What really happened in Jenin?

A first-hand look at a refugee camp that has become a global symbol

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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?

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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.

The Israelis worked with maps created from aerial photographs, each building numbered. Missiles from helicopters, Wolff insists, were carefully guided to their targets to avoid civilians. "It's very, very precise," he says of the missile strikes. "To the window."

* * *

A five-hour walk through the camp on Wednesday, from its southeastern edge to its northwestern corner, yields some evidence of this precision. The outline of a corpse and part of a leg – the remains of a fighter, judging from a military-style vest nearby – lie in a room blackened by an apparent missile strike.

But there are also signs of a much more blunt-edged approach. In at least three neighborhoods, spaces ranging in size from half a football field to four times that area have been flattened to rubble by Israeli munitions and bulldozers.

The Israelis say the demolition was carried out to make way for tanks and armored personnel carriers to reach areas of the camp where Palestinian fighters were holed up. Some residents report that the Israelis used loudspeakers to tell people to flee houses that were about to be destroyed, but others say the demolitions commenced without warning.

Where there was once urban congestion, suddenly there are sweeping views of the city of Jenin, which lies along the northern and western edges of the camp.

The camp covers about a square kilometer. Until the incursion, nearly all of it was a densely built warren of cement buildings, few higher than four stories. Some 14,000 people, mainly Palestinians rendered homeless in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, lived there. Most are poor and have big families.

Wajia Taleb, a mother of nine, wearing a loose-fitting print dress and a white headscarf, stands aghast at the site of her home. The front rooms are gone, and the kitchen and a children's bedroom have been shorn open. Passersby can see themselves in her children's dressing mirror, its frame decorated with cartoon characters.

Ms. Taleb isn't mourning only her house; she says the Israelis killed one of her sons, whom she adds was not a militant. She lists her losses: her son, her home, her mind. "All our life, we worked to build this home, and now we don't have one," she says, before turning and walking away.

* * *

Shane Dabrowski, a volunteer firefighter from Canada with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, is trying to aid the wounded in the camp. In the wake of an eight-day battle that left scores of people dead, it seems obvious that many injured Palestinians need help. But along with the body count, the fate of the wounded is unclear. There are hardly any. Mr. Dabrowski says the Red Crescent may have located "one or two, but I can't even say that for sure."

Some may have died for lack of treatment, especially because Israel barred or inhibited aid workers from the camp for nearly a week after the fighting all but ended. Others may be in hiding, fearful of seeking treatment as long as Israeli soldiers are in the area. With Israel's pull-out, they may appear. "It may just be that we have to find them," Dabrowski says.

* * *

Tawfik Saleh, a balding vegetable seller with round features, has just organized a group of men to bury the remains of five people found under crushed buildings. Until he stands up to answer questions, he squats next to a tree, a blank, tired expression on his middle-aged face. "Most" of the five were civilians, he says.

"There is this harsh smell," he explains, wearing torn latex gloves and a surgical mask doused with perfume. If the decomposition of the dead continues, he adds, "it will be a big health disaster here. We are close to a disaster."

Mr. Saleh's crew chose a small, wall-enclosed yard. Now a corner is tamped-down earth. Later he finds Dr. Abu Ghali, who is standing in front of a partially damaged three-story building.

Saleh gives the doctor a piece of cardboard with the names of the five dead people written on it. The doctor adds the names to a list in a little notebook, and tells Saleh that one is already recorded.

Abu Ghali is in front of the building for a reason. In a second-floor bedroom, a heap of rubble, perhaps the result of a tank shell or missile strike, covers what residents say are the bodies of three people.

Light enters through cracks in the walls of the building; it is too dangerous to dig out the corpses.

Inside the charred room, peering into the mass of crumbled masonry with a flashlight offers no visual evidence of the dead. But as flies crawl between the jumbled clumps of cement, the unmistakable stench of death seeps out.

* * *

As an Israeli APC rumbles into the center of camp, Salah Ismail takes cover in a narrow alley. Dressed in a shiny new light-blue helmet and an equally pristine flak jacket, Mr. Ismail is a structural engineer with the United Nations who has Israel's permission to be in the camp.

But he prefers to interrupt his work and stay out of the way of the soldiers. "They might just shoot," he explains.

Ismail offers an early assessment of the physical damage to the camp: 25 percent to 30 percent of the buildings are partially or completely destroyed. He says it will take two years to rebuild the dwellings.

The UN, which administers the Jenin camp, is bringing in earthquake experts to determine how to clear the rubble and recover the bodies underneath, and what equipment will be needed to do so.

* * *

Ahmed and Najibi Jalembi, husband and wife, refugees from a refugee camp, sit in the home of relatives in Jenin city and grapple with the mysteries surrounding Israel's incursion.

Of two things they are certain. On April 4, one of their sons was killed by gunfire from an Israeli helicopter when he went out to help remove a body in an alley near their house. His body was in turn taken to Abu Ghali's hospital and his name was broadcast as one of the dead.

Another son was detained, along with about 1,000 other men in the camp. Its streets are littered with men's clothing – jeans, singlets, sweatshirts – because the Israelis made them strip to ensure they were not wearing explosives. The Jalembis have still not heard from their son.

On the larger issues there is less clarity. "We didn't see anything, we just hid in the house, just hearing the clashes. All the people calling us on the phone were saying there were bodies in the street, but we didn't dare look out ourselves," says Najibi.

She is more willing than Ahmed to believe the worst. "From the amount of missiles and shooting it's possible that there could have been a massacre," she says.

Her husband, who hasn't said much, speaks up, his voice taut. "I want to say what I feel," he explains. "I didn't see anything. There is God, and I don't want to lie."

* * *

In an area of the camp called the Golden Hall, an elderly man reflects on the destruction. His brother's three-story building looks from a distance like a ghastly clown's face. A hole created by missile strikes forms a massive mouth, two windows look like eyes, and tin roofing splayed upward by the blasts seem to be clumps of hair standing on end.

The man, a retired construction contractor named Subhi Suleiman, blames America, and its support of Israel, for his situation. Indeed, the helicopters that struck his house were probably US-provided Apaches. A missile part with labeling in English is among the wreckage in front of his brother's building.

"This area was a garden," says Mr. Suleiman, leaning on a cane wrapped in red electrical tape. To a visitor, the place seems no different from the concrete streetscape of the rest of the camp, but in Suleiman's mind it was apparently much more. He recalls sipping tea and coffee with his friends in the neighborhood.

"Where are the people?" he asks mournfully. "Where are the neighbors? There's no one here. There's no one here."

And then he breaks down, an old man succumbing to despair: "I don't cry, but I'm crying now."

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