Excavating the Crimes of War
What really happened in Jenin
by Charmaine Seitz
In These Times magazine, May 27, 2002
The story of the Jenin refugee camp is now one of picking
up the pieces. The black faux-leather child's slipper left on
a mound of rubble. Wide slabs of concrete cascading in mid-collapse
from houses shaved in half. Living rooms opened like dollhouses,
a father's portrait still hanging on the wall.
When the Israeli army entered Jenin refugee camp on April
3, it entered what it calls the "capital of the suicide bombers."
What remains in the camp of 13,000 people is a scene that U.N.
officials are describing as "horrific."
Dozens of people swarm over the dusty hillside of the hardest
hit area of the camp, pointing to the ground and naming each of
the homes below. Underneath the thin topsoil made by recent traffic
lie several floors of houses yet to be excavated. "Most of
the places you walk, you are walking straight through someone's
living room, bedroom or kitchen-it is just flattened," says
Norwegian Red Cross worker Baar Strand, adding a bit cautiously,
"We call it Ground Zero. It is that kind of scene."
Israeli bulldozers demolished homes, then piled that rubble
several meters high. The smell of dead bodies rises as the sun
beats down. "We know where they are by the smell," says
one man, intent in his hunt for the dead. In the space of a few
hours, the decayed bodies of a newborn baby and adolescent girl
are found, recorded as "Jane Does" in a notebook and
taken to the morgue.
No one yet knows how many people died here in Jenin. The Israeli
death toll in the vicious fight for the camp was 23 soldiers.
Workers here have identified 50 Palestinian bodies. "So far,
we have only scratched the surface of that part," Strand
says. "How many? I have no idea, but there will be some more."
It is this scene of devastation, and the stories told by the
survivors, that has Palestinians calling what happened in Jenin
a "massacre." Aid and human rights agencies are still
waiting for more information before weighing in on that charge,
which Israel bitterly contests. But in an April 23 press conference,
Amnesty International charged that "evidence compiled indicates
that serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian
law were committed, including war crimes."
The charges stem from evidence that the Israeli army systematically
denied ambulance crews from treating the wounded in the camp.
For 13 days, camp residents were without electricity and water
in an area completely surrounded by Israeli troops. Further, some
survivors have told stories of men being executed in the narrow
alleyways of the camp. Until April 15, the press was not allowed
access to the camp to independently verify the stories making
their way to the outside world.
Thirty-four-year-old medic Haitham Weiss is trying to catch
some shut-eye in the back of his ambulance, standing by for anyone
injured on the still dangerous scene. He was here when the Israeli
tanks moved in, and, by the time they left, he was the only medic
in the field. An Italian passport gave Weiss some protection during
repeated Israeli searches of his ambulance. Weiss vehemently denies
Israeli claims that ambulances were given access to the camp but
refused to enter. He says, "They would give us permission,
then videotape us entering the camp, then shoot at us so we would
have to go back."
On the edges of the camp, Weiss points out two homes used
as search areas for passing ambulance crews. When Weiss did manage
to pick up two injured men, they were arrested in the back of
his ambulance. "The first two guys I brought back from the
camp, they took them," he says. "It was all for nothing.
One of them had cuts in his hand and leg, another was wounded
in the head and back-critical injuries." He does not know
what happened to them.
At a nearby U.N. office, the women congregate. They are looking
for their men. "My son is in jail," says Maritiva Hawashi,
a veil tied loosely over silvery hair. "But people don't
know where their families are. Until we know where they are, we
won't know how many people are dead."
Hawashi says that she and more than 20 of her family members
spent days fleeing from home to home, outrunning Israeli bulldozers.
They were afraid to run into the streets, but afraid, too, to
leave their homes. "They hit us first with airplanes,"
she says and describes her family huddling in the dark on the
ground floor. "We didn't go out, but in the moming, when
we woke up, we found they were bulldozing the house next to us."
She says that at no time was her family warned by the army
to leave. Terrified, they fled to a neighbor's. "There was
shooting, but we didn't know where it was coming from-mostly there
were missiles coming from above." Even so, when they felt
the bulldozer pressing against the house's outer walls, the family
ran outside. The house crumpled behind them.
They fled to another house, further up the hill. Missiles
rained down on the camp until the next moming. In that house,
there were also armed men. "I'm not going to lie," Hawashi
says candidly. "In the moming we were drinking tea with them,
when there was a blow to the wall next to us. Some of us said,
'Let's get out,' but others didn't want to."
Hawashi and about 20 others "surrendered," waving
white cloth in the air. Hawashi describes how a tank marched her
and dozens of others, including men stripped to their underwear,
closer to the town. "They made us take off our scarves and
walk in front of the soldiers," she says. "I think they
wanted to know if there were any men in the group dressed as women."
