April 25, 2002
The Middle East breeds myths faster than it can digest them. The latest is
Jenin, the Palestinian West Bank refugee camp and the scene earlier this month
of a bloody battle. The Israeli military laid siege and overran the camp after
eight days of fighting.
But that was nothing compared with the propaganda battle now going on to
persuade the world that something far worse really happened. Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak yesterday accused the Israeli army of “despicable
crimes” in Jenin. Palestinian leaders speak of 500 civilian deaths, Amnesty
International talks about “possible war crimes,” and the U.N.’s Mideast envoy
calls the Israeli military offensive “totally unacceptable and horrific beyond
Pardon us if we stick to the few facts anyone really knows. Home to 14,000
Palestinians, Jenin was not Mayberry RFD. It was a stronghold of Hamas and
the Islamic Jihad, where extremists trained and armed young people to kill
Israeli civilians. By the terrorists’ own admission, about 20 of the 50 suicide
bombers since September 2000 came from Jenin.
Scores of well-armed Palestinians were ready when the Israelis moved in on the
morning of April 3. They had burrowed tunnels, booby-trapped doors and set
up snipers. Palestinian militants also placed the civilians of the camp, including
children and wives, directly and deliberately in harm’s way as human shields.
Homes became their bunkers. One Islamic Jihad commander told the Palestinian
press that, “Believe me, there are children stationed in the houses with
explosive belts at their sides.”
As Israeli soldiers moved from house to house one night, a Palestinian ambush
killed 13. But even then the Israelis did not call in an aerial assault that would
have killed far more Palestinians while protecting Israelis. Instead they sent in
bulldozers, which demolished homes and created the ugly photos carried by the
press but also carried greater risk of Israeli casualties. After eight days of
fighting, 23 Israeli soldiers were dead, making Jenin among Israel’s bloodiest
military operations since 1973.
Some civilians also died, though we don’t know how or how many. The Israelis
estimate Palestinian deaths at around 100, mostly gunmen. “Clearly, innocent
lives may well have been lost,” Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before
the U.S. Congress yesterday, adding, “I have no evidence of mass graves. I see
no evidence that would support a massacre took place.”
The U.N. wants to send a fact-finding team this weekend, and this certainly
makes sense. Israel initially agreed, though it now wants to delay the team until
its concerns about the make-up of the delegation are addressed. The Israelis
believe the group is dominated by human-rights officials, who should be
balanced by experts on military operations and counter-terrorism. This makes
And while the U.N. experts are there, they might also investigate the massacre,
by fellow Palestinians, of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israelis. As
these columns have reported, that slaughter of innocents happens nearly every
day and in the most brutal fashion. If they have time, the U.N. team might also
visit Hama in Syria, where Hafez Assad murdered up to 25,000 of his own
people in 1982.
As a democracy, Israel will of course hold itself to a higher moral standard. And
it ought to, since the best defense of its own military operations is that they are
targeted not at civilians but at terrorists; meanwhile, the Palestinians target
pizza parlors and school buses. Israel ought to welcome international scrutiny, if
only to offset the propaganda of its enemies.
If war crimes were committed or the army acted dishonorably, the perpetrators
will be held to account by Israel’s democratic institutions. Yet from what we
know so far, Jenin wasn’t a crime. It was another tragically bloody battle in a
war that the Palestinians started 18 months ago.