JUST AS THE WORLD IS GIVING UP
HOPE OF LEARNING
JUSTIN HUGGLER AND PHIL REEVES HAVE UNEARTHED
COMPELLING EVIDENCE OF AN ATROCITY
By Justin Huggler And Phil Reeves
The Independent (UK), April 25, 2002
The thought was as unshakable as the stench wafting
ruins. Was this really about counterterrorism? Was it revenge? Or
was it an episode - the nastiest so far - in a long war by Ariel
Sharon, the staunch opponent of the Oslo accords, to establish
Israel's presence in the West Bank as permanent, and force the
Palestinians into final submission?
A neighbourhood had been reduced to a moonscape, pulverised under
the tracks of bulldozers and tanks. A maze of cinder-block
houses, home to about 800 Palestinian families, had disappeared.
What was left - the piles of broken concrete and scattered
The rubble in Jenin reeked, literally, of rotting human corpses,
buried underneath. But it also gave off the whiff of wrongdoing,
of an army and a government that had lost its bearings. "This is
horrifying beyond belief," said the United Nations' Middle East
envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, as he gazed at the scene. He called it
a "blot that will forever live on the history of the state of
Israel" - a remark for which he was to be vilified by Israelis.
Even the painstakingly careful United States envoy, William
Burns, was unusually outspoken as he trudged across the ruins.
"It's obvious that what happened in Jenin refugee camp has caused
enormous suffering for thousands of innocent Palestinian
civilians," he said. The Israeli army insists that its
devastating invasion of the refugee camp in Jenin earlier this
month was intended to root out the infrastructure of the
Palestinian militias, particularly the authors of an increasingly
vicious series of suicide attacks on Israelis. It now says the
dead were mostly fighters. And, as always - although its daily
behaviour in the occupied territories contradicts this claim - it
insists that it did everything possible to protect civilians.
But The Independent has unearthed a different story.
found that, while the Israeli operation clearly dealt a
devastating blow to the militant organisations - in the short
term, at least - nearly half of the Palestinian dead who have
been identified so far were civilians, including women, children
and the elderly. They died amid a ruthless and brutal Israeli
operation, in which many individual atrocities occurred, and
which Israel is seeking to hide by launching a massive propaganda
The assault on Jenin refugee camp by Israel's armed forces began
early on 3 April. One week earlier, 30 miles to the west in the
Israeli coastal town of Netanya, a Hamas suicide bomber had
walked into a hotel and blown up a roomful of people as they were
sitting down to celebrate the Passover feast. This horrific
slaughter on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar
killed 28 people, young and old, making it the worst Palestinian
attack of the intifada, a singularly evil moment even by the
standards of the long conflict between the two peoples.
Ariel Sharon, Israel's premier, and his ministers responded
activating a plan that had long lain on his desk. Operation
Defensive Shield was to become the largest military offensive by
Israel since the 1967 war. Jenin refugee camp was high on the
list of targets. Home to about 13,000 people, it was the
heartland of violent resistance to Israel's 35-year occupation.
The graffiti-covered walls bellowed the slogans of Hamas,
and Islamic Jihad; radical Islamists and secular nationalists
worked side by side, burying differences in the name of the
intifada. According to Israel, 23 suicide bombers had come out of
the camp, which was a centre for bomb-making. Yet there were also
many, many civilians. People such as Atiya Rumeleh, Afaf Desuqi
and Ahmad Hamduni.
The army was expecting a swift victory. It
superiority of arms - 1,000 infantrymen, mostly reservists,
accompanied by Merkava tanks, armoured vehicles, bulldozers and
Cobra helicopters, armed with missiles and heavy machine guns.
Ranged against this force were about 200 Palestinians, with
members of the militias - Hamas, al-Aqsa brigades and Islamic
Jihad -fighting alongside Yasser Arafat's security forces, mostly
armed with Kalashnikovs and explosives.
The fight put up by the Palestinians shocked the soldiers. Eight
days after entering, the Israeli army finally prevailed, but at a
heavy price. Twenty -three soldiers were killed, 13 of them wiped
out by an ambush, and an unknown number of Palestinians died. And
a large residential area - 400m by 500m - lay utterly devastated;
scenes that the Israeli authorities knew at once would outrage
the world as soon as they hit the TV screens. "We were not
expecting them to fight so well," said one exhausted-looking
Israeli reservist as he packed up to head home. Journalists and
humanitarian workers were kept away for five more days while the
Israeli army cleaned up the area, after the serious fighting
ended on 10 April.
