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What really happened in Jenin?

Findings could prove turning point.

by Leslie Susser

April 25, 2002 | 8:00 pm

An aerial view of the destroyed section of the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, the scene of more than a week of intense fighting between armed Palestinians and Israeli forces, as seen April 22. Photo by BP Images

An aerial view of the destroyed section of the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, the scene of more than a week of intense fighting between armed Palestinians and Israeli forces, as seen April 22. Photo by BP Images

After the Israeli army's 12-day action against armed Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp, a London Times headline read: "The Camp of Death," conjuring up a clear association with Nazi death camps like Auschwitz.

And U.N. Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, as he walked through the rubble in the Jenin refugee camp last week, just three days after the fighting had died down, virtually accused Israel of war crimes and spoke of "a shameful chapter in Israel's history."

European hyperbole in condemning Israel comes easily, and the historic reasons for it are many and complex. But it is a phenomenon of more than passing academic interest, for it feeds into a consistent Palestinian narrative aimed at delegitimizing Israel in the most fundamental way.

In this context, Jenin was a human tragedy waiting to happen from the moment Israel launched its military operation. From day one of the intifada, Yasser Arafat's strategy has been to provoke Israel into overreacting to get the international community to step in and force concessions he could not otherwise get.

Characterizing the military operation of the past month, and especially the events in the Jenin refugee camp, as indiscriminate and a criminal use of overwhelming military force is more than a PR exercise for the Palestinians -- it is the essence of Palestinian strategy. That is why the perception of what happened in Jenin is so important -- though Israel decided Tuesday not to cooperate with the United Nations-sponsored fact-finding team to determine what happened there, because the criteria for appointing the panel differs from those agreed upon by Israel.

Late Tuesday, Israel raised objections to the composition of the team and the scope of its mandate, arguing that the United Nations seemed to be stacking the team and defining its goals in a way that would prejudice it against Israel.

Israel said the team should include military and counter-terrorism experts should be limited to the Jenin camp and should examine not just Israel's actions but the terror network that had flourished in Jenin and prompted the Israeli invasion.

Attempts continued Wednesday to address the impasse, and both Israeli and U.N. sources seemed to feel that the dispute would be resolved.

So what, as far as we know, did happen in Jenin?

First, it can be said that there was no massacre.

Second, that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians.

Third, that the Jenin refugee camp was a major center of Palestinian terror, used especially by Islamic Jihad to send suicide bombers into Israel on a regular basis. About a quarter of the bombers since the beginning of the intifada in fall of 2000 set out from the Jenin refugee camp.

The fighting in Jenin started on April 3. According to Israeli soldiers who took part in the battle, armed Palestinian gunmen had taken up positions inside the buildings. Explosive charges were strewn all over the camp. Some of the buildings were booby-trapped. In some cases, Palestinian gunmen forced civilians to remain holed up with them. Israeli soldiers entered the camp from four directions, forcing the Palestinian fighters away from civilians into a small central area.

Israeli soldiers, using loudspeakers, called on all Palestinians who did not want to fight to leave the camp peacefully. Some did and were not harmed. Israeli reservists, fighting from house to house, encountered fierce resistance and had to regroup.

The Israelis could easily have solved the military problem, as most other Western armies probably would have done, by sending in planes or using artillery. In both cases, resistance would have been broken in hours. But civilian casualties would have been heavy. Israel chose instead the much more hazardous house-to-house ground combat, precisely to avoid civilian casualties. It now appears that fewer than 100 Palestinians, mostly armed fighters, were killed.

When helicopters were called in, it was to silence heavy fire from precise locations. All the houses in the camp had code numbers and the pilots were able to make precise hits.

But seven days after it started, the fighting was still fierce. On April 9, 13 reserve paratroopers were killed when a booby-trapped building exploded and collapsed on them. It was then that the Israelis decided to bring in the bulldozers to destroy potentially booby-trapped buildings.

During the fighting, Israel supplied truckloads of food to the camp and a generator and oxygen to the Jenin hospital. Israel also offered blood, which was rejected. Israeli army doctors and medics say they treated injured Palestinians.

Every stage of the Jenin operation was filmed and this material, Israeli officials say, will help prove the Israeli case. The officials are confident the U.N. fact-finding mission, appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the U.N. Security Council voted for it unanimously, will corroborate their account and lay to rest the Palestinian claims of a massacre.

As for the question of humanitarian aid after the battle, the Israelis say it was the Palestinians who objected to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) burying the dead and refused Israeli offers of assistance. International aid and relief agencies were not allowed into the camp for three days after the fighting, the Israelis say, because of fear for their safety. And they point out that several people were wounded by explosive devices and booby-trapped bodies after the IDF left. The Israelis also intend to raise with the fact-finding team the fact that Jenin was administered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

Yet a culture of terror and death was allowed to thrive in the camp. Posters of suicide bombers adorned the walls everywhere. And the camps' children were taught to emulate them. Armed elements, which by international law should not have been allowed in the camp, actually controlled it.

Israeli officials are asking how the United Nations, so quick to point fingers at Israel, had not only tolerated this situation, but had never lodged a single complaint about it. For the Palestinians, Jenin has spawned two new national myths, regardless of what the fact-finding commission reports: the myth of heroic resistance against a superior Israeli force and the myth of an Israeli massacre.

Both demonize the Israeli enemy and reinforce the Palestinian sense of heroic victimhood. Both militate against compromise and galvanize young Palestinians for further struggle and sacrifice.

For some Israelis, Jenin reinforces notions of Palestinian mendacity and international unfairness. For others, it is evidence of the pressing need to find a political solution to stop a cycle of violence that can only have tragic consequences for both sides.

And precisely because it has the power to endorse or refute these very different perceptions, the U.N. probe could have far-reaching effects. If unfavorable to Israel, it could lead to attempts by the international community to further restrict the military steps Israel can take to defend itself, while implicitly legitimizing the worst Palestinian excesses.

It could also lead to demands for an international force to separate Israel and the Palestinians, a situation the Israelis believe will do nothing to stop the suicide bombers but will greatly hinder the IDF's capacity to respond. And it could start a process leading to attempts by the international community to impose a solution on the two recalcitrant parties.

By using Jenin to delegitimize Israel's use of force in self-defense, Arafat could get the imposed settlement he has been striving for all along -- although in substance it might not be entirely to his liking.

Israeli officials, however, are confident the report will, on the whole, be favorable. Indeed, they hope it will lead to some rethinking in Europe. Even more importantly, they hope it will undermine Arafat's authority, as his internationalization strategy will be seen to have failed, and help pave the way for a new Palestinian leadership more able to do business with Israel.

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