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What Really Happened in Jenin? - 2002-04-25


The United Nations is delaying its fact-finding mission to a Palestinian refugee camp because of Israeli objections to the make-up of the team. A three-man U.N. team was appointed to look at the damage in Jenin. Palestinians say it was a massacre. Israelis say they mainly killed terrorists.

In a huge pile of ruins, a man leaning on a cane tells Israeli reporter Amira Haas, "This is my home, and my son is inside." His son is dead, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer because he could not escape in his wheelchair. The family had shouted to the Israelis to stop, in vain.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mohammed Abu Siba was shot by an Israeli sniper on his veranda. After the family wrapped his body in a rug, an Israeli bulldozer started demolishing the house. They fled, and when they returned, said a son, "We were able to get half of my father. The other half is still in there."

The Israeli incursion of the Jenin Palestinian refugee camp has aroused protest from Palestinians, media and human rights observers. Many say they have never seen anything like it.

Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. representative in the region, called it a horrifying scene of human suffering. "The government of Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict," he said.

The Israeli government accused Mr. Larsen of anti-Semitic tendencies, but he wasn't alone in his reaction. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said what happened in Jenin has caused enormous suffering for thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians.

The Economist magazine called it a "scene of devastation that has had no equal throughout Israel's 34-year conquest and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."

Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch spent four days in Jenin after the Israeli withdrawal. "The destruction is on a massive scale. Certainly a significant number of civilians were killed during this operation, including several children, quite a few women and a few elderly people," he said. "We documented the cases of several people who were killed trying to help wounded civilians, including one nurse. We also documented the cases of several people who were crushed in their homes when Israelis went in with bulldozers and just flattened a significant part of the refugee camp."

Mr. Bouckaert says the killing of so many civilians could have been avoided. Some died because the Israelis did not allow medical help to reach them for several days.

"Even after the combat ended, for almost a week, Israel continued to deny any humanitarian access to the camp," he said. "Many people had been displaced from their homes. There was no water or electricity in the camp. Those actions by the Israeli forces in the aftermath of the combat situation certainly contributed to the severe suffering that was faced by the civilians in the camp."

There is another side to this story, said former CNN correspondent Linda Scherzer, in a speech to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. The grim television images, she said, give a distorted picture of what occurred.

"There was fierce resistance. There were laboratories of destruction in Jenin. It was a breeding ground for terrorism," she said. "Suicide bombers were sent directly into Israel from that camp. Much of the devastation was caused by the booby-trapped buildings. But unfortunately, those pictures are so powerful and create such an impression that I often feel that the world forms its opinions by what it sees, not necessarily by what it hears."

Linda Scherzer said television does not cover the plotting of the Palestinian terrorists. So they escape media scrutiny.

In an address by satellite to the AIPAC convention, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also emphasized the threat that Jenin and other West Bank areas posed to Israel:

"We discovered illegal weapons, bomb factories and arrested many wanted terrorists. We dismantled the infrastructure of suicide bombers, thereby saving the lives of many Israelis," he said. "Operation Defensive Shield has opened a window of opportunity to put the peace back on a different, more realistic track."

The surviving Palestinians of Jenin do not talk of peace with Israel. One man points to an eight-year-old boy with hurt in his eyes. "He saw all this evil. He will remember it all."

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