The Independent spent five days conducting
interviews of survivors among the ruins of the refugee camp,
accompanied by Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for the Human
Rights Watch organisation. Many of the interviews were conducted
in buildings that were on the verge of collapse, in living rooms
where one entire wall had been ripped off by the bulldozers and
that were open to the street.
An alarming picture has emerged of what took place. So far, 50 of
the dead have been identified. The Independent has a list of
names. Palestinians were happy, even proud, to tell us which of
the dead were fighters for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa
brigades; which belonged to their security forces; and which were
civilians. They identified nearly half as civilians.
Not all the civilians were cut down in crossfire. Some, according
to eyewitness accounts, were deliberately targeted by Israeli
forces. Sami Abu Sba'a told us how his 65-year-old father,
Mohammed Abu Sba'a, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after he
warned the driver of an approaching bulldozer that his house was
packed with families sheltering from the fighting. The bulldozer
turned back, said Mr Abu Sba'a - but his father was almost
immediately shot in the chest where he stood.
Israeli troops also shot dead a Palestinian nurse as she tried to
help a wounded man. Hani Rumeleh, a 19-year-old civilian, had
been shot as he tried to look out of his front door. Fadwa Jamma,
a nurse staying with her sister in a house nearby, heard Hani's
screaming and came to help. Her sister, Rufaida Damaj, who also
ran to help, was wounded but survived. From her bed in Jenin
hospital, she told us what happened.
"We were woken at 3.30 in the morning by a big explosion,"
said. "I heard that one guy was wounded outside our house. So my
sister and I went to do our duty and to help the guy and give him
first aid. There were some guys from the resistance outside and
we had to ask them before we moved anywhere. I told them that my
sister was a nurse, I asked them to let us go to the wounded.
"Before I had finished talking to the guys the Israelis
shooting. I got a bullet in my leg and I fell down and broke my
knee. My sister tried to come and help me. I told her, 'I'm
wounded.' She said, 'I'm wounded too.' She had been shot in the
side of her abdomen. Then they shot her again in the heart. I
asked where she was wounded but she didn't answer, she made a
terrible sound and tried to breathe three times."
Ms Jamma was wearing a white nurse's uniform clearly marked with
a red crescent, the emblem of Palestinian medical workers, when
the soldiers shot her. Ms Damaj said the soldiers could clearly
see the women because they were standing under a bright light,
and could hear their cries for help because they were "very
near". As Ms Damaj shouted to the Palestinian fighters to get
help, the Israeli soldiers fired again: a second bullet went up
through her leg into her chest.
Eventually an ambulance was allowed through to rescue Ms
Her sister was already dead. It was to be one of the last times
an ambulance was allowed near the wounded in Jenin camp until
after the battle ended. Hani Rumeleh was taken to hospital, but
he was dead. For his stepmother, however, the tragedy had only
just begun; the next day, her 44-year-old husband Atiya, also a
civilian, was killed.
As she told his story, her orphaned children clung to her
"There was shooting all around the house. At about 5pm I went to
check the building. I told my husband two bombs had come into the
house. He went to check. After two minutes he called me to come,
but he was having difficulty calling. I went with the children.
He was still standing. In my life I've never seen the way he
looked at me. He said, 'I'm wounded', and started bleeding from
his mouth and nose. The children started crying, and he fell
down. I asked him what happened but he couldn't talk.
"His eyes went to the children. He looked at them one
Then he looked at me. Then all his body was shaking. When I
looked, there was a bullet in his head. I tried to call an
ambulance, I was screaming for anybody to call an ambulance. One
came but it was sent back by the Israelis."
It was Thursday 4 April, and the blockade against recovering the
wounded had begun. With the fighting raging outside, Ms Rumeleh
could not go out of the house to fetch help. Eventually she made
a rope out of headscarves and lowered her seven-year-old son
Mohammed out of the back window to go and seek help. The family,
fearful of being shot if they ventured out, were trapped indoors
with the body for a week.
A few doors away, we heard the story of Afaf Desuqi. Her sister,
Aysha, told us how the 52-year-old woman was killed when the
Israeli soldiers detonated a mine to blow the door of her house
open. Ms Desuqi had heard the soldiers coming and gone to open
the door. She showed us the remains of the mine, a large metal
cylinder. The family screamed for an ambulance, but none was
Ismehan Murad, another neighbour, told us the soldiers had
using her as a human shield when they blew the front door off the
Desuqi house. They came to the young woman's house first, and
ordered her to go ahead of them, so that they would not be fired
Jamal Feyed died after being buried alive in the
uncle, Saeb Feyed, told us that 37-year-old Jamal was mentally
and physically disabled, and could not walk. The family had
already moved him from house to house to avoid the fighting. When
Mr Feyed saw an Israeli bulldozer approaching the house where his
nephew was, he ran to warn the driver. But the bulldozer ploughed
into the wall of the house, which collapsed on Jamal.
