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What Happened in Jenin?
What happened in Jenin? What is happening in Jenin? The second question is more important than the first, but the two are related. With the United Nations report on Jenin published and the Human Rights Watch Report tabled some time ago, the official voices have spoken.
The United Nations report is so “balanced” it is almost a cartoon. From the outset the reader is told, “The report was written without a visit to Jenin or the other Palestinian cities in question and it therefore relies completely on available resources and information.” Israel and the U.S. have long since decided that the UN was an anti-Semitic organization (starting with the 2001 Anti-Racism conference in Durban). The opening paragraphs tell the sordid tale of how Israel blocked the investigation and conclude with Kofi Annan’s regrets: “I had every confidence that the team would have conducted itself in a professional and fair manner in producing the report requested by the Council.”
Despite their inability to get into the field, the United Nations has produced a report that ought to make Israel quite happy. It features the famous passive voice: “In many instances, humanitarian workers were not able to reach people in need.” It does not differentiate between occupiers with the latest in modern weaponry and the occupied with improvised weapons: “Combatants on both sides conducted themselves in ways that, at times, placed civilians in harm’s way.” It leaves the perpetrators of certain crimes quite ambiguous. “Much of the fighting during Operation Defensive Shield occurred in areas heavily populated by civilians and in many cases heavy weaponry was used.” Palestinians don’t have heavy weaponry, but the conclusion as to who used that weaponry is left to the reader.
Annan’s report also features tidy lines of cause and effect: “I called on Palestinians to stop all acts of terrorism and all suicide bombings, stating that such attacks were morally repugnant and caused harm to their cause. I called on Israelis to stop the bombing of civilian areas, the extrajudicial killings, the demolitions, and the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians.” The Palestinian crimes first, the Israeli crimes second. When it comes to counting the dead, the order is reversed: “there has been sustained violence between the parties, fluctuating in intensity, causing by May 7, 2002 the deaths of 441 Israelis and 1,539 Palestinians.”
The facts are in, however. A total of 497 Palestinians killed between March 1 and May 7; 1,447 wounded, 538 with live ammunition; 1 million under curfew; 17,000 rendered homeless; 50 schools damaged; an estimated repair bill of $361 million.
For testimonies, for a sense of what went on, one has to turn to the Human Rights Watch Report. HRW went to Jenin and conducted 100 interviews over a 1-week period from April 19 to April 28, but had their own difficulties with access—the IDF refused to provide any information.
Still, the HRW report provides a sense of the incursions and of where primary responsibility lies. “Despite the close quarters, the IDF had a legal duty to distinguish civilians from military targets. At times, however, IDF military attacks were indiscriminate, failing to make this disctinction. Firing was particularly indiscriminate on the morning of April 6, when missiles were launched from helicopters, catching many sleeping civilians unaware. One woman was killed by helicopter fire during that attack; a four-year-old child in another part of the town was injured when a missile hit the house where she was sleeping. Both were buildings housing only civilians, with no fighters in the immediate vicinity.”
Combat or Massacre?
At least 52 Palestinians were killed, and 23 Israeli soldiers. At least 22 of the confirmed dead were civilians, 27 were suspected fighters. The fighters set ambushes, mined roads, fought the invading army as hard as they could with their light arms, and inflicted significant casualties. This makes it a combat. The IDF used tanks, armored bulldozers, helicopter gunships, and, according to some testimonies, fighter aircraft. They killed at least 22 civilians and destroyed hundreds of buildings, razing a whole district to the ground, destroying much of the infrastructure. It could be argued that this makes it a massacre. Perhaps “combat or massacre” is a false question, and the Jenin incursion was both.
The trouble with reports on the combat/massacre, however, is that by emphasizing the April incursions, they give the reader the impression that the atrocities in Jenin are over. They are not.
A typical update from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Jenin was sent July 29, 2002 and reported: “Five days ago the Israeli military occupied Palestinian homes in Jenin’s Old City for a day and night, while they conducted their military operations. Three teenage boys who are best known to us for hanging out at the internet cafe, talking and joking with us, were shot by Israeli snipers in the occupied buildings as they walked through the Old City that day towards their homes. One got a bullet in the chest, one in the legs, and the other in the middle of his back. There is no doubt the snipers were aiming to kill.
“Miraculously, the two shot in the chest and legs are okay after operations. The other one though (seventeen years old and the studious, shy one of the group) had to be transfered to Nablus where he underwent two operations. The doctors had to remove two disks from his spine, resulting in him being paralysed from the chest down. He will also never be able to have children.
