By Christine Spolar, April 16, 2002
JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The center of this refugee camp is now a
vast crater of powdery dust, strewn with bent wires, chunks of cement block,
an odd piece of crumpled kitchen appliance, the disconcerting arm of a doll.
What really happened in this pocket of Palestinian resistance remains murky,
but the devastation wrought by the Israeli assault is stark: Little in the Jenin
camp has not been pummeled by rockets, pierced by bullets or crushed by
brute military force.
Cinder-block buildings in the center of town – once home to 13,000
people – were flattened by what residents described Monday as an unrelenting
assault of Israeli bulldozers and tanks.
Neighbors saw neighbors run for their lives from an Israeli army that said it was
intent on killing terrorism networks and, after an ambush by the Palestinian military,
seemed intent on avenging the deaths of 13 soldiers in Jenin, residents said.
There are bodies to be recovered in this town. Large piles of rubble could hold
some entombed residents.
But a daylong search by reporters and aid workers failed to turn up the large
numbers of dead that would support Palestinian allegations that Israeli troops
massacred hundreds of Jenin residents.
In fact, the number of Palestinians still living in the camp was startling. Dozens
upon dozens of Palestinians quietly greeted the first visitors they have seen in
days, offering an occasional cup of tea and refuge from gunfire.
For hours Monday, residents darted about the Jenin camp, making their way
down alleys littered with spent cartridges and tank shells, and digesting a new
horizon of utter ruin.
“We have no feeling left,” said Afif Hussein Sirhan, whose home, still standing,
now accommodates 30 homeless people from his neighborhood. “If Charles
Dickens were here, he would be paralyzed by the quantity of damage and suffering.”
Aid groups that were able to enter the camp Monday found eight bodies to be
removed and some badly decomposed remains, representatives said. By day’s
end, the number of Palestinians bodies had climbed to about 40.
Allegations that hundreds of residents had been killed in the assault – the
Palestinians had claimed as many as 500 – remained unproved.
Representatives of the International Red Cross and the United Nations Relief
and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East said Monday night
that they could not yet determine how many people died in what was one of
the deadliest Israeli assaults in the West Bank.
“Everyone was thinking mass graves in the way that we think of in Kosovo. But
I don’t think we have seen that,” said Guy Siri, deputy director for the UN relief
agency, which was able to enter the refugee camp for two hours Monday.
“We were able to find some bodies today, but I think it is important to see how
it all adds up,” said Jessica Barry, a representative for the International
Committee of the Red Cross, which entered the camp Monday with three teams
Israel estimates 100 people were killed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said
he believes the Jenin casualties were in the “few dozens” and that claims of a
massacre are “a lie.”
“We don’t have anything to hide there,” he said.
Even a short visit to the Jenin camp provided plenty of evidence of the fierce
weeklong standoff between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli soldiers continued
Monday to restrict access to the camp, a blockade that had only increased
fears that the army committed abuses in its assault on Palestinian-controlled
Small groups of reporters evaded the restriction Monday by sneaking into the
camp, still rattling with sniper fire and explosions, in an effort to assess the situation.
Interviews with residents, hundreds of whom apparently stayed in their homes
despite the invasion, said Israeli troops and militant Palestinians fought battles
for the camp.
Specific militants were sought and slain by the Israeli army, residents said.
Palestinian fighters repeatedly attempted to ambush Israeli soldiers and
succeeded when a booby trap killed 13 last week, they said.
The trap also sparked an accelerated trashing of homes, residents of the camp
The Israeli army had been bulldozing homes before the deaths of the 13
soldiers; after the killings, according to the residents, the Israelis embarked on a
more brutal attack on the center of the camp.
Homeowners said they were shocked when military bulldozers turned up
unannounced at their homes and, in some cases, began ripping into houses
without warning the inhabitants.
“After the 13 were killed, they brought in more bulldozers, and they stopped
knocking on people’s doors to warn them,” said Hania Al Kabiya.
When bulldozers entered his street, Ali Damaj, head of the refugee camp’s relief
committee, said his hair “stood on end.”
“People fled from one house to another” as the bulldozers advanced. Damaj
said his home was spared but six others nearby fell. “Anything in their way was
destroyed,” he added.