Skip to comments.Jenin: the bloody truth
Posted on 04/21/2002 10:28:29 AM PDT by RWCon
Was it a massacre? in the ruins of the refugee camp found cold comfort for propagandists on either side
THE first medical teams allowed into the Jenin refugee camp last week followed the chickens. Human senses were overwhelmed by the devastation and the stench of death, but the birds were not distracted. They were hungry. Two rusty-coloured fowl pecking away at a bundle in the street drew a Red Cross team to the remains of Jamal Sabagh.
He wasn't really recognisable to an untrained eye. His body had been lying there for more than a week. The Israeli army had banned ambulances from the camp for 11 days, and neighbours were too terrified to go to him.
Tank tracks led to his body, over it and onwards through the mud. What had once been a young man was rotting flesh mingled with shredded clothing, mashed into the earth. One foot was all that looked human.
Sabagh was no fighter, his brother and friends say. He was 28 and a father of three. His wife and children had fled on the first day of the Israeli invasion, Wednesday, April 3, but he stayed because he was diabetic and was too ill to run away. He was also afraid he would be mistaken for a fighter.
Two days later, he left his house when the Israelis yelled over megaphones that they were going to blow it up. He walked, directed by soldiers in armoured personnel carriers, with other men to Seha Street at the centre of the camp, carrying his bag of medicines. He joined the crowd. Soldiers yelled at him to take off his shirt, then his trousers. He clung to his bag of medicine as he tried to unbuckle his belt, and he was slow. The soldiers shot him, friends say.
Medical workers shooed away the chickens, wrapped Sabagh's remains in a rug, then lifted them into the back of a small open-bed truck. It drove off, past burned and shell-holed buildings, looking like a medieval plague wagon.
Across the narrow street was a forlorn pile of men's jeans, polyester tracksuit tops and cheap shoes - left by those who had got their clothes off in time, to prove they had no bombs strapped to their bodies, and had been taken to the Israeli army base at the nearby village of Salem.
As the rescue teams spread out over Jenin camp last week, after the Israeli army claimed victory in its battle against several hundred armed Palestinian radicals, it was clear something cataclysmic had occurred.
Instead of the Hawamish neighbourhood -previously a jumble of mismatched cinderblock homes - a vista lay open to the hills beyond.
Stunned and dusty in this new world, returning Palestinians wandered around a moonscape the size of two football pitches. It was littered with the detritus of human life - blankets, a little girl's tartan skirt, a child's orange boxing glove, shoes, a musical keyboard. Women in hijab headscarves dug at the crushed rubble with buckets and bare hands. Five-year-old Ahmed Hindi cried: "I want to go home." He didn't know he was standing on it.
Images of this man-made earthquake zone have flashed around the world as evidence that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is responsible for another war crime in Jenin on a par with the massacre of Palestinians in the Chatila and Sabra refugee camps in Beirut 20 years ago.
Israel has responded that the devastation was the consequence of a pitched battle against entrenched terrorists.
What really happened? Tragedy doesn't necessarily breed truth. The propaganda war had begun before the white dust settled over Jenin.
Rafi Laderman, a personable Israeli reserve major, emerged from the battlefield and made the rounds of the media in his rumpled green uniform. His clear plastic spectacles signalled his real job as a marketing consultant.
Laderman insisted that all the buildings in the refugee camp had been destroyed by explosive booby traps set by the terrorists, or levelled by Israeli bulldozers because they "presented additional engineering difficulties" that could endanger civilians. He himself had stopped the fighting to lead Palestinian civilians to safety.
All that seemed disingenuous. Equally unlikely were Palestinian claims that the Israelis had killed 500 Palestinians in cold blood, most civilians, and buried them in mass graves under the rubble after running them over with tanks. Israel said about 70 had been killed.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, cut through the propaganda by stating the obvious: "No military operation can justify this scale of destruction. Whatever the purpose was, the effect is collective punishment of a whole society."
He and his family received telephone death threats from Israeli callers for his pains.