“Two more teenagers were badly shot later that day, as well as an 11-year-old boy from the nearby village of Yamoon.”
A July 12 ISM report featured, along with other reports of tank attacks, mass arrests, and destruction of infrastructure, the murder of “Emad Abd Al-Aziz, the freelance journalist who was shot at a distance of 80 feet by an 800 mm round from a tank-mounted gun, died earlier this morning from his wound.” My own report from Jenin had information about the murder of Bassam al-Sahdi, a seven-year-old boy who was killed by machine gun fire from a tank on June 26.
There is nothing special about Jenin. Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem—all get similar treatment. So does Gaza. The bombing of a building by an Israeli F-16 on July 23 in Gaza City that killed 15 people, 9 of whom were children, in order to assassinate a Hamas militant, was reported in the mainstream press. That bombing may have been timed specifically to scuttle a peace dialogue, but this possibility was never reported in the mainstream. To quote Mitchell Plitnick on ZNet, July 28, “only a day before, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had announced that Hamas would be willing to agree to a cease-fire, including a halt to suicide bombings, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the areas that had previously been under Palestinian administration under the Oslo agreements.”
That attack surely qualifies as a massacre. It made peace a little less likely and possibly helped channel Palestinian resistance a little further in the direction of desperate, criminal suicide bombings like the one at Jerusalem University on July 31 that killed 7 people, with Hamas claiming that the bombing was in retaliation for the IDF bombing in Gaza.
There are those who believe that the April combat/massacre destroyed opportunities as well. Coimhe Butterly, an Irish activist, has been in Jenin for several months—before and after April. She said that before the incursions, Jenin had “a real feeling of an autonomous, strong, organized community. It was apparent that it was well armed, yes. But what was remarkable was the organization. There were locally elected committees and some of these had participation by women. The community organized distribution centers for UN donations. There was emphasis on education.”
This wasn’t, in Butterly’s eyes, religious fanaticism, even though Hamas and Islamic Jihad were highly involved in the community. “This was really a ‘people’s camp’. The leaders weren’t in charge and organizing the camp. The people organized it and the leaders found their place. There wasn’t any desire to kill anyone, although there was a desire to resist. It was pride, defiance—a will to keep working, educating, where others had been broken long before the incursions.”
“The biggest effect of the incursions was to break this leadership and organization. The young men are in jail—thousands of them. They have no access to counsel. They are interrogated, tortured, over prolonged periods. The bulk of the prisoners are held in Ofer, near Ramallah. Ashkalon II has been re-opened. These prisons have horrific conditions.... We still don’t know how many were killed, because Israel won’t release the names of the people they are holding.
“These people were leaders, people who were eloquent and could speak to their people’s pain in a way that the Palestinian Authority, who are somewhat cushioned now, cannot. The vacuum is dangerous. Without effective leadership, the young are in a dangerous position. There was a structure to the resistance before, a whole infrastructure of education, politicization. In the two months before April, I saw a leadership that was eloquent and in touch, emerging. And this was snuffed out. There is a danger of people being broken and if they’re not, all that power and anger will exist without a channel. People will turn to individual, non-strategic actions like suicide bombings instead of collective action.”
Butterly’s account of what was happening in Jenin, and what was lost there, is the only one of its kind that I have heard. That Israel would want to destroy organized resistance is, however, no surprise. The disorganized attacks on civilians made by suicide bombers are far less of a threat as they unite the Israeli population in support of further atrocities against Palestinians. From Israel’s perspective, the more Palestinians who think about martyrdom rather than strategy, the better.
I asked one of the few young men around what I should tell North Americans when they ask me what Palestinians are after. “I want to fight to the death,” he said. After five minutes of explanation, I learned that he wanted a free Palestine without Israeli settlements or occupation, but he said it as if it was just idle fantasy —while fighting to the death was something that was far more likely to happen.
The United Nations set up a tent city shortly after the incursions in order to house those whose homes were destroyed by IDF bulldozers. It had spacious tents, water facilities, mats for sleeping on. No one moved in. The people of Jenin said they would rather stay in the rubble of their homes than move into tents again. Among the hundreds of destroyed buildings in Jenin camp, people spray-painted messages on the walls. One of them says, in English: “We will stay here.” Z
Justin Podur is a Z/ZNet contributor and volunteer. He visited Jenin, Gaza, and Ramallah in June.