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Jenin Residents Still Dazed After Israeli Assault - 2002-04-23


The refugee camp in Jenin was the scene of the bloodiest battle between Israeli toops and Palestinian gunmen during the West Bank offensive Israel launched recently in response to Palestinian suicide attacks. The United Nations has appointed a fact-finding team to establish what happened over the course of the military assault. Palestinians charge that Israeli troops carried out a "massacre" of civilians in the camp - an accusation Israel vehemently denies. The U.N. has declared the area a "disaster zone."

A well-dressed Palestinian woman with tears streaming down her cheeks wanders aimlessly through the mountains of rubble asking others to help find her husband. She fears he was killed by Israeli troops.

A young girl sifts through the ruins of her home, finding only a shoe, a dinner plate and a torn fragment of cloth from what was once her school uniform.

Palestinian men use small shovels to dig through the debris, looking for the bodies of people they say were buried alive by Israeli army bulldozers that leveled the center of the Jenin refugee camp during fierce fighting with Palestinian gunmen.

Abdllatif Nabhan, 42, like most everyone else who lives here, says hundreds of civilians died. "What happened here is a massacre. It is a terrible thing," he said. "It is like an earthquake. It is bigger than an earthquake."

The smell of rotting flesh mingles with the dust, and swarms of flies linger over the battlefield that was once a dense city of concrete dwellings.

Damage to homes still standing is massive. The front walls have been sheered off by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. The structures are pockmarked by holes made by machine guns, tank shells and missiles from combat helicopters.

A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Mark Sofer, says the military had no choice but to raid the Jenin camp, which he says was home to 23 suicide bombers responsible for killing dozens of Israelis. "What we wanted to do was uproot the terrorist infrastructure within the Palestinian cities and towns and villages, which ideally should have been done by the Palestinian leadership itself," he said. "But they had not done it. As a result of the suffering we went through we had to, unfortunately, undergo this operation. What we found in Jenin was absolutely flabbergasting and mind-boggling. Arms, ammunition dumps, factories for the making of rockets, terrorist infrastructure of the likes we had not seen anywhere else."

Mr. Sofer insists Israeli troops did their best to minimize civilian casualties and says the mission would have been over in hours if warplanes had been used to bomb the Jenin refugee camp.

The Israeli army says 23 soldiers were killed during the ferocious fighting and estimates about 50 Palestinians, mostly gunmen, also died.

No evidence has yet emerged to support Palestinian claims that hundreds of civilians were killed.

Still the devastation left behind since the Israeli withdrawal from the camp is enormous.

A Palestinian man, who asked not to be identified, says 31 people used to live in his home, which was completely destroyed by Israeli armored bulldozers. "Actually, what I want the whole world to know is that the Israelis are inhuman people," he said. "They are not human. They are savages because what happened is that they destroyed my house, and now I have no house. I do not know what to do. What am I going to do with my family? I have a big family, so what shall I do?"

The United Nations estimates at least 2,000 of the 13,000 refugees living in the Jenin camp are now homeless.

While the Israeli army initially blocked the Red Cross, other international organizations and journalists from entering the camp, soldiers withdrew late last week, and access is now possible.

John Holland, who heads a British search and rescue team working in the camp, says he can not understand why so little humanitarian aid has reached the survivors. "Having carried out humanitarian work for the last 16 years I would say their need at the moment is food, water and accommodation," he said. "There are people who are out on the streets at the moment, they do not seem to have anything and there does not seem to be any aid coming in here. I think somebody should be questioning why these people, ordinary families, sitting around the rubble, do not have food, water and shelter, which are basic needs."

Two plane loads of emergency humanitarian supplies have arrived in the region from the United States carrying tents, water purification units and medical supplies for the refugees.

What exactly happened at the Jenin refugee camp and how many people died will not be known until residents and rescue teams, currently hampered by a lack of large equipment, remove the enormous amount of debris.

A United Nations fact-finding team has been appointed to investigate, but will need time to sort through the maze of charges and counter-charges.

In the meantime, thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jenin continue to wander, dazed, through the remains of the camp and remember the battle that left many of their homes and lives in ruins.

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