Under pressure from many sides - including the United States, Britain, the United Nations and the European Union - Israel has agreed to a UN fact-finding mission. The trouble with such missions, however, is that they become bogged down by obfuscation while evidence goes cold.
To get an objective idea of what happened in Jenin requires an almost forensic investigation, weeding out lies and half-truths and the rumours that a stunned and terrified population has come to believe are true. By doing so, I have come to conclusions that are unlikely to satisfy the propagandists of either side.
Jenin was bound to be a prime target for the Israeli military backlash after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 28 Israelis as they sat down to dinner in Netanya on Passover eve three weeks ago.
There has been a refugee camp in Jenin since the foundation of Israel in 1948 when Palestinians fled there from the Haifa area. The first residents worried only for their next rations and fretted impotently as their rich orange groves in Haifa were rebranded Jaffa oranges by Israel and exported around the world.
Since then, Jenin has become a stronghold of radical Palestinian nationalism with a population of 11,000 refugees. The Israeli defence force (IDF) believes half the suicide bombers who have struck Israel in the past year were trained in the Jenin refugee camp.
When the Israelis invaded Ramallah on March 29, in retaliation for the suicide bombings, radicals in Jenin knew they would be next. Sources there said local leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, including its militant Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades offshoots, organised small fighting cells that included members from each group.
At 2am on Wednesday April 3, five days after the invasion of Ramallah, Merkava tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumbled through Jenin and headed for the refugee camp on the edge of the city.
The Namal brigade and commandos entered from the west; the Golani brigade from the south; and the Fifth Brigade, a unit of reserve troops called up from their day jobs, went in under the command of Laderman.
The odds were far from equal. The Israelis had tanks, armoured personnel carriers and rocket-firing helicopter gunships. Its soldiers were in full battle gear with bulletproof vests, helmets and M-16s. Against them was a guerrilla force of several hundred men armed with Kalashnikovs and home-made bombs called kuwa - Arabic for elbow - manufactured from pieces of plumbing.
The two sides faced each other in a camp about 21/2 miles long by 1/2 mile wide. In this tiny battlefield the radicals not only resisted the might of the Israeli army longer than the combined Arab armies did in the 1967 six-day war, but turned themselves and their militant cause into the stuff of instant Palestinian legend.
"The fighting was the fiercest urban house-to-house fighting Israel has seen in 30 years," said Laderman.
The narrow dirt alleys provided perfect ambush hides for Palestinians who grew up in this maze. The Israelis tried to keep off the streets, progressing from house to house by breaking through the walls with explosives and hammers.
On the first night of the invasion, Israeli soldiers blew out the yellow metal door of Ismael Khatibs home in the Hawamish district and hauled him out to act as a human shield as they knocked on his neighbours' doors.
As they did so, two gunmen across the alley opened fire. Hugging Khatib in front of him with his left arm, an Israeli soldier balanced his M-16 on Khatib's right shoulder and fired back wildly.
Kuwa bombs were hurled by Palestinians. Khatib threw himself on the ground and crawled away, only to circle around and climb in his back window. "I felt like I died and came alive again," he says.
The next day another Israeli patrol crashed through the wall into his living room. They stayed, keeping him, his wife and children hostage in a room.
A far more serious ambush sealed the Hawamish area's fate. By Monday, April 8, most of the surviving gunmen had been forced into this neighbourhood. Early next day, 16 reservists of the Fifth Brigade moved into an alley in Hawamish, searching for a house to use as a lookout post. Their leader, Major Oded Golomb, set charges to blow the door.
As he did so, a Palestinian bomb exploded and gunmen began firing from the opposite roof. Thirteen Israelis were killed.
Israel's retribution was swift. Armoured bulldozers, two-storey behemoths as impregnable as a tank, began knocking down houses in Hawamish.
Hurriya Kreini was in her home with her family when an Israel bulldozer began destroying the house without warning. She and her husband managed to push their children out of a window before the house tumbled down.
