Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 May 2002
The hands scratching frantically at the grey dust were searching for a body under the rubble. A skull found moments earlier at the same spot brought hope to the crowd of onlookers that another victim of Israel’s 10-day invasion of Jenin refugee camp in early April was about to be identified.
Watching intently were the brothers of Jamal Fayid, a mentally and physically handicapped man of 37 who died on 9 April when Israeli army bulldozers demolished the family house before Jamal could be evacuated. His body has been missing for seven weeks.
But the handful of bones pulled from the lunar landscape of destruction at the centre of Jenin refugee camp last Saturday were unlikely to be Jamal’s. The site was several hundred metres from where he is known to have died.
The mystery of Jamal’s death continues to haunt his family, drawing his father and brothers each day to a house overlooking the spot where the family home once stood.
Hanging on the outside wall beneath the room where they meet is Jamal’s crumpled wheelchair. It is both a memorial to Jamal and a reminder to visitors that the family’s search for him is not yet ended.
“We are very suspicious about what happened to Jamal’s body,” said his brother Khaled Rasheed, a 45-year-old art teacher. “We found the wheelchair and his belongings, even the supply of nappies he needed, but where is his body?”
The family fear that the Israeli army removed the body to hide evidence of what they believe was a war crime. “After we were made to leave the house, we pleaded with the soldiers to let us bring Jamal out but they refused,” said Rasheed.
“They knew he was still in there but they brought in the bulldozers anyway.”
In the conflicting accounts of the death toll in Jenin it is unclear whether Jamal is listed as one of the camp’s missing or among the official dead.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides services to Palestinian refugees, says there is continuing confusion because some non-refugees not registered with the agency were living there.
It cites a figure of 54 dead and two missing but admits the figures are provisional: a dozen or so men believed missing may be under the rubble, in Israeli jails or in hiding.
The Fayid family’s anger at the army’s killing of Jamal is only equalled by their despair at the failure of the international community to organise a proper search for his body.
“It has been left to us and our friends to pick through the rubble,” said Jamal’s father, Mahmoud Fayid, 70. “Where are the search and rescue teams that turn up to every disaster in the rest of the world?”
The view voiced by many of the camp’s inhabitants is that they are quickly being forgotten by a world that has decided, based on scant evidence and on obscure numerical principles, that there was no massacre committed in the camp.
The impression that they have been abandoned is hard to dispute: after Israel’s refusal to allow a UN fact-finding mission to Jenin, the journalists and human rights workers have drifted away. Last Saturday only a Swedish team of volunteers delivering desalinated water to the camp’s hospital were to be seen at work.
Otherwise, the huge mounds of rubble separated by grey, dusty expanses cleared as “streets” are deserted apart from residents who refuse to leave the ruined heart of the camp.
Many are still scavenging for whatever remains of their former life. Fahimi Ali Abi Jabar, 72, was crouched over scraps of material from dresses and pillowcases she had recovered from the rubble that was once her home.
“I have washed them all. This,” she said, caressing a length of grey, silky cloth, “is from a beautiful dress I wore when I was younger.”
Some inhabitants have set up tents amid the rubble. Others live in their crumbling, cinderblock homes on the edge of the razed area, walls and ceilings propped up by unimpressive wooden scaffolding provided by the UN. Written on the planks in English and Arabic is the warning “Falling objects.”
About the only good news for the 14,000 camp residents is a donation from the United Arab Emirates of $35 million that is being channelled through UNRWA.
That money at least means that the 800 or so families that lost everything have rent to pay for rooms in undamaged parts of the camp or in Jenin town for the next six months.
Amel Abdel-Hamid, 44, is among those benefiting from the handouts. She lost her home in the camp twice: once in December last year when the Israeli army set fire to her house days after her 20-year-old son Mustafa Abu Sarriya went on a shooting spree in the nearby Israeli town of Afula; and again during the April invasion when the house was demolished.
“I have 12 children and we have nothing now,” she said. “So we have a temporary roof over our heads but how are we going to start rebuilding our lives? Who cares any more?”
Plans for the reconstruction of the destroyed centre of the camp, some 500 metres by 400 metres, are not yet even on the drawing board. There are disputes over whether the camp’s centre should be rebuilt or part of it dedicated as a memorial to the dead.
Then there is the question of whether the work should be delayed so that evidence of war crimes can be collected. But that depends on an international commitment to investigate, for which there appears no urgency.
And finally, and most seriously, there is the problem of unexploded ordnance which is continuing to hamper even the most basic operations of the relief agencies.
Sami Mashasha, an UNRWA spokesman, said: “The site is still littered with live ordnance, both Palestinian and Israeli, that threatens the lives of camp residents and aid workers. Once we begin it will take several months to clear.”
Thirty-four people have been injured and two killed by unexploded ordnance since the Israeli army’s withdrawal, including a girl of 12 who died last week when she stepped on a shell.
Several children offered me live ammunition, including Amel Abdel-Hamid’s 12-year-old daughter, Dinar.
Mashasha says special equipment to defuse the ordnance is available but UNRWA’s attempts to secure it have been blocked by Israel at every turn.
“First we asked the army for the equipment but they refused. Then we went to private Israeli companies but the army objected, as it did when we approached foreign agencies. Until we get the equipment, there is little serious rebuilding work we can start.”
This latest obstruction of help to Jenin camp, says one resident, 45-year-old teacher Ali Demaj, should be added to the other war crimes perpetrated by the Israeli army in the aftermath of the battle there: the blocking of humanitarian aid, the denial of access for ambulances and doctors to the injured, and the refusal to allow rescue teams to search for people buried under the rubble.
But even if the work of cleaning up the ruins of Jenin camp can begin, there is the question of where the rest of the money will come from to restore some normality to the lives of the inhabitants.
One senior aid worker admitted that the hardest task will be persuading donor countries to dig into their pockets once again. “They have paid out a lot of money in the past to create the infrastructure of a Palestinian state,” he said.
“To be honest, I’m not sure how ready they are to do it again.”