Jenin ground zero

Exactly what happened in the devastated Jenin refugee camp remains unknown. But for its residents, "There is no future left."

Published April 19, 2002 7:46PM (EDT)

"This is worse than Hiroshima," wails an old Palestinian man near what used to be the center of the Jenin refugee camp. He may be forgiven for exaggerating, after the days he has spent hiding from Israeli missiles, tanks and bulldozers. Jenin is not Hiroshima, but the moonscape of rubble, sprinkled with furniture and clothes, that has replaced what was once a warren of concrete houses and narrow alleyways, stuns everyone who sees it into a state of disbelief.

Shots still ring out through the ruined streets and over the heaps of bulldozed and flattened wreckage on Wednesday, as dazed survivors and small groups of equally bewildered aid workers wander the desolate landscape. Fighting in the camp ended less than a week ago, when the Israelis said they had gained full control. On Thursday, the soldiers finally withdrew from the camp and parts of the adjacent city of Jenin -- apparently having "finished the job" that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent them to do.

The price they paid, and made the Palestinians pay, for that military victory was high. The army lost 23 soldiers during two weeks of bitter fighting in Jenin -- more than it has ever lost in a single engagement in the West Bank. Palestinian fighters in the camp, which the Israelis call a "viper's nest of terror," offered fierce resistance. How many Palestinians died, and under what circumstances, is unknown.

At the top end of the field of rubble that extends from the lower-lying center of the camp, a blackened, half-destroyed room overlooks what used to be the Damaj neighborhood. A munitions belt and a charred piece of a leg still lie in the room. The bodies of the three fighters who were killed when a missile struck their hideout have been removed, say the people who live in the adjacent area. In the soot on the floor the outline of where they fell is still visible.

Mohammed Al Fayyad, a 62-year-old former day laborer, lives in the first house behind where the fighters died. He gazes out over the ruins of his former neighborhood and describes what happened when the Israelis attacked. "I will not lie. The resistance was fierce, there were a lot of fighters there." The first four days of the offensive, helicopters and tanks fired missiles and grenades into the quarter nonstop, around the clock, he says. In the second phase, the bulldozers came in to plow open a way for the tanks and to demolish the core of the resistance. "It took them three days to destroy these homes," says Al Fayyad, who remained inside the entire time. He claims that the Israelis gave no warning before they demolished the houses. Many other inhabitants of the camp, however, say that the Israelis did give people a chance to leave.

His neighbor, Abu Bassel, is worried sick about his son Weam. The 17-year-old boy went out during the shooting. "He got afraid and thought it was better to leave, but now I haven't heard from him for eight days," he says in anguish. He decries the unbalanced nature of the fight that took place in the camp. "We don't have Apache helicopters and airplanes, all U.S.-made, or tanks or even many guns. How can we resist? They did to us what the Americans did in Afghanistan."

Just what happened in Jenin is still unclear. Palestinian survivors tell tales of atrocities, of warfare of primordial and one-sided ferocity -- buildings bulldozed with people inside them, indiscriminate fire poured down upon civilians and combatants alike, Israeli snipers gunning down unarmed people searching for food or water, children bleeding to death in the street. It is impossible to substantiate any of these stories at this time. In many cases, but not all, it turns out that the people who make these claims did not actually witness the events they describe, but were told them by others. Even those who were inside the camp during the fighting often saw little, because it was too dangerous to look out.

The Israelis say they targeted their fire very carefully. But the flattened heart of the camp -- a wasteland the size of several football fields -- makes it difficult to believe that all of the Israeli fire was so precise. To the civilian eye, at least, the devastation seems to speak more of revenge than of military necessity. The truth may lie in between: Israeli commanders may simply have decided that the safest and most efficient way to eliminate the gunmen in the heart of the densely populated, heavily booby-trapped camp was to essentially vaporize it with overwhelming firepower and monstrous bulldozers. How much warning the inhabitants were given before the heart of the camp was obliterated, like everything else involving those hellish two weeks, is a matter of dispute.

In the propaganda war that's raging around the devastated camp, the Israeli government is staging a counterattack. The army says it did all it could to avoid civilian casualties during the fighting -- in contrast, it sometimes implies, to the mass aerial bombings the U.S. carried out in Afghanistan. Lieutenant Yoni Wolff, who led one of the first platoons into the camp, said that with the help of aerial photography maps, the soldiers on the ground would order missile strikes from helicopters specifically on the source of the resistance. "We would identify a room where snipers were and tell the helicopter pilot which house to hit. I would tell them to fire in the third window on the left and they would fire at the exact window they were firing from," Wolff said when he was made available to the press in Jerusalem.

