Al-Ahram Weekly – 28 November 2002
An office swivel chair is still posted at the third- floor window of 75-year-old Tawfiq Marhad’s home. Hidden among the skirts of some heavy blue drapes are a handful of Israel army bullet casings fired during a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants in Jenin refugee camp last Friday. “I thought we had cleared them all away,” says Marhad.
It was from this window that the bullet that killed Iain Hook, 53, a British United Nations worker, was almost certainly fired. He bled to death some time after 1.15pm, after a UN ambulance was blocked by the army from reaching him. Although the autopsy report has yet to be issued, he is believed to have been hit by a single bullet in the back.
The Israeli army, which has admitted responsibility for Hook’s death, says the shot was fired after a gun battle with Palestinian militants who were inside the UN compound. According to Israeli reports, Hook was holding a cellphone which a sniper mistook for a grenade. Foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also said that gunmen hid in the compound “seeking to create more casualties”.
It is an account the UN spokesman Paul McGann called “totally incredible” on Monday, after a preliminary investigation by a security team that arrived from New York on Sunday.
They are now trying to reconstruct what happened at the compound using a series of phone conversations Hook had with local commanders for several hours from 8am when soldiers began taking over the neighbourhood. Hook had spent all morning appealing without success to senior Israeli commanders for a cease-fire so that some 25 UN staff could be evacuated from the compound.
The United Nations adamantly denies that the compound was infiltrated by Palestinian militants and is equally sure that no gunfire was being returned from inside the area. “The compound is very small and at no stage did we lose control of it. There were no Palestinian militants in the compound,” McGann said.
It is a conclusion supported by an Al-Ahram Weekly investigation which throws considerable doubt on the army’s version of events. The compound is described by UN staff as like “a high- security petrol station forecourt”. It is surrounded on all sides by a 10ft concrete wall, topped by another 6ft of wire netting, and the whole area is covered with a low metal awning. Inside are a few metal cabins in which staff were working on the plans for the reconstruction of the refugee camp, a part of which was destroyed by an army invasion in April. Anyone inside the compound has a very restricted view, only of the top floors of neighbouring buildings. Had Palestinian militants been shooting from inside, the site around Marhad’s third-floor window would have been one of the few areas they would have been able to target. But there are no bullet holes anywhere around the window on that part of the building.
Marhad, who was under arrest on the street outside his home along with dozens of other men that morning, was one of the few who was not blindfolded because of his age. He says he watched the soldiers inside his home and at the third-floor window. “There was no firing towards that window,” he said. “In fact when I heard the bullet fired that killed Mr Hook, there had been no shooting for many minutes.” His story is confirmed by UN sources who say there had been a lull of “tens of minutes” before Hook was shot.
Another inconsistency in the army story is provided by a woman who lives next to the compound. Her home has the only window under the awning, providing an almost unrestricted view of the compound’s interior.
The woman, who would only give her name as Hayim, says she was held by the army in that room with her eight daughters all morning. “The soldiers locked us in the room and came up to check on us about every hour,” she said. “They took over our shop on the ground floor which has no view of the compound.”
The army needs to explain why, if the compound was overrun with Palestinian gunmen, it endangered nine civilians by placing them in this exposed room. It also needs to explain why it did not take the room for its snipers, who could have easily targeted any militants moving around the compound.
Hayim says she talked to Hook on several occasions through the window and that he was moving freely about the compound. “Early on he was gesticulating to people at their windows across the street. Telling them to get down for their own safety. He told me several times to keep away from the window.”
UN sources have also observed that even if Hook had been a Palestinian militant holding a grenade, given the 16ft wall and fence and the awning that covered it, it would have been almost impossible for him to have thrown it outside. The fact that he was shot in the back also makes the grenade story improbable.
There is the question too of why an Israeli sniper chose to fire inside the compound when the whole area was sealed. He would have known it was a UN site because it is clearly marked with both large letters “UN” on the awning and a UN flag.
As any militants were effectively trapped inside, and given that Hook was in regular contact with the army by phone, the army could have surrounded the compound and tried to negotiate their surrender.
Testimony given to the UN investigators by staff suggests that the sniper who shot Hook later turned his laser sight on another international UN worker who came outside to call for help. The worker said he saw the red light of the gun on his chest.
Hook, who had only recently arrived in the refugee camp, quickly became a popular figure. Palestinians witnesses uniformly took the view that he was killed because the army wants the UN presence in the camp removed. The UN has been severely criticised by Israel for allowing militants to control refugee camps like the one at Jenin. The UN retorts that it has no security role in the camps.
One Palestinian said: “Mr Hook cared about us and our future. He really wanted to know what we wanted from the new buildings. The soldiers hated people like him for helping us and now they have made their point.”