects had been detained for questioning.
Terrorists who threw explosives were attacked from the air. Dozens of explosives were discovered as well as a large number of computers and military equipment, binoculars and army uniforms.
In recent years the Judea and Samaria refugee camps have become havens of terrorism. Due to their high population density and the fact that some are located in the heart of Area A, administered by the Palestinian Authority, the IDF had avoided entering these areas, which involve a huge risk to the troops, and entered only in protected vehicles.
More attempts to carry out terrorist attacks inside pre-1967 Israel are only a matter of time. Most refugee camps are located a very short distance from the center of the country. Within the Menashe Regional Brigade’s area of responsibility are the infamous refugee camps of Jenin and Nur Shams, as well as the Tulkarm camp, where IDF fighters have not yet operated intensively.
Turn the wheel back
Now, simultaneously with the war in Gaza, the IDF Judea and Samaria Division has set out to eliminate the threat facing the most populated area of Israel. The new division commander, Brig. Gen. Yaakov Dolf, and the Menashe Brigade commander, Lt. Col. Ayoub Kayouf, are leading aggressive military missions, aimed at destroying terrorist capabilities.
Dozens of large-scale military operations have been carried out in Nur Shams, with the stated goal of turning the wheel back—in other words, to enable Israeli forces to operate with full freedom of action, just as elsewhere else in Judea and Samaria.
“Our vision is that we will be free to act in the refugee camps, just as in any other neighborhood in Palestinian cities. This is already happening in the Jenin refugee camp,” said a senior officer in the Judea and Samaria Division. The IDF believes this goal can be achieved within a few weeks, if the fighting continues at the current intensity.
We traveled in a protected jeep, on what was a road less than 24 hours ago. Beneath it, powerful mines had been discovered, capable of causing severe damage to our forces. Nur Shams is extremely crowded, with 1,300 buildings and 10,000 residents. Many murderous attacks have originated there. This is a dense and dangerous pressure cooker, which is now being neutralized by IDF soldiers.
“The terrorists made extensive use of civilian homes as laboratories for the production of explosives; hospitals as places of refuge, and mosques as locations for firing on IDF soldiers,” says the senior officer. “There is a mosque here from which they shoot on a daily basis, and its entire surroundings are completely booby-trapped.
“Today we returned to the building where terrorists had set up a war room and an explosives laboratory, and found that they had re-established the laboratory. This is a Sisyphean task but we are seeing changes on the ground.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Rotem, commander of the 420th Battalion, stands near the dozens of explosive charges that were found.
“The battalion came here last night and started searching. We found an explosives laboratory with charges of various sizes. There was a pressure cooker, and even large boilers, filled with explosives,” Rotem relates. Firing is heard very close by, and a loud explosion shakes the area. Fighting is in full swing.
Protect the road
We meet Lt. Col. (res.) Tzuri, commander of Battalion 9306, in quite a magnificent building. For almost three months, his soldiers have been carrying out intensive missions and making many arrests in places where no Israeli had set foot in decades.
“If you had told me a few months ago that reserve battalions would be walking around in the heart of the toughest refugee camps in Judea and Samaria, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says.
“We are only a stone’s throw from the center of the country, and our job is to restore the sense of security that has been lost. I used to drive on Route 6 once a week and now my goal is to protect this road. To defeat terrorism.”
Originally published by Israel Hayom.