By Thursday, April 11, Hawamish had disappeared. That was the day the Israeli operation officially ended, but hours after the Israelis announced that the last 35 fighters had surrendered (they ran out of ammunition) I stood in a village called Borqin looking down into the camp. The sound of heavy machinegun fire still rose from the valley. Helicopter gunships shot bursts of heavy-calibre bullets. Explosions sounded and white puffs rose above the camp.
The Israelis let in the outside world slowly and grudgingly. The camp was finally opened to international aid agencies on April 14, but journalists were barred. Until only two days ago, Israeli soldiers shot at journalists they spotted trying to slip through the olive groves that slope up from the camp, or along a back dirt road.
The obstruction fuelled speculation that the Israelis were trying to hide something. There were mass graves, some said; bodies had been hauled off in refrigerated trucks; others swore hundreds of bodies were under the bulldozed homes.
Israelis bridled. "Our mission was to penetrate into Jenin area and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and we did that," insisted the ubiquitous Laderman. "I have a five-year-old daughter and now I feel I can let her out in the playground."
I eventually gained access last Tuesday, walking in with as open a mind as I could muster.
Late in the day, when all was quiet, I was walking past the Jenin hospital. Nearby, women and children were slowly making their way back to temporary lodgings after a day trying to find their homes and relatives. An armoured personnel carrier pulled up at end of street behind us. The Palestinians took no notice - until the soldier in the turret opened fire straight down the street with his machinegun.
I dived for shelter. Children cried in terror. The soldier initially fired over our heads, but now bullets flashed by at chest height. The screams turned to moans as the APC headed towards us down the street.
It rolled into sight, stopped the gunfire and swivelled the huge barrel to point directly at us. Then the soldier waved his hand in anger, yelling: "Go, go." I think he just wanted everyone off the streets.
If I was now convinced by claims Israelis opened fire indiscriminately on civilians, weighing up the truth of other allegations would be much more difficult. Even what can seem obvious is not necessarily true.
From a house hit by a missile in the centre of what the Palestinians now call their own Ground Zero, rescue workers pulled human remains that people said were of a small child. They lay on a rug and seemed indeed very small to the eye. But when I found a doctor, he was dubious.
"This person has been reduced; I think in a fire," the doctor said. "See that bone?" He poked around and found a large thigh bone. Not a child.
When I tracked down the owner of the house, he said that four fighters had been holed up in his house firing on the Israelis when a missile hit it.
Scores of interviews in the camp did show consistency, however. Story after story - from people who had not yet met one another since they fled - indicated the Israelis had used Palestinians as human shields and had taken families hostage to protect their makeshift posts set up in their houses.
In a house overlooking Hawamish, the Sabagh family were sweeping out after having Israeli soldiers there for eight days. Trying to scrub off Hebrew slogans, Jamili Sabagh, 52, said the family were held in a tiny room upstairs.
"They gave us no food, no water. The room they put us in was too small for 13 people. They fed our dog to torment us, and not the children," she said. "Our home was a garbage heap when they left."
It is one of the few on the block untouched by missile strikes, a sign that it was indeed used as a post by the Israelis.
Ismahan Stati is a pretty, shy university student. Israeli soldiers came to her house on the third day and blew open the door, she said.
"They took me as a hostage," she said. "They were afraid."
They knocked on a nearby house, and when nobody answered they blew open the door with a grenade fired from a gun. In fact, Afaf Dusuqi, 52, had been slow coming to the door and was killed instantly by the shrapnel.
Afaf's mother held her body, covered in blood, and screamed for an ambulance but the soldiers fired into the house to drive her back. "I was shaking with fear," Stati recalled.
Outside the Dusuqi house, there is still blood on the concrete stoop, and there is a 6in hole in the yellow door where the lock used to be.
Afaf's body stayed in the house for five days until the family could smuggle it to the cemetery for burial in a hurried mass grave. I found her name scrawled on a stone where she will lie until her family can give her a proper burial. Doctors at the Razi hospital have her death certificate.
There is a bizarre twist to this story. A rumour began that Stati was a suicide bomber. The story started, her family believes, when a neighbour saw her standing in the group of soldiers, heard an explosion and ducked, then looked again to see the body of a woman.
