What really happened in Jenin?
A first-hand look at a refugee camp that has become a global symbol
JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK
It was raining when First Lt. Yoni Wolff led his platoon down the hillside at the southern edge of the Jenin refugee camp during the early hours of April 3. He and his fellow soldiers made their way carefully into what he calls "a well-prepared-for-battle terrorist camp."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More than two weeks later, vast swathes of the camp are heaps of cement rubble riven with twisted lengths of construction steel. Here and there, amid the dusty grayness, are signs of humanity: a hairbrush, a child's electronic keyboard, a plastic flower. And of war: bullet casings in several sizes, missile fragments, a section of cladding from an armored personnel carrier.
What lies under this crush is already the subject of international scrutiny. There are bodies but how many? Are they the remains of Palestinians who fought the Israelis or of civilians?
Mohammed Abu Ghali, the director of Jenin's main hospital, said Wednesday that 22 bodies have been recovered, some brought out during the first days of fighting, others only now being discovered. His workers on Wednesday removed a shapeless, fly-swarmed clump of brownish matter, the remains of a body crushed under the treads of a tank.
Wearing green scrubs and a white lab coat during a search for the dead, a sweaty Dr. Abu Ghali estimates the toll at "more than 300." "All the hills you have seen," he says, referring to the pulverized buildings throughout the camp, "they have people still inside them. Some people tell me there are a dozen here, a dozen there."
Yesterday Israeli forces began to withdraw from the camp, clearing the way for residents to return, aid workers to assist them, and investigators to determine what happened during eight days of often intense fighting.
Researchers will have to reconcile Palestinian accounts of an indiscriminate onslaught with the Israeli version of its Jenin incursion.
* * *
Lieutenant Wolff says his platoon had to fight its way through the camp's narrow alleys in its search for Palestinian militants and their stores of weapons and bombs what Israel calls the "infrastructure of terror."
Palestinian gunmen fired at them from bricked-up windows, through slots in the roughshod masonry of cement buildings, even from a mosque, he says. One of Wolff's fellow officers took a bullet in his rear, below his flak jacket.
Scores of explosive booby traps were rigged to wires stretched across the paths of the Israelis. The camp's defenders tossed homemade grenades, some made from plastic piping packed with nails.
"We expected a lot [of resistance]," he says. "We had information that this place was ready for us to come. But we were surprised to see children and women used ... as human shields and as eyes and seekers to find us."
There were other surprises. Early one morning, Wolff's platoon came across a refrigerator in the middle of an alley. It may have been incongruous, but it was not harmless. Army sappers detonated the explosives inside without harm to the Israelis.
Wolff has no regrets about the operation. "Not at all," he says. "All we did was reach our goal, which was to find and destroy terrorist infrastructure, including people terrorists and factories manufacturing explosives. And I think we did it with maximum caution, saving our own lives, and causing minimum damage to innocent civilians."
Like his superior officers, Wolff denies Palestinian claims of a massacre in the camp. "There was never a slaughter in Jenin," says Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, who directs Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories. "When civilians are being killed it is the result of a mistake."
Israeli officials initially said the Palestinian death toll in the camp was around 100. Later they revised their estimate down to "dozens."
Wolff argues that the Israeli death toll 23 soldiers lost in the Jenin camp, including 13 in a double-ambush on April 9 is proof of the care the Israelis took. They resisted the urge to flatten the camp with copious aerial bombardments a tactic the US has used in Afghanistan, Wolff notes in order to spare civilian lives. Some of the tactics that camp residents say were used indiscriminately, such as helicopter missile attacks and the bulldozing of houses, were in fact performed with painstaking precision, Wolff avers.