Did Israel Perpetrate a ‘Massacre’ in the Jenin Refugee Camp?

Even before the Israeli military completed its conquest of the Jenin refugee camp on 11 April, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had established a public relations committee specifically devoted to defending the Jewish state’s conduct in the camp. That a sustained exercise in damage control would be required had been made amply clear a day earlier; according to Ha’aretz, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres characterised the military’s action in Jenin as a “massacre,” while unnamed military officers stated, “when the world sees the pictures of what we have done there, it will do us immense damage.”

The fact of the matter is that the world did not see any pictures of what Israel did to the Jenin refugee camp for the better part of another week, the reason being that the Israeli military continued to systematically enforce a strict exclusion zone which kept out journalists, human rights monitors, and humanitarian aid workers alike. This notwithstanding, telephone interviews with camp residents, cross-examination of numerous refugees exiled to the city of Jenin and the surrounding villages of Rummani and Kufr Dan, the testimony of Israeli soldiers involved in the conquest of the camp, and an array of circumstantial evidence had by 15 April led virtually every independent observer to conclude that an impartial examination of the relevant facts would demonstrate that Israel had systematically violated the laws of war and international humanitarian law in Jenin, resulting in widespread loss of life and destruction of property not justified by military necessity.

Among the specific violations for which either compelling evidence (in the form of multiple credible testimonies independently collected) or definitive proof was made available during this period were the following (several of which qualify as war crimes under international law): systematic prohibition on the provision of food, water, and medical supplies to the entire civilian population of Jenin refugee camp despite its urgent need of such supplies; systematic prohibition of medical care to the entire population of the camp when it was known many individuals were in urgent need of such care on account injuries sustained during the conflict and/or medical conditions unrelated to it; the deliberate use of civilian non-combattants as human shields to facilitate military operations; torture, abuse, deprivation, and humiliation of men and boys arrested en masse solely on account of their status as residents of Jenin refugee camp; summary executions; implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy against individuals clearly identifiable as civilian non-combattants, on the pretext of strict enforcement of a prolonged curfew maintained without any interruption; deliberate destruction of buildings in which civilian non-combattants were known to reside without prior warning when provision of such warning would not have impeded military operations; and widespread destruction of property after the conclusion of military hostilities for punitive rather than operational objectives. On a more general level, the virtually uninterrupted use of heavy weaponry (particularly tanks and helicopter gunships) to combat several hundred lightly armed fighters in a densely-populated civilian area was consistently characterised as an excessive and disproportionate use of force.

Such knowledge was apparently insufficient to prepare journalists and others for what they saw when they were finally able to enter the camp. Many have written of their deep shock at the sight of vast expanses of rubble where entire neighbourhoods once stood, of the overwhelming stench of death, and of the Israeli military’s callous disregard for the urgent humanitarian needs of the remaining Palestinian civilian population. Phil Reeves of the London Independent (16 April) – who along with Justin Huggler of the same paper has provided the most detailed reporting of the camp’s fate – unhesitatingly wrote of “a monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight finally exposed The sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb.” When UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was finally permitted to visit the camp on 19 April, he described “what I saw, what I heard, what I smelt” as “horrifying beyond belief”. He further observed that Israel as the sole authority in the camp had a duty to rescue Palestinians trapped in the rubble of their homes, and termed its refusal to do so while actively preventing others from carrying out this task – well after hostilities had ceased – “morally repugnant.”

While most felt that Larsen aptly summed up the prevailing view, Israeli Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein recommended that he be declared persona non grata because his statements were “lies”; another government official rather predictably denounced him as “a racist, an anti-semite, and an apparent criminal”; Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer accused him of “incitement”; and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his government to terminate all contacts with the UN official.

Although Larsen made it a point not to accuse Israel of perpetrating a massacre in Jenin, Israel’s exceptional reaction to his comments stems from the high regard with which he is held by the international community and the undoubted influence of his comments on the UN Security Council, which was to debate a resolution to establish a formal commission of inquiry into Israeli conduct in Jenin that same day. The United States, which had initially threatened to veto this initiative, changed course and sponsored a separate resolution – unanimously adopted – to establish a fact-finding committee on Jenin. Larsen’s comments had apparently put Washington in an untenable position with respect to its earlier position, and while the fact-finding committee’s conclusions will not by definition have legal validity or consequences, they have the potential to cause Israel substantial political damage and develop a life of their own.

In light of these developments, Peres revised his earlier assessment and on 22 April concluded that “Israel has nothing to hide regarding the operation in Jenin. Our hands are clean.” Casualty figures have been adapted accordingly; where military sposkespersons once told of 100 and then “hundreds” of Palestinian military and civilian dead, Ben-Eliezer, emphasising to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “we never lie, and we never commit massacres,” on 19 April stated that 45 Palestinians – all of them armed militants – had been killed. Correcting himself ever-so-slightly, Ben-Eliezer later stated that in fact 48 had been killed, of whom 45 had been “wearing Islamic Jihad uniforms” (which, parenthetically, do not exist). And on 23 April, Peres informed a news conference in Valencia, Spain that 50 Palestinians – 47 armed men and 3 civilians – died in the fighting. Given that almost half as many Israeli soldiers fell in Jenin, Peres considered it intuitively obvious that claims of an atrocity were cheap propaganda.