Although they evacuated significant numbers of civilians,
Israelis made use of others as human shields. Rajeh Tawafshi, a
72-year-old man, told us that the soldiers tied his hands and
made him walk in front of them as they searched house to house.
Moments before, they had shot dead Ahmad Hamduni, a man in his
eighties, before Mr Tawafshi's eyes. Mr Hamduni had sought
shelter in Mr Tawafshi's house, but the Israeli soldiers had
blown the door open. Part of the metal door landed next to the
two men. Mr Hamduni was hunched with age, and Mr Tawafshi thinks
the soldiers may have mistakenly thought he was wearing a
suicide-bomb belt. They shot him on sight.
Even children were not immune from the Israeli onslaught.
Zeben, a 14 -year-old boy, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in
cold blood. There was not even any fighting at the time. The
curfew on Jenin had been lifted for a few hours and the boy went
to buy groceries. This was on Thursday 11 April. Faris's eight-
year-old brother, Abdel Rahman, was with him when he died.
Nervously picking at his cardigan, his eyes on the ground, the
child told us what happened.
"It was me and Faris and one other boy, and some women I
know. Faris told me to go home but I refused. We were going in
front of the tank. Then we saw the front of the tank move towards
us and I was scared. Faris told me to go home but I refused. The
tank started shooting and Faris and the other boy ran away. I
fell down. I saw Faris fall down, I thought he just fell. Then I
saw blood on the ground so I went to Faris. Then two of the women
came and put Faris in a car."
Abdel Rahman showed us where it happened. We paced it out:
tank had been about 80m away. He said there was only one burst of
machine-gun fire. He imitated the sound it made. The soldiers in
the tank gave no warning, he said. And after they shot Faris they
Fifteen-year-old Mohammed Hawashin was shot dead as he tried
walk through the camp. Aliya Zubeidi told us how she was on her
way to the hospital to see the body of her son Ziad, a militant
from the Al-Aqsa brigades, who had been killed in the fighting.
Mohammed accompanied her. "I heard shooting," said Ms Zubeidi.
"The boy was sitting in the door. I thought he was hiding from
the bullets. Then he said, 'Help.' We couldn't do anything for
him. He had been shot in the face."
In a deserted road by the periphery of the refugee camp, we found
the flattened remains of a wheelchair. It had been utterly
crushed, ironed flat as if in a cartoon. In the middle of the
debris lay a broken white flag. Durar Hassan told us how his
friend, Kemal Zughayer, was shot dead as he tried to wheel
himself up the road. The Israeli tanks must have driven over the
body, because when Mr Hassan found it, one leg and both arms were
missing, and the face, he said, had been ripped in two.
Mr Zughayer, who was 58, had been shot and wounded in the
Palestinian intifada. He could not walk, and had no work. Mr
Hassan showed us the pitiful single room where his friend lived,
the only furnishing a filthy mattress on the floor. Mr Zughayer
used to wheel himself to the petrol station where Mr Hassan
worked every day, because he was lonely. Mr Hassan did his
washing; it was he who put the white flag on Mr Zughayer's
"After 4pm I pushed him up to the street as
usual," said Mr
Hassan. "Then I heard the tanks coming, there were four or five.
I heard shooting, and I thought they were just firing warning
shots to tell him to move out of the middle of the road." It was
not until the next morning that Mr Hassan went to check what had
happened. He found the flattened wheelchair in the road, and Mr
Zughayer's mangled body some distance away, in the grass.
The Independent has more such accounts. There
simply is not
enough space to print them all. Mr Bouckaert, the Human Rights
Watch researcher, who is preparing a report, said the sheer
number of these accounts was convincing.
"We've carried out extensive interviews in the camp,
testimonies of dozens of witnesses are entirely consistent with
each other about the extent and the types of abuses that were
carried out in the camp," said Mr Bouckaert, who has investigated
human-rights abuses in a dozen war zones, including Rwanda,
Kosovo and Chechnya. "Over and over again witnesses have been
giving similar accounts of atrocities that were committed. Many
of the people who were killed were young children or elderly
people. Even in the cases of young men; in Palestinian society,
relatives are quite forthcoming when young men are fighters. They
take pride that their young men are so-called 'martyrs'. When
Palestinian families claim their killed relatives were civilians
we give a high degree of credibility to that."
