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April 2002 Invasion

From the ruins of Jenin, the truth about an atrocity

By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem
London Independent
April 20, 2002

All the dead in Jenin refugee camp have yet to be collected from the putrid ruins, but a new battle has already begun. It is being fought not with bullets, but words.

Israel has launched a huge publicity drive to counter the international community’s anger over the events of the last fortnight. The prize—ultimately—is history itself.

Israel’s task has been made easier by Palestinian officials who rushed to declare a “massacre”—an allegation which has not been proved.

Israel’s host of government spokesmen and its media have seized on such claims to mount an argument tantamount to saying that, as there is no proof of a massacre, there is no case to answer at all. This is akin to a policeman being called out to investigate a murder, and—finding only a rape—ignoring the crime altogether.

But enough is already known about what went on in Jenin to say Israel has committed an appalling atrocity.

Israel dispatched its army into Jenin refugee camp on 2 April on a mission to root out the “terrorist infrastructure”. There is no doubt that the camp’s warren of dwellings, home to around 13,000 people, was a stronghold of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad—groups which have dispatched numerous suicide bombers to commit murder in Israel.

The army—which came in with Apache helicopters, tanks, bulldozers and ground troops—met with unexpectedly fierce resistance. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed, of whom 13 died on 9 April in an ambush. The army replied by razing hundreds of homes, some of which had people inside. The Israeli army says warnings were given to civilians before the bulldozing began. Journalists have found Palestinians from the camp who were warned and others who were not.

Amnesty International has a dossier of statements taken by an expert in international law. It says there is a pattern of witnesses who say homes were bulldozed with large numbers of civilians inside, who were given no option of evacuation. Citing these, Derrick Pounder, professor of forensic medicine at Dundee University, has concluded that reports of large numbers of civilian dead are “highly credible”.

Nor is there any doubt that the Israeli armed forces blocked access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN ambulances for six days, preventing them from recovering bodies, treating the injured and providing aid to hundreds of traumatised civilians—including children—who had remained inside the camp.

Israel imposed this ban when there was every reason to believe there were live bodies in the rubble. There was, and still is, an unknown number of uncollected corpses, their presence announced by the evil smell emanating from the ruins.

Palestinians speak of other atrocities, with varying degrees of plausibility. There are persistent stories, such as the case of Jamal Mahmoud Fayed, a mentally handicapped man in his 30s. Witnesses say he was killed in his home after the bulldozer driver ignored his family’s pleas to stop. Claims of a mass grave and executions—denied by Israel—continue.

When The Independent visited the devastated scene on Monday, we were led by Kamal Anis to a mound. He insisted that this was where he saw the army bring down a house on top of a grave containing 30 people.

Sitting on the pile of dust that used to be his house, Mr Anis yesterday described how the Israeli soldiers ordered people out of their homes. One of the residents, Jamal al-Sbagh, was deaf. He said the soldiers ordered all the men to take off their clothes. Mr Sbagh could not hear the order. It appears one of the Israeli soldiers thought he was deliberately disobeying them and shot him dead on the spot.

A senior foreign diplomat has interviewed about 30 wounded survivors, dealing only with first-hand witnesses. He says his accounts included an individual trying to surrender who was shot; people inside houses which were knocked down on top of them, and one case of a soldier throwing a stun grenade into a roomful of people having turned on the gas beforehand. Certainly, some accounts will prove inaccurate. But are all these people lying? And what about the Israeli army? It has always insisted it takes every effort to avoid civilian casualties. Yet its record over the last 18 months is one of persistent attacks on Palestinian civilians, including children. The issue now is whether those who wish to rewrite history to bury the Jenin atrocities will succeed. They might.

A year ago, Israel launched its first “incursion” into the Gaza Strip. The Americans were furious and Mr Sharon pulled out his forces within 24 hours. The Israeli prime minister now ignores repeated demands from the US to leave Palestinian-run areas; the army comes and goes at will.

In June last year, Israel launched the first F-16 attacks against the West Bank and the world was duly appalled. These days F-16 raids barely raise an eyebrow. Perhaps we will soon regard the death and devastation in Jenin as acceptable. President George Bush has paved the way, referring to Mr Sharon—as the horrors of Jenin were emerging—as “a man of peace”.

Israel argues it is the victim of double standards. Its officials rightly say that Palestinian groups who dispatch suicide bombers to kill and maim Israelis pay no heed whatsoever to the Geneva Conventions. But the terrorism of Hamas can scarcely be used to justify the terrorism of a sovereign country that trumpets its democratic values.

Israel also knows the true number of dead will never be known (the UN’s list of the residents in Jenin is thought to be inaccurate). Its officials will always be able to challenge any list of the missing, presumed dead, that emerges.

After seeing the devastation in Jenin on Thursday, Terje-Roed Larsen, the UN’s Middle East envoy, declared it to be “a blot that will live forever on the history of Israel”.

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than the personal attacks began. Mr Larsen was an “enthusiastic supporter of Yasser Arafat”, declared Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper. And Israel? It was the victim of “hatred, hostility and hollow, baseless criticism”.

Tell that to the people digging with bare hands through the rubble of Jenin yesterday.

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Additional Resources

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Report – The Jenin Inquiry


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