Israel says the battle in Jenin was a dirty fight, in which
Palestinians rigged with bombs threw themselves at troops to inflict
as much damage as possible. "This place was not civilian,
rather a center of terror," said Maj. David Tzengan at a
press conference. "We are talking about 400 terrorists. This
camp sent many suicide bombers. Thirty percent of the suicide
bombers to date came from this camp."
He says that the army spared Palestinian civilians by entering
the camp with ground troops. "From a military perspective,
it would have been very easy to bomb the camp from the sky. The
army went from house to house so as not to harm civilians."
In the most costly incident, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed
when they walked into an ambush, tripping a fuse for explosives
and then coming under heavy Palestinian fire. Israeli accounts
of the battle and the pathways evident in the camp tell of a difficult
fight on its edges, until Israeli bulldozers simply pushed through
the homes, forcing the Palestinian armed men into the camp's heart.
Palestinians do not contest the account of a fierce battle.
Reportedly, the armed men numbered nearly 200 and included fighters
from outside the camp. During the fighting, Hamas official Jamal
Abu Haija told a Qatar news station: "This one square kilometer
camp has embarrassed this Israeli government over the past eight
days of resistance. The fighters have decided to fight to the
Israeli army lawyers claim that Jenin refugee camp was so
sewn up with terrorists that it was no longer a civilian center
subject to international humanitarian law. Their argument is that
civilians remained in the camp because they were actually being
held hostage by ruthless Palestinian fighters.
But medic Weiss gives another reason for why these refugee
women and children did not leave. When rescue workers were finally
given access to the camp-five days after the fighting was over-he
was walking through when he spotted an old woman tucked back into
the only undamaged comer of her home. "I went to her and
said, 'Please, auntie, will you leave with me?' I had to raise
my voice so that she could hear me."
But the woman refused, despite Weiss' warnings that she was
in danger " 'Let them demolish the house on my head,' she
told me. 'I don't want to make the same mistake that I made before.'
" This woman, like many of the camp residents, fled her home
inside what is now Israel in 1948. When Weiss picked her up to
carry her out of the house, the woman, nearly blind with age,
began clawing at him.
Just as Israelis have their massacres-this year's Passover
massacre, in which 28 died after a suicide bomber detonated himself
in a Netanya Hotel, or the Hebron massacre where Jewish residents
were killed by angry Arab mobs in 1929-Palestinians, too, can
cite a history of ruthless, unwarranted killing. In April 1948,
Jewish forces entered the village of Deir Yassin on the Jerusalem
outskirts and killed some 100 men, women and children. The incident
caused mass panic among Palestinians as the Jewish underground
launched its bid for statehood. One of the results was the beginning
of the Palestinian refugee crisis; some 3.5 million Palestinians
Israel insists that its army did not commit a "massacre"
in Jenin-not in the sense of My Lai, when U.S. troops rounded
up hundreds of Vietnamese villagers in a ditch, mowed them down,
then buried them in a mass grave. "Such a massacre clearly
did not take place in Jenin," Tel Aviv University professor
Tanya Reinhart wrote in a recent column. "No Palestinian
source ever described the facts this way."
What is being alleged is that far too many civilian deaths
resulted from specific and systematic practices on the part of
the Israeli army. "Given the deplorable and unprecedented
refusal to allow international relief organizations into the camps
while people were slowly dying in the rubble of their wounds and
thirst, the onus is definitely on the state of Israel to account
for the missing thousands of refugees who lived in that camp until
a few weeks ago," an unnamed, high-level U.N. official told
the London Independent.
The official continued: "I have not met one person in
the international community who had any other explanation for
this refusal other than the fact that they were hiding a war crime,
in fact, two war crimes: the mass killing and the denial of humanitarian
Allegations of Palestinian civilians and fighters being shot
in cold blood have surfaced, too. The Independent has published
a detailed investigation describing numerous cases in which civilians
in the camp were deliberately shot and killed by Israeli troops.
In the camp, Palestinians scrabble at the hard dirt, climbing
in and out of cement crevices, looking for the dead and their
belongings. The United Nations estimates that 4,000 camp residents
have been left homeless here. Highly unstable munitions from missiles
and mines are strewn throughout the area, accidentally detonating
at least once a day. The lack of visible foreign assistance to
the residents is striking. International relief organizations
say they have now suspended their digging efforts until the arrival
of a U.N. fact-finding mission some time next week. The only foreign
rescue teams visible-Strand and his crew-have left. A standing
wall expresses Palestinian disgust with their own regional kin:
"The Arab leaders are dogs."
But as the camp picks up the wreckage and unearths more, Israelis,
too, will have some misfit puzzle parts to wrestle with. "The
point is that they were inside the houses," an anonymous
reservist told the weekend magazine of Israel's most popular newspaper,
Yedioth Aharonot. "The last days, the majority of those who
came out of the houses were old people, women and children, who
were there the whole time and absorbed our fire. These people
were not given any chance to leave the camp, and we are talking
about many people."