May 2, 2002
How the Times Distorted Jenin
When I write a screenplay, I start out with an agenda. I decide who my hero is first and who is the villain. Then I fashion scenes to build my dramatic case and make it believable. That is, I believe, exactly what occurred with regard to at least two reporters, Sheila MacVicar of CNN and Tom Miller of the Los Angeles Times, on Tuesday, April 16 in the Jenin refugee camp.
I was there. I saw everything they saw, I heard everything they heard, I smelled everything they did not smell. And the truth is there was no smell of death on that day, despite what Miller wrote in his feature article of April 21.
Miller needed a smell of death that wasn't there, and MacVicar needed bodies for her story. That was a problem, because absolutely no bodies were found while the press tour, of which we all were a part, was in the Jenin refugee camp. In addition, Miller evidently needed to be seen as an intrepid reporter overcoming Israeli restrictions in order to piece together what really happened.
"What exactly happened in the Jenin camp has been cloaked in mystery, largely because Israel for days banned the entry of rescue workers, journalists and other independent eyes. Reporters who circumvented the restrictions, have pieced together the events of the camp..." Miller wrote in his April 21 article in the Times.
That is very dramatic prose. Unfortunately, where Miller is concerned, it is also untrue. Miller, far from circumventing the restrictions of the Israeli military, rode into the Jenin camp in an Israeli armored personnel carrier with me, courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
For the record, I am biased. I am an Israeli American who served in the IDF and was, and continue to be, a peace activist, who has held talks with members of the PLO and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine long before Oslo. I have had high-level, and sometimes secret, meetings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza long before it was legal for an Israeli to do so. I continue to believe that Israel will never have the security it desires without a peaceful Palestinian state next to it, and that the Palestinians will never get the state they want without deciding once and for all to live in peace with Israel.
I went to Jenin to find out what happened there.
"Before the Israeli forces invaded two weeks ago," intoned MacVicar in her lead-in, "this was the crowded center of the Jenin refugee camp. There were apartment houses in twisting, narrow streets, bustling and busy. That neighborhood is now gone, erased by Israeli bulldozers, turned into a river of concrete and twisted steel spreading over two city blocks. Everywhere there is evidence of life interrupted."
Now, let me tell you what there is also evidence of. Before one enters the refugee camp, one passes through the very pleasant little town of Jenin. The entrance to the camp is roughly 100 meters from the rest of the town, which has handsome single-family homes and yards, businesses and apartments. Not a one of those buildings appears to be touched -- no bullet holes from Israeli machine guns, not one house bulldozed, indeed, not even a broken window anywhere in sight. All this only 100 meters away from the scene of the fighting.
The reason there is no devastation here is quite simple: No one was shooting at the Israeli reservists from these buildings, and so, quite properly, they did not shoot back.
And who lives in these suburban homes? Are they of a different racial stock, perhaps, and thus were spared? Are they Swiss? No. They are the Palestinian Arab residents of the town of Jenin.
The difference between them and those waiting for the reservists in the booby-trapped camp was a very simple one. They were not terrorists. They were not fighters. Those waiting for the reservists in the camp were.
One reservist sensed MacVicar's hostility. He was a soft-spoken man who approached her and introduced himself as the reserve unit's medical officer, Dr. David Zangen. He told her that when the fighting was over, they found photograph albums of children from roughly 6 years of age up through early and mid-teens. It was an album of photos of children who would be the next crop of suicide killers, with notations indicating when each of the children would be ripe. The reporter had no time for the doctor, however.
"Perhaps you should ask yourself why," she said, dismissing him.
"I do, madam," he said, "I ask myself why. I can't imagine it. I can't imagine sending one's child out to be a mass murderer who commits suicide to kill women and children."
"Well, I can explain it," said the reporter. "For me it all comes down to one word, 'occupation.'"
"But madam," the doctor said, "Jenin hasn't been occupied for nine years."
MacVicar just turned and walked away. She was looking for scenes of bodies being pulled from the rubble, as will be recalled, and she still hadn't gotten the footage because none had been found that day. Thus, there would have been ample time for the doctor's comments, as there would have been space for them in Miller's article, but they didn't fit the script.
How did MacVicar solve her body problem? She simply used footage from another day, footage she hadn't shot, one bare foot sticking out from under a piece of rubble, which she had never seen, which had been shot by someone else when the pickings were better.
I am sure MacVicar and Miller have their own version of these events, and I'm open to hearing their side of the story, which is more consideration than they offered the doctor.
Daniel Gordon is the author of five books and the screenwriter of such films as "The Hurricane" and "Murder in the First." He is also a former sergeant in the IDF. He will be speaking on Wednesday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call (805) 497-7101.