Wolff blames much of the devastation on the way the Palestinians fought the army, laying booby traps and mining the houses. "Every alley we walked down was booby-trapped, wires were connected along the streets. Almost every house we walked into was booby-trapped," said Wolff. He insists that the soldiers did not bulldoze houses when they knew there were civilians inside and that the army frequently called on the inhabitants to give themselves up and leave the combat area.

There is some disagreement among the camp residents about whether such calls were indeed issued everywhere. But many thousands did leave the camp. The women and children were usually allowed to go straight to the villages in the surrounding hills or to the neighboring town of Jenin; the men, however, were almost all arrested. They were told to strip before being taken away. Heaps of discarded clothes in the ruined streets still show where they were captured.

Some of the women who left the camp have slowly started drifting back in from the hills, even though all access is still prohibited and the camp remains a closed military zone. Wajia Taleb stands, in a state of shock, in what used to be her living room. The whole building, and everything around it, is gone. "I wouldn't have known that this was my house, except for the kitchen cupboards," she says. Miraculously, one wall lined with olive-green kitchen cupboards has remained standing. "This is the first time I've come back to see what was left and I lost my mind when I saw it," says Taleb, a 48-year-old housewife. She and her daughters left after a rocket hit the building, killing her son Mahmoud. Her husband Mohammed was arrested and she doesn't know where he is. "We saved 20 years to be able to build this house and now I have lost everything. I lost my house, my son, my husband and my mind," she says.

What happened in the Jenin camp is certain to be a matter of speculation, and intense controversy, for years to come. The massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen of between 700 and 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut 20 years ago, for which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was found by an Israeli inquiry to bear "personal responsibility," still burns as a white-hot political issue in the Arab world -- and Jenin has already joined Sabra and Shatilla as an icon of horror for Palestinians.

The political ramifications of what happened here are underscored by the presence of Javier Zuniga, who is looking into possible human rights violations for Amnesty International. "I am not a military expert, but this looks more like an earthquake," says Zuniga, who looks incongruous among the wreckage in his suit and tie. He wears the same stunned expression as others who walk around the camp. Zuniga says it is impossible to reconstruct the events in the camp until the bulldozed ruins are excavated. Relief agencies are bringing in equipment and experts in disasters and earthquakes to deal with the situation. The estimates of the number of people entombed beneath the rubble range from several dozen to several hundred. Judging by the unbearable stench in parts of the camp, some bodies appear to be buried in there. There is also some hope, though, that some survivors may yet be rescued.

Amnesty International delegates in Jenin released a statement saying "We fear that if investigations are not carried out at once to clarify the circumstances of the killings of hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp, crucial evidence may be destroyed as Israel continues to impede access to the camp to the outside world."

On Thursday, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, visited the camp and said the sight was "horrifying beyond belief." He too compared the devastation as being more akin to that caused by an earthquake than combat. He was sharply critical of Israel's earlier refusal to let relief workers into the camp. "It is totally unacceptable that the government of Israel for 11 days did not allow search and rescue teams to come," he said. The Israelis say that the situation in the camp was too dangerous to allow relief workers in.

Meanwhile, the fog of war still covers all. It is by no means certain that many bodies will be found underneath the vast area of rubble. So far, reliable eyewitnesses of alleged massacres cannot be found, but that does not mean that they will not come forward when the dust has finally settled. Rumors of bodies buried in mass graves abound but none have yet been located.

Over the past week I spoke to several dozen inhabitants of the camp, of whom about four were in the camps during the entire operation. The rest were all present for the first four to seven days. Many of their stories sound uncannily familiar, like the one in which a handicapped person who is either deaf and dumb or cannot move fast enough is buried underneath the rubble of his house, despite pleas to the Israeli soldiers. Another widely circulated account is of mass graves being dug and bodies being dumped in either sewers or just large holes. None of the stories can be corroborated as yet, and it is unclear if different people are describing the same scene or if different locations are involved.