The events at Jenin - which have passed
inside Israel - have created a crisis in Israel's relations with
the outside world. Questions are now being asked increasingly in
Europe over whether Ariel Sharon is, ultimately, fighting a "war
on terror", or whether he is trying to inflict a defeat that will
end all chance of a Palestinian state. These suspicions grew
still stronger this week as pictures emerged of the damage
inflicted by the Israeli army elsewhere in the West Bank during
the operation: the soldiers deliberately trashed institutions of
Palestinian statehood, such as the ministries of health and
To counter the international backlash, the Israeli government has
launched an enormous public-relations drive to justify the
operation in Jenin. Their efforts have been greatly helped by the
Palestinian leadership, who instantly, and without proof,
declared that a massacre had occurred in which as many as 500
died. Palestinian human-rights groups made matters worse by
churning out wild, and clearly untrue, stories.
No holds are barred in the Israeli PR counterattack. The army
realising that many journalists will not bother, or are unable,
to go to Jenin - has even made an Orwellian attempt to alter the
hard, physical facts on the ground. It has announced that the
published reports of the devastated area are exaggerated,
declaring it to be a mere 100m square - about one- twentieth of
its true area.
One spokesman, Major Rafi Lederman, a brigade chief
told a press conference on Saturday that the Israeli armed forces
did not fire missiles from its Cobra helicopters - a claim
dismissed by a Western military expert who has toured the wrecked
camp with one word: "Bollocks." There were, said the major,
"almost no innocent civilians" - also untrue.
The chief aim of the PR campaign has been to redirect the
elsewhere. Israeli officials accuse UNWRA, the UN agency for
Palestinian refugees, for allowing a "terrorist infrastructure"
to evolve in a camp under its administration without raising the
alarm. UNWRA officials wearily point out that it does not
administer the camp; it provides services, mainly schools and
The Israeli army has lashed out at the International Committee of
the Red Cross (ICRC) and Palestinian Red Crescent, whose
ambulances were barred from entering the camp for six days, from
9 to 15 April. It has accused them of refusing to allow the army
to search their vehicles, and of smuggling out Palestinians
posing as wounded. The ICRC has dismissed all these claims as
nonsense, describing the ban - which violates the Geneva
Convention - as "unacceptable".
The Israeli army says it bulldozed buildings after
ended, partly because they were heavily booby trapped but also
because there was a danger of them collapsing on to its soldiers
or Palestinian civilians. But after the army bulldozers withdrew,
The Independent found many families, including children, living
in badly damaged homes that were in severe danger of collapse.
The thrust of Israel's PR drive is to argue that the Palestinians
blew up the neighbourhood, compelling the army to knock it down.
It is true that there were a significant number of Palestinian
booby traps around the camp, but how many is far from clear.
Booby traps are a device typically used by a retreating force
against an advancing one. Here, the Palestinian fighters had
nowhere to go.
What is beyond dispute is that the misery of Jenin is not
There are Palestinians still searching for missing people,
although it is not clear whether they are in Israeli detention,
buried deep under the rubble, or in graves elsewhere.
Suspicions abound among the Palestinians that bodies have
removed by the Israeli army. They cite the Israeli army's
differing statements about the death toll during the Jenin
operation - first it said it thought that there were around 100
Palestinian dead; then it said hundreds of dead and wounded; and,
finally, only dozens. More disturbingly, Israeli military sources
originally said there was a plan to move bodies out of the camp
and bury them in a "special cemetery". They now say that the plan
was shelved after human-rights activists challenged it
successfully at the Israeli supreme court.
Each day, as we interviewed the survivors, there were
explosions as people trod on unexploded bombs and rockets that
littered the ruined camp. One hour after Fadl Musharqa, 42, had
spoken with us about the death of his brother, he was rushed to
the hospital, his foot shattered after he stepped on an
A man came up to us in the hospital holding out something in the
palm of his hand. They were little, brown, fleshy stumps: the
freshly severed toes of his 10-year-old son, who had stepped on
some explosives. The boy lost both legs and an arm. The
explosives that were left behind were both the Palestinians'
crude pipe bombs and the Israelis' state-of-the-art explosives:
the bombs and mines with which they blew open doors, the
helicopter rockets they fired into civilian homes.
These are the facts that the Israeli government does not want the
world to know. To them should be added the preliminary conclusion
of Amnesty International, which has found evidence of severe
abuses of human rights - including extra-judicial executions -
and has called for a war crimes inquiry.
At the time of writing, Israel has withdrawn its
from a fact-finding mission dispatched by the UN Security Council
to find out what happened in Jenin. This is, given what we now
know about the crimes committed there, hardly surprising.