On the morning of Wednesday 10 April, reports began to emerge from the Jenin refugee camp in the extreme north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that its Palestinian defenders had run out of ammunition and were thus no longer able to resist the Israeli offensive that began on 2 April. While this appeared to put a conclusion to the most furious battle to be waged on Palestinian soil since 1948, subsequent developments indicated otherwise. As night fell, one of the camp’s few remaining field commanders issued a dramatic, live appeal to the world through the Qatari Al-Jazeera television network, in which he stated that the Israeli military was summarily executing defenseless fighters as it advanced and was refusing to accept the surrender of those still alive. Calling for immediate intervention by the international community and human rights organisations, he concluded by asking viewers to read the Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Qur’an) for his and his comrade’s souls.
The claim of yet more atrocities being perpetrated by the Israeli military in Jenin was considered sufficiently credible that within an hour the Secretary-General of the Lebanese Hizballah organisation, Hasan Nasrallah, offered to release an Israeli colonel being held by it since October 2000 if Israel would cease its assault on the camp and guarantee the safety of those remaining within it. Forceful interventions by the leading Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, Arab members of the Israeli parliament, and others threatening the possibility of severe judicial repercussions against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, and others directly involved in the planning and execution of the Jenin operation appear to have saved a number of those most at risk, and the orderly surrender of several dozen fighters was reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross later that night.
Yet, as of the morning of 12 April, more than 48 hours after the battle for Jenin refugee camp apparently ended, the camp remains strictly off limits to outsiders by virtue of one of the most tightly enforced exclusion zones in Israeli history, and the sounds of gunfire continue to be heard from within. Virtually every journalist, human rights worker, and humanitarian relief official has concluded this is because Israel has perpetrated a major atrocity in the camp and is currently busy removing the evidence.
The city of Jenin has been a thorn in Israel’s side since before the establishment of the Jewish state. In the 1930’s, its environs served as a base for the radical Syrian cleric Izz-al-Din Qassam, from whom the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, HAMAS, takes its name and whose death in a firefight with British troops in November 1935 served as a prelude for the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt. During the 1948 War, Jenin was the only Palestinian city Israeli forces initially managed to conquer but were subsequently expelled from, in this case by an Iraqi expeditionary force. During the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1993) the Jenin district was the most active arena for paramilitary groupings such as the Palestine National Liberation Movement (FATAH) Black Panthers and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Red Eagles. And during the current uprising which commenced in September 2000, and with the increasingly tenuous control exercised in the northern West Bank by the Palestinian Authority (PA), militias such as the FATAH-linked Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, the Izz-al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades of HAMAS, and Islamic Jihad’s Jerusalem Brigades have been operating within Jenin virtually at will. As has been often noted, a good portion of Palestinian suicide bombers have emerged from Jenin refugee camp as well. While the endemic poverty of the northern West Bank may explain this in part, it is primarily a function of location; Jenin is close to the boundary with Israel, and despite unprecedented Israeli measures to seal this off, its militants have had little trouble infiltrating proximate cities such as Netanya and Haifa.
Situated on a lot of approximately one square kilometer, most of Jenin camp’s 15,000 residents originate from the city of Haifa and its surrounding villages, from which they were forcibly expelled during the 1948 War. Located within the largest of the West Bank’s autonomous enclaves established pursuant to the Oslo agreements, the camp has been the object of repeated Israeli attempts to re-occupy it since the Sharon government came to power in March 2001. In each instance Israeli forces were repulsed, although the camp was eventually occupied for several days in March 2001 in the context of Israel’s ‘Operation Journey of Colours'; after initially offering resistance, its defenders slipped out en masse in order to conserve their forces and fight another day.
With Sharon’s determination to eliminate the Palestinian leadership, destroy the PA, and dismantle the Palestinian national movement as represented by its various factions, it was obvious this fight would come sooner rather than later. And indeed, assured of full support for such a venture by the Bush administration, Sharon grabbed his opportunity immediately after the 27 March suicide bombing by HAMAS of a Netanya hotel which killed 27 Israelis attending a Passover meal.
The ferocity of ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ which unfolded within 24 hours could hardly have come as a surprise. The architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the September 1982 Sabra-Chatilla refugee camps massacre, Sharon’s record of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians stretches back to at least the early 1950’s when he commanded Unit 101, notorious for “reprisal raids” against West Bank villages. The records of Peres (e.g. the deliberate 1996 shelling of a UN camp full of Lebanese and Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon’s Qana, killing over a hundred), Ben-Eliezer, and Mofaz are also distinguished in this regard. In the more immediate background, the extraordinary savagery of Operation Journey of Colours in February-March 2002, which left some 200 Palestinians dead and included massacres in the West Bank’s Tulkarm refugee camp as well as in the Jabalya refugee camp and the village of Khuza’a in the Gaza Strip, also served as a harbinger of things to come.
