By Justin Huggler And Phil Reeves
The Independent (UK), April 25, 2002

The thought was as unshakable as  the  stench  wafting  from  the
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
belongings -reeked.

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.  We  have
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  by
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,  Fatah
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  had  overwhelming
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  long,   detailed
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,"  she
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  started
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  Damaj.
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  side.
"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  by  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
allowed through.

Ismehan Murad, another neighbour, told us the soldiers  had  been
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  rubble.  His
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,  the
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.  Faris
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  didn't
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:  the
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
did nothing.

Fifteen-year-old Mohammed Hawashin was shot dead as he  tried  to
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  first
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,  and  the
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  almost  unquestioned
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  of  staff,
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  blame
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  the  battle
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  over.
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  been
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  several
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  co-operation
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.

(c) Independent