The Guardian – 3 June 2002
United Nations special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen entered Jenin refugee camp on April 18, shortly after Israel lifted its news blackout, and declared the sight of the devastated camp “horrific beyond belief”. He was not alone in being appalled. The pictures of a vast wasteland that days before had been home to thousands of Palestinians shocked the world.
Six weeks later, the horror of the camp is undiminished. The only visible difference is that peacemakers like Roed-Larsen are nowhere to be found. Last week, there were plenty of families sitting out the midday heat under makeshift tents or in crumbling buildings propped up with wooden scaffolding. At least 2,000 people are homeless and some were still scavenging for whatever belongings survived the collapse of their homes.
Children showed off the live rounds they had collected. According to the UN’s refugee arm UNRWA, since the Israeli army left there have been 34 injuries from unexploded ordnance and two deaths, including that of a 12-year-old girl.
Many of the camp’s 15,000 inhabitants are still in shock after 10 days of bombardment from Cobra and Apache helicopters, and shelling and gunfire from Merkava tanks. Occasionally, a body is unearthed. The official Palestinian death toll stands at 56, but in the confusion caused by Israel’s mass round-up of men no one is sure how many people are still unaccounted for.
After the week-long frenzy of concern in mid-April, the current silence of the international community is truly scandalous. One cannot but suspect that the world has chosen to forget Jenin.
Two related factors contributed to this rapid loss of interest. The first occurred with the west’s supine acceptance of Israel’s decision to block a UN fact-finding mission. There is little doubt that the UN lost its nerve to push for an inquiry. The fierce criticism UNWRA now faces in the US has increased its reluctance to publicise the camp’s plight.
The second factor was the hasty claims – made by Palestinian and Israeli spokesmen in the absence of concrete facts – that hundreds of Jenin’s inhabitants had been killed. Given the world’s inflated expectations, the talk of a massacre seemed grossly disproportionate once the camp was opened to scrutiny. The casualties sustained by the Israeli army, including 23 soldiers killed, only fed the view that Jenin was a messy but essentially fair fight.
The massacre theory was soon discounted. The numerical threshold, wherever it lay, had not been crossed – and neither, argued Israel, had the moral threshold. This position was justified by Israel’s assertion that almost all of Jenin’s victims were fighters. The evidence from UNRWA, however, is that at least a quarter of the dead were women, young children, pensioners or disabled, as were many of the injured.
But there is no need to get bogged down in imprecise debates about what constitutes a massacre. These deaths can be judged as war crimes according to legal yardsticks we already possess, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Take just one example that cries out for investigation. Jamal Fayid, a mentally and physically handicapped man of 37, was killed when an Israeli bulldozer razed his family’s home, even though his brothers say they warned the army he was still inside. The family dug up his crumpled wheelchair but seven weeks on still cannot find his body, which they allege was removed to conceal evidence of a war crime.
Israeli commentators have been quick to dismiss calls for a war crimes investigation, implying that the Palestinians are pursuing it only as a consolation prize for failing to win recognition for their massacre claims.
Aid agencies and human rights groups, including the International Red Cross, Médicins sans Frontières, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have produced weighty research indicating that the Israeli army committed a variety of war crimes. At least some of their evidence has been confirmed by soldiers who admit their comrades panicked and shot indiscriminately after the army incurred losses.
The charge sheet against Israel is long. It includes the failure to allow sufficient time for the civilian population to evacuate before the bombardment began, the use of human shields to protect soldiers, the degrading treatment of the male population, the blocking of aid, attacks on medical teams, and the denial of access to search and rescue teams.
I and other journalists can personally substantiate some of these claims. For example, after Jenin town and its refugee camp were militarily secured, I saw dozens of trucks bearing aid supposedly delivered to Jenin days earlier stranded in a car park in the neighbouring village of Jalameh. And a Red Crescent driver who gave me a guided tour of the battlefield in his ambulance showed me several bullet holes, including one in the windscreen.
But one does not need to look to the past for evidence of Israeli war crimes – such a crime is being committed in Jenin as you read this. For more than two weeks, the UN has been trying to secure permission from the Israeli army to bring equipment into the camp to defuse the hundreds of unexploded shells and rounds in the rubble that threaten the lives of the inhabitants and aid workers.
Casualties could have been prevented had Israel assisted in – or at least not obstructed – UN attempts to dispose of unexploded ordnance. According to Guy Siri, a senior UNRWA field worker in the West Bank, the army has refused to provide its own equipment and blocked access to private contractors. No reconstruction of the camp can begin until the ordnance is cleared.
One possible reason for such obstruction is that Israel decided that the terrorist infrastructure it wanted to destroy could not be separated from the civilian infrastructure of the camp. The army confronted not a few wanted men hiding among the local population but a network of fighters whose families loyally supported their decision to resist Israel’s occupation.
Israel has recently made a series of quieter incursions into Jenin, destroying property and arresting suspects. There is every reason to expect bigger raids. Keeping the heart of the camp in ruins will make Jenin more accessible next time the tanks rumble in. If this is Israel’s view of Jenin’s future, it is being tacitly supported by the international community. Talking to one aid agency, I was told that western donations had dried up. Investing in the reconstruction of Palestinian towns is considered a waste of money. Why help build a Palestinian state when the Israeli army is waiting to destroy it?