Al-Ahram Weekly – 18 April 2002
Omar Said was wary of the international food aid: bottles of water, sacks of flour and rice, bags of sugar, being stacked up in front of the Jenin Charitable Society’s offices on the edge of the city last weekend.
Inside, some 40 families, more than 200 people, were struggling to make a temporary home there, sleeping in corridors or on the floor of the building’s half a dozen rooms. Almost everyone’s eyes were bloodshot, maybe the result of too many tears or too little sleep, or simply the effect of living through two weeks of fear and terror.
The human flotsam at the charitable society were just a tiny part of the exodus from Jenin refugee camp, home until recently to 16,000 Palestinians in a one square kilometre next to the city.
“If I take this food, what does it mean?” asked 26- year-old Said, a store-owner in the camp. “Will the world look at me and my wife and three children and say now they have accepted that they are refugees again? I want only one thing and that is to be allowed back to the Jenin camp.”
The suspicion that Israel will never allow them to return to their homes was shared by all the camp’s exiled inhabitants, whether they were in Jenin city or in the handful of outlying villages to which many have been forced to flee.
In each, the mosque or school was serving as a makeshift sanctuary, its rooms packed with thin mattresses and blankets.
In Rumani, a few kilometres from Jenin, the men thronged in the street by the mosque like stall holders in a huge market where there was nothing to sell. There were similar groups in Qabatiya, Taiyba, Birqin and Zubua.
On the walls of the mosque were scrawled in green and red felt-tip long lists of the names of the new arrivals, more than 800 of them, all men and all separated from their wives and families.
They said they had been stripped and made to wait for many hours without clothing before their interrogation. Some said they had been told to stay in Rumani or they would be shot or jailed. None had any idea of what they would do next.
Tales of war crimes committed by soldiers in the camp were rife: houses demolished while the inhabitants were inside; young men shot at close range after they had surrendered; men made to lie in the street and then crushed under the tanks.
All these accounts are impossible to verify so long as the Israeli army prevents journalists from entering the camp.
But it was in the less sensational details of people’s experiences that the individual tragedy of the Battle of Jenin was revealed. Families separated, loved ones missing, and hanging over it all the fear that they were homeless and rootless again.
Jamil Wardin, 26, was found wandering through fields near Rumani a week ago, in his underwear and shouting profanities at anyone who approached. It took the villagers several hours to calm him.
“Crazy” someone said. But what sent him crazy? Could it be the three nights he and his heavily pregnant wife, Areej, spent as the tanks wrecked the streets outside and Apache helicopters fired missiles from overhead? Or maybe it was his wife going into labour at midnight as the shelling reached its peak. Or was it trying to explain his wife’s condition to the soldiers pointing their guns at him and screaming at him to go back indoors? Or perhaps it was watching his wife grow sicker through the night? Or carrying his wife, white flag in hand, out to the tanks at dawn to try to persuade them to let them go to hospital? Or maybe it was being made to strip in the street and lie on the ground with his wife, while the soldiers discussed the significance of the 400 shekels ($100) in his trouser pockets. Or being separated from his wife and unborn baby at the time they needed him most.
Or possibly it was the humiliation of sitting at the interrogation centre stripped to his underwear for many hours while waiting to be questioned. Then again, maybe it was the realisation that here, in Rumani, he had lost everything that was precious to him.
In Jenin, Fadi Jerar, 32, an ambulance driver, took me on a tour of the main street via his home. Parked outside the building were seven tanks. On the top balcony a soldier was barricaded in and surveying the area through binoculars.
Inside were 12 members of Jerar’s family, including his two children. Because of his work, he alone had been allowed to leave the building since the occupation.
His home in Mahata Street, opposite the general hospital, marked the beginning of the closed military zone that covers the camp.
Heading back, we entered a town that looked like it had just been visited by a tornado of unimaginable force and unnerving precision. Electricity pylons were felled, lying twisted across the street. Shop fronts were smashed, gutted or looted. The tarmac on the road was ripped apart and rutted with tank tread-marks.
Cars were crushed. Homes were burned out or had walls missing.
And this was only the city; the refugee camp suffered a much worse fate.
At the Jenin Charitable Society, 23-year- old Nijma Amori was sitting by a wall apparently disinterested by the aid convoy. She had arrived from the camp the day before, on Friday, the day after Israeli soldiers claimed to have secured the area.
She said she had been among 70 Palestinians holed up at her father’s home near the centre of the camp until last Friday morning. They had moved there earlier in the week to act as human shield for the fighters against the Israeli onslaught.
“We thought the presence of women and children there would deter the army from shelling,” she said.
She had arrived after watching five young men bleed to death in her own house. They and a sixth, who died in the street, were handing out bread when an Apache missile hit them, she said. She opened the door to let them in.
At her father’s, they had not dared to go outside but had seen from the window more than two dozen bodies. By Thursday, after the camp was secured by the army, bulldozers moved in and started demolishing houses and picking up bodies four or five at a time in their buckets. She said she did not know where the bodies were now.
Her group was finally forced to leave the camp when soldiers detonated the door and fired inside. The men and women were separated, she said, and the men made to strip. The men then had to walk across the rubble and broken glass in the street barefoot.
Everybody was held from dawn until dusk. Nijma’s father and two brothers were taken away and the women told to head towards Jenin city. They were ordered to look only at the ground as they left.