Furthermore, on the eve of Operation Defensive Shield, a senior Israeli military officer was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranot as stating that in view of the character of the upcoming Israeli operation, the Nazi campaign to subdue the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 required careful study as an example of succesful urban combat. At the very least, the interview revealed that a primary purpose of the campaign would be to decisively break the Palestinian population’s will to further resist Israeli rule. And with specific regard to the civilian residents of Jenin refugee camp, a senior Israeli military officer involved in the assault was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as stating that mothers who raise suicide bombers could not expect to be immune from the consequences.
Until the invasion of Jenin, Operation Defensive Shield had been a clear success from Israel’s point of view. The re-occupation of Ramallah and Bethlehem by massive armored columns simply overwhelmed resistance which was in any case light and – particularly in Ramallah – poorly organised. Israeli losses were minimal, the Bush administration unconditionally supportive, the Europeans more subtly so, and the Arab states overwhelmingly silent. Although the various militias operating within Jenin had decided to make a stand in the camp, and had more or less unified their forces and been joined by members of the PA security forces, there are no indications that Israel expected anything less than a walkover in its determination to make an example of the camp. In doing so, it ignored the fact that Jenin’s defenders were able to adapt their tactics on the basis of both Operation Journey of Colours the previous month and what had transpired in other Palestinian cities occupied the previous week. Not less importantly, Israel’s policy of providing no quarter to Palestinian militants and security personnel in other cities only stiffened their resolve to resist.
This said, the disparity between the opposing forces remained overwhelming; Israel is a nuclear power with a massive arsenal full of sophisticated American weaponry, whereas the Palestinians – who possess neither an army, air force, or navy, nor even a single armoured vehicle – fought back with light automatic weapons, and limited quantities of bombs and grenades which are in many cases locally improvised devices. One side had Apache helicopters in the air throughout the battle firing missiles and heavy machine guns virtually without interruption, the other did not possess even a single rudimentary anti-aircraft weapon.
While the re-occupation of Jenin proceeded relatively smoothly the Israelis were simply unable to make any headway into the camp. Despite extensive shelling from air and land, and the use of dozens of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and armoured bulldozers, the camp’s defenders, ensconced in its maze of narrow alleyways, offered ferocious resistance. The available reports suggest they were capable of decommissioning armoured vehicles with some regularity, and inflicted heavier casualties on the invading forces than Israel has been prepared to admit.
Israel’s military tactics were initially similar to those employed elsewhere in the West Bank. In addition to the use of vastly superior firepower, snipers occupied buildings all along the camp’s perimeter and consistently shot at anything that moved – combattants and civilians, adults and children alike. Water, electricity, and telephone communications to the entire camp were severed. No food or medicine of any sort was permitted entry. Ambulances and emergency services, humanitarian organisations, and the media were systematically prevented access.
The military initially tried to use the tactic it termed “mouseholing” – cutting through breezeblock walls to move from the interior of one building to that of the next – deployed during Journey of Colours. Faced with well-laid booby-traps this time around, it instead resorted to the tactic of “shaving”, by which homes and buildings were either blown apart with high explosives or levelled with the ground by armoured bulldozers to facilitate the military’s advance. In some cases the army first went in and forcibly removed inhabitants. According to numerous eyewitness reports, there are also many cases in which the military simply collapsed structures over the heads of their inhabitants, killing those inside.
By 5 April, Chief of Staff Mofaz was already claiming victory, stating that the battle would be over that night. He was forced to make similar statements on each of the subsequent four days – during which he personally took command of the operation from the vantage point of an American-made Apache helicopter, only to be eventually replaced by the Minister of Defence. On the fifth day – 10 April – at least 13 Israeli soldiers were killed and perhaps as many wounded in a highly sophisticated ambush, with two more killed in subsequent exchanges. It was the military’s single bloodiest day since the beginning of the current Palestinian uprising, and one of its worst since the 1973 October War.
Heavy Israeli losses in Jenin – officially 23 dead and 150 wounded – and the small camp’s ability to withstand the full might of the Israeli military for three days longer than did the entire Arab world in 1967, has elevated it to legendary status throughout the region, which closely followed the unfolding drama by means of detailed reports provided by Al-Jazeera, Hizballah’s Al-Manar, and other sattelite television stations. Such reports routinely included live interviews with field commanders and camp residents, as well as activists, PA officials, medical professionals, and others located elsewhere in Jenin.
The intensive coverage of the Jenin refugee camp battle from its very outset despite the hermetic exclusion of journalists and humanitarian agencies also meant the Arab public – and thus the entire world – was from the outset keenly aware of the unfolding catastrophe. This necessarily means that the international community – and specifically the United States and European Union which clearly had more information available than the Arab viewing public and which alone have the requisite influence on Israeli policy and actions – consciously refused to undertake any effective measures to prevent or halt Sharon’s work in progress. Indeed, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on 10 April pronounced himself “frankly appalled” by reports he was receiving from the occupied territories at a joint press conference in Madrid, Secretary of State Colin Powell clarified that Annan was speaking for himself and that the US was merely “concerned”.
