By Charles A. Radin, April 29, 2002
JENIN, West Bank – Palestinian Authority allegations that a large-scale massacre
of civilians was committed by Israeli troops during their invasion of the refugee
camp here appear to be crumbling under the weight of eyewitness accounts
from Palestinian fighters who participated in the battle and camp residents who
remained in their homes until the final hours of the fighting.
In interviews yesterday with teenage fighters, a leader of Islamic Jihad, an
elderly man whose home was at the center of the fighting, and other Palestinian
residents, all of whom were in the camp during the battle, none reported seeing
large numbers of civilians killed. All said they were allowed to surrender or
evacuate when they were ready to do so, though some reported being
mistreated while in Israeli detention.
Palestinian Authority leaders have asserted that more than 500 people, mostly
women and children, were killed in the camp and that many of the dead were
buried by Israeli forces in mass graves. Investigators for Amnesty International
said that Israel failed to provide safe passage from the camp to noncombatants.
The Palestinian allegations led to the creation of a UN fact-finding team for
Jenin, but Israel yesterday barred the team from arriving amid allegations of an
Israel says that those Palestinians killed in the Jenin battle were almost all
fighters, that none were buried in mass graves, and that ample chance was
given to fighters to surrender and for civilians to leave. It initially estimated the
death toll at 100 to 200, and has since revised that toll downward to 50.
Meanwhile, a British military adviser to Amnesty, Reserve Major David Holley,
was quoted yesterday by Reuters news service as dismissing the Palestinian
allegations of a massacre and predicting that no evidence would be found to
Jamal al-Shati, who was appointed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to
document events at the camp, said last night that 52 deaths have been
documented, including those of three women and five children under 14. He
asserts that the Israelis secretly removed bodies from the battleground.
Munir Arsam, 15, a member of Islamic Jihad, said that during the siege, which
began April 3 and ended around April 11, he did scouting work for older
militants, threw homemade pipe bombs, and helped with ambushes of Israeli
troops. He said he was one of 50 boys, divided into groups of 10 by militant
leaders, who were assigned these tasks. In contrast with allegations by some
Palestinians and Amnesty investigators, Arsam said women and children were
able to evacuate the camp before the climactic battle began. Even at the height
of the struggle, fighters were able to put down their weapons and surrender, he
said, though he also said, as did the Amnesty investigators, that those who
surrendered were beaten and otherwise mistreated while in detention.
Arsam said he knew of five fighters in houses bulldozed by the Israelis, at least
two of whom were wounded and screaming for help when the bulldozers came.
“The men in the tanks and bulldozers could not hear them,” he said. He said he
saw Sheik Ri’ad Abu Abd, 57, of Tulkarem, one of the Palestinian heroes of the
battle, wounded with a bullet in the leg near the end of the fighting, and asked
him if he wanted to surrender. “He said `No, I want to die, I want to fight and
die,’ and a while later that house was bulldozed,” Arsam said.
On the last day of the battle, with no ammunition left, Arsam buried the
weapon he had acquired during the fighting and surrendered. “They destroyed
all the houses in Hawashin,” he said, describing a now-demolished
neighborhood in the camp. “I was in the last house, and they called out,
`Surrender or we will fire at you.’ There were only two of us, so we left, and
they destroyed the house.”
He said the Israeli soldiers held him for four days, frequently beating and kicking
him to make him confess to membership in Hamas or Islamic Jihad, then
released him. Asked if he felt any massacre had occurred, Arsam said: “We
killed them and they killed us, but we were victorious.”
Abdel Rahman Sa’adi, 14, another Islamic Jihad grenade-thrower, said he was
one of a group of 11 adults and seven young men who surrendered upon Israeli
demand. He said they were confined in a courtyard near the camp to which the
Israeli troops brought dozens of other men and women. “They told all the small
kids to just leave, and they let all the women go after they checked their bags,”
said Sa’adi, who has braces and was wearing a baseball cap. “None of them
were kept for questioning.”
“Of course the Palestinians won this battle”, he said, because “they did not
shake our morale. This was a massacre of the Jews, not of us.”
Prompted by bystanders, he revised his statement. “I think there was a
massacre here – maybe 100 people,” he said.
Khalid Mohammed Taleb, 70, lay on a concrete slab from his ruined house,
shaded by a makeshift plastic awning, watching with a blank statement as
people clambered over the rubble yesterday and buried mines and grenades
occasionally exploded. “I come every day,” he said. “I lived here 50 years.”
Taleb and his extended family of 11 people stayed in the camp rather than
evacuating because “we thought it would be like the first invasion, they would
make an incursion and leave. I used to say I wouldn’t leave even if they buried
me in this house, but I saw the bulldozers killing people and I left.”
That was around midnight, on the day before the battle ended. Taleb
said he raised a white flag and walked at the front of a group of 20 people – his
own family and those of two neighbors. The destruction of his house and the
surrounding buildings occurred after the civilians left, he said, when only
He said several times that no civilians were killed, but after repeated
questioning from reporters and bystanders, he said: “Well, maybe one or two. It
was a big battle.”
Was it a massacre? “Perhaps,” he said. “Both sides lost.”
An Islamic Jihad leader, who insisted on anonymity, said he was wounded as
the battle drew to a close, and crawled 300 yards to where other fighters were
gathered. “There were 35 of us, and they were bringing down houses on us, so
we surrendered,” he said. Israeli soldiers “threw me on the garbage near the
hospital at noon” on the last day of the battle, “and I remained there until 1
a.m.” The Israelis did not attempt to confine or question him, and he returned
to the camp Saturday, he said.
All the fighters said that the Israelis failed to wipe out the militant leadership in
the camp, which long has been known as an Islamic Jihad stronghold.
“Of course we are reorganizing,” said the Islamic Jihad leader, who
walked with a cane and was thronged by comrades near the wreckage. “I don’t
know what is the plan, what is the strategy, but people are full of hatred.”
Arsam, the 15-year-old fighter, said leaders of Islamic Jihad and other factions
were taking new groups of youngsters to a hill near Jenin every day for military
training, teaching them to fire automatic weapons and to make bombs.
A spokesman for the Israeli army asserted, meanwhile, that Palestinians were
moving bodies of people not killed in the Jenin fighting into graveyards around
the camp “to score points with the UN committee due to arrive to investigate
the happenings in the Jenin refugee camp.”
The military said this charge was based on information received from
Israeli intelligence agencies, and refused to elaborate.