The rumour is still around the camp, illustrating why every fact must be tracked down here.
Stories of cold-blooded executions were told to me in detail but could not be substantiated. A woman said she saw "with my own eyes" the execution of eight Hamas members and a 16-year-old boy who was the son of one of the men but had nothing to do with politics.
It sounded difficult to believe of the IDF, but she had a name. In the end, I found the true story; an awful tale, but not a cold-blooded assassination.
Fathi Chalabi, a bird-like elderly man, showed me where the Israelis had blown a hole in his door to enter his home at night. About 30 soldiers had forced their way in and separated out Chalabi, his son Wada'a, 32, and another man, Abed Sa'adi, 27, in the courtyard.
"They told us to face the wall and take off our shirts," Chalabi said. "They were looking for suicide bombers. But we were not. My son was the caretaker at school. He was one month from getting his university degree."
It was dark, and as Wada'a picked up his shirt, the Israelis spotted an elastic bandage he wore for back pain. Someone shouted in Hebrew. Chalabi remembers the officer's name was Gabi. They opened fire, hitting the two younger men, who fell on Chalabi.
The last he remembers is some kind of argument between the soldiers. Then they shone lights on the bodies and he played dead. "I was covered in Wada'a's blood," he said. The Israelis left up the alleyway. Dark dried bloodstains still marked the concrete when Chalabi spoke to me.
Equally callous was the shooting of Omar Nayel, a shop owner. "I was in my house looking out, trying to see what was happening," said Fathi Abu Aita, a neighbour. "I saw him walk across his courtyard, I think going to the loo." Two shots rang out and he fell. Nayel's body lay in the garden for days.
My conclusion after interviewing scores of refugees is that there is no evidence Israeli troops entered the camp aiming to "massacre" Palestinian civilians. But in many cases they shot first and did not take much care to find out if the target was a civilian or not.
Under the fourth Geneva convention, they are required to protect the civilian population, and wilful killing of a civilian is a potential war crime.
I am also certain that numerous Palestinians were held hostage in their homes while Israeli troops used the building as a base or a firing post, and that others were taken door to door as a human shields, sometimes thrown into rooms ahead of Israeli troops.
Both are violations of international law, which protects civilians in wartime.
As for the bulldozing of the Hawamish area, this seems to have been out of a combination of fear and revenge rather than premeditated.
I asked Laderman how he felt now. He said he was satisfied that the "nest of snakes" has been snuffed out. As for the new generation of suicide bombers the military operation has probably created, he said: "They would have become suicide terrorists anyway."
They'll never know and would never believeif told. They only believe what they want to believe. The truth is irrelevent.
Arafat is responsible for the Palestinian suffering. As soon as the Palestinians pull their heads out and see the truth they will have an independent homeland. That has always been the case. They've been suffering all of these years becase they consistently believe their own lies.
Good Quisling, now you're are starting to understand.
What I don't understand is how they choose their ignorance. They insist on it. Maybe the truth is just too painfull to admit.
They will always be clueless. The problem is that we allow the Arab govs to use anti-American propaganda as an excuse for their failures. That is stupid.
As soon as we make if very clear that they will be removed from power if they don't crack down hard on their anti-American press islamic fundamentalists it will happen.
We may need to kill a couple of million in order to make our point but probably not. Removing Sadam in a very aggressive way and setting up a puppet government there with an American bayonett in his back would probably be enouph and would be relatively easy.
We need to put the 400 billion military budget to good use. Right now we're wasting about 350 billion of it while America and the civilized world is under a very real an serious threat.
How can any intelligent person read this and not recognize the propaganda?
By the way, did anyone catch the Saturday Night Live piece on the French last night? Priceless.
Holding people hostage in their houses?
9/11 now haunts the perpetrators and celebrators of that trajedy. Remember these were the folks who were joyfully celebrating in the streets as the WTC buildings came crashing down in the same kind of rubble that is now their just due.
Too late. I already flushed.
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