As Israel’s public relations machinery has been working overtime to deflect criticism and condemnation of its conduct in Jenin and shift any and all blame squarely onto the Palestinians, its main line of defence has been that it was engaged in nothing more or less than fierce and complex combat with a pitiless enemy, which effectively took the civilian population of the camp hostage and used it as a giant human shield. On this basis, the Israeli military should be congratulated rather than condemned, precisely for having caused virtually no collateral damage. Definitive proof of its “highest moral standards” and “determination to avoid harming civilians” is provided by its high casualty rate. Those genuinely concerned with civilian suffering should thus focus their sympathies on the Israeli victims of Jenin’s suicide bombers, and desist from pursuing false claims fanned by ulterior motives. Israel’s main argument seems to be that since no photographer has produced images of alleyways strewn with corpses as was the case in Sabra-Chatilla, and rescue workers have thus far found only some fifty bodies, no atrocity was committed.

Yet, the available evidence demonstrates that Israel did not stop at delegitimising the Jenin refugee camp as a “viper’s nest of terror”, “camp of terrorists”, and “the capital of the suicide bombers”, but treated it and its residents accordingly. That the methods used in Jenin were obviously different from those of Sabra-Chatilla, that the former was unlike the latter defended and fought back, that the final civilian death toll may be in the dozens rather than hundreds, and that Israel this time took the trouble to clean up after itself, is a distinction without a difference.

The real issue, rather, is whether Israel systematically, deliberately, and consciously violated the laws of war and international humanitarian law in Jenin, in a manner which by design or default led to significant civilian non-combattant casualties not justified by military necessity (i.e. “collateral damage”). We already know this to have been the case, and all that remains to be determined is precisely how many men, women, and children lie buried beneath the rubble that was once a refugee camp (and perhaps elsewhere).

Forensic pathologist Derrick Pounder, who recently spent several days in the Jenin refugee camp as part of an Amnesty International mission, has concluded that it is “simply not true” that most of those killed were armed fighters. “In Jenin,” he stated, “there have certainly been mass killings – both combatants and civilians.” On the basis of the currently available evidence, the closest we will ever come to a full account of what Israel worked so hard to conceal is all but certain to bear out his words.

Does the atrocity perpetrated by Israeli forces qualify as a massacre? If one equates this term with the systematic slaughter of virtually every man, woman, and child with whom the Israeli military came into contact, the answer is a clear no. Given the methods used by Israel to conquer Jenin, it also seems unlikely that most civilian victims were first clearly identified as such and subsequently deliberately killed on this basis. Rather, it appears to be the case that a minimum of many dozens of Palestinian civilians were killed through a combination of the deliberate and indiscriminate use of excessive and disproportionate force in a densely-populated residential area, in a number of cases for purely punitive purposes; sniper fire; summary executions; and last but certainly not least the systematic interdiction of medical and rescue services from the very outset of the invasion until many days after the final cessation of hostilities. Many would indeed characterise the grim results of the sum total of these measures as a “massacre” – particularly if persistent allegations that Israel surreptitiously removed corpses or dug mass graves are proven true. Others would suffice with terming such conduct an “atrocity”. In view of what we already know about what happened in Jenin, it is a semantic rather than substantive distinction, which will prove of little use to those responsible if they ever face a court of law.

Sharon and his government apparently concur with this interpretation; shortly after pledging “full cooperation” with the UN fact-finding committee, on 23 April – several days before it was scheduled to arrive – Israel decided to “suspend cooperation” with it, thus effectively preventing it from visiting Jenin. The official pretext is that the expertise of the committee is primarily in matters of humanitarian law rather than military affairs. Israeli officials also voiced concern that the committee might look at Israeli conduct elsewhere – particularly the old city of Nablus – rather than focus their efforts on the activities of Palestinian suicide bombers (an exercise of dubious value given that there are no disagreements with respect to the relevant facts). The more accurate reading of Israel’s position was provided by Ha’aretz on 24 April: “Israel has said the mandate for the mission, at present, is directed at war crimes accusations. Israel is now demanding that testimonies and information gathered by the probe would not be used for any other procedure and would not grant the Palestinians a basis for legal charges to be brought against Israeli military officials.”

In order to further prepare the ground for the impending arrival of the UN committee, Peres on 25 April denounced those claiming a massacre had been perpetrated in Jenin of pursuing a “blood libel”. Few seemed to remember that the exact same words were deployed by Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon to defend Israel in the immediate aftermath of Sabra-Chatilla.

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