This said, international organisations have also failed miserably. The Jenin refugee camp is administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); although UNRWA Director General Peter Hanssen spoke of “horrific reports” emanating from Jenin suggesting a “humanitarian catastrophe”, Annan resolutely failed to use the authority of his office to publicly and explicitly voice concern about a massacre in the making. Similarly, at the very height of the crisis the International Committee of the Red Cross simply folded its tent and called it a day, stating that it could not guarantee the physical safety of its staff from Israeli attack. Palestinians viewed this as a gross dereliction of duty, and openly questioned whether as has been the case with Palestinian ambulance workers Israeli soldiers would use widespread violence against their foreign colleagues.
That atrocities which in scope and scale extend well beyond those committed elsewhere in the West Bank have took place in Jenin is beyond question. On 9 April, in fact, Ha’aretz quoted Peres as characterising Israeli conduct towards the residents of Jenin refugee camp as “a massacre” – albeit in the context of the Nobel Laureate’s concern over international reaction rather than the massacre itself – while military officers were in the same article quoted as stating that “when the world sees the pictures of what we have done there, it will do us immense damage.” The following day, Ha’aretz reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry established a PR committee to deal with the consequences, another indication that the world best prepare for the worst.
If Israel had limited its actions to those perpetrated elsewhere in the West Bank these past two weeks it would already be guilty of “grave breaches” of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention – i.e. war crimes. Most obviously in this respect is the systematic denial of medical care to combattants and non-combattants alike. Reports abound of casualties bleeding to death from treatable wounds and bloated bodies littering the streets, while ambulances were forcefully prevented from entering the camp. It was in fact only on 9 April that the first ambulances – three in total – were permitted in. After being obstructed for almost half a day, with their medics subjected to humiliating searches and abuse, each ambulance was permitted to remove only one casualty. Of the three so collected, two were promptly kidnapped from the vehicles by the army. Dr. Muhammad Abu Ghali, director of the nearby hospital, on 10 April reported that despite the many hundreds of dead and wounded in Jenin his facility remained virtually empty, and that a number of casualties were to be found in its direct vicinity – forbidden from either entering or being brought inside.
Inside the camp, residents reported extreme hunger and thirst, and that they had resorted to drinking sewage so as to stay alive. Those whose homes were physically invaded by the military spoke of summary executions, violent abuse and humiliation, property theft and destruction, and of entire families (sometimes numbering dozens of people) being herded into a single room for days on end without supplies of any sort. In addition to mass arrests, in which men, women, and children were separated from each other, many reports also state that civilian camp residents were ordered to strip to their underwear and march in front of tanks as human shields. Those kept in detention have reported abuse, humiliation, and depradations of the worst sort, and that they were systematically denied food, water, and medical care.
Already prior to the fall of the camp, residents reported that virtually every building within it had been either severely damaged or entirely destroyed by incessant Israeli missile, artillery, and heavy-calibre machine-gun fire. Although Israel claims that the Palestinian casualty toll stood at 100 “terrorists”, Palestinians sources insist the toll is at least double that and perhaps much higher, the majority of them being civilians.
It appears that reports of bodies strewn along the camp’s streets, confirming Peres’ characterisation of the Israeli army’s conduct, will never be properly investigated. On 11 April, it was reported that at least 10,000 residents – two-thirds of the original population – had been forcibly evicted from the camp, men and women separated from each other and transported to Jenin and surrounding villages, humiliated, abused, and left to fend for themselves. The scattered inhabitants were shown desperately seeking to contact loved ones to discover their fate, and spoke of horrific conduct by Israeli soldiers. Within the camp, Israeli bulldozers were said to be systematically reducing what remained of it to rubble, and according to various accounts disposing of corpses in the sewage system, burying them in mass graves within the camp, and loading them onto trucks and burying them in mass graves within Israel and/or the Jordan valley. The latter allegation has been made with particular force by Arab members of the Israeli parliament, who claim to have documented the practice as well.
On the morning of 12 April, Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gideon Meir informed CNN that journalists may be permitted to visit the camp later that day, but refused to guarantee this would happen. According to Meir, the only reason the hermetic closure remains in force and may be extended is Israel’s profound concern for the physical safety of the journalists, many of them seasoned war correspondents eagerly prepared to risk their lives if permitted to do so.
Concerning what really transpired in Jenin refugee camp there are Palestinian claims of the biggest Israeli massacre since Sabra-Chatilla and categorical Israeli denials that anything untoward could possibly have transpired. It at this point appears reasonable to assume that the full truth may never emerge. In the meantime, the only uncontested facts are that Israel is working around the clock to prevent examination of allegations of war crimes, while the Palestinians insist upon immediate access to stop a bloodbath that may well be continuing and to permit the independent verification of their claims. All indications are that a genuine chamber of horrors is being concealed.