The U.N. agency that runs all the Palestinian refugee camps, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), estimates that about 25 percent of the camp, which covers about 80 acres and is home to an estimated 13,000 refugees, has been destroyed. Richard Cook, UNWRA's operations director on the West Bank, is personally overseeing the relief effort in the camp. He says he was shocked when he first saw the extent of the damage. "I am from Coventry in England, a city that was very heavily bombed during the Second World War. I'm not saying it's comparable in size, but the damage reminds me of what I saw after the war of the damage of aerial bombardments," recounts Cook.

Cook says it's imperative to get disaster relief experts and possibly earthquake rescue equipment in soon, because some people may still be trapped beneath the rubble. Until rescuers are positive that there are no more survivors and bodies, the cleanup effort cannot start. He says UNRWA too was "frustrated" by the refusal of the Israeli army to let the rescue effort get underway sooner. Only since Monday have teams been able to go in to assess the situation.

Dr. Mohammed Abu Ghali, the director of the Jenin Government Hospital, is helping, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), to clear the bodies from the camp. So far, his hospital has received 22 of the dead. During one afternoon in the camp it was not difficult to locate some 10 other probable spots where bodies are buried. Relief workers and local volunteers indicate caved-in ceilings and crushed walls underneath which, they say, the bodies lie.

"Look at those hills of stones over there," Abu Ghali says, gesturing at the destroyed center. "That used to be houses, dozens of houses." He is constantly approached by people who say they know where victims have been buried underneath the rubble. "They say here there are 10 and 20 there and another 20 there," says Abu Ghali, who thinks that at least 300 to 400 people have died. Bitterly looking out over the rubble, he asks, "How would you feel if this was the view from your house?"

The Israeli army has to give permission for each body to be removed. Abu Ghali is waiting near the unrecognizable remains of a man who has been badly mangled by tanks. The body is laid out on a white plastic sheet, to be loaded onto a cart pulled by a tractor. "The Israelis are sadists," says Abu Ghali. "Their commander just now looked at the body and said that it was fantastic." The remains are wrapped up and put on the cart.

The recovery process is chaotic and emotional. The people who approach the doctor often can hardly contain themselves in their eagerness to tell the stories of what happened. He writes down the names and the location of the victims that are reported to him in a small notebook and even on scraps of paper. "Mahmoud Fayyad, is that the same person as Mohammed Fayyad?" he muses while standing in a devastated street with dozens of people crowding around him. "No, doctor, they are father and son," somebody clarifies. Abu Ghali seems satisfied to have cleared it up and jots it down in his notebook.

The slow pace of the process is stoking fears that the decomposing bodies will pose a health hazard, but both UNRWA and the ICRC say that, for now, that is not yet the case. The ICRC was only involved in the recovery effort on Monday, the first day the Israelis rescuers in, and took out seven bodies. There were reports that their representatives pulled out in anger at the Israeli army, but the ICRC spokesperson is circumspect. "We just have to prioritize -- the ends of the living take up many of our resources," the spokeswoman says. "Besides, it is the responsibility of the Israeli authorities to remove the bodies and see to it that they are handed over to the families for a proper burial." The army announced its intention to bury Palestinians killed in Jenin in unmarked graves in northern Israel, but in response to a lawsuit brought by Israeli Arabs, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that although the army had the right to remove the bodies, Red Cross workers could accompany the soldiers and that the remains had to be handed over to the families for burial.

The delays and the confusion have spurred some camp residents to begin finding and burying bodies themselves, making an already chaotic situation still more confusing. A group of men, many covering their mouths with surgical masks, is gathered around the entrance to the backyard of a house. "We have buried five martyrs in the corner," says Tawfiq Salah, a vegetable trader who has taken it upon himself to start locating bodies. "The smell was so bad, we had to start doing something." Several young men with shovels are piling more earth on top of the graves. "They are not all complete bodies," says Salah. "There are also many body parts."

On a devastated square, set back slightly from the destroyed central part of the camp, 65-year-old Subhi Suleiman sits crying amid the rubble. Apart from his wife and one daughter, he has no idea of what happened to the 28 members of his extended family. He points his improvised walking stick to the area around him, known as Djoret al-Dahab, or Golden Hole. "This was such a nice neighborhood, so safe and pleasant." He waves in the direction of a half-demolished shop. "I always used to drink my coffee there and chat with the neighbors. But there are no neighbors left; there is no future left."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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