Jenin is a town of more than 200,000 people with more than 1000 years of history in what is now called the West Bank.
It is also the name of a refugee camp established in 1953, which is located within the city limits of Jenin proper. The refugee camp came into existence after the 1948 war of Israeli independence created thousands of Arab refugees.
It is administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The registered refugee population is 13,055 persons. Most of the camp's residents came from villages which can be seen from the camp and which today lie inside the Green Line inside what is now Israel. Many of the refugees still maintain close ties with their relatives in those villages.
After the redeployment of the Israeli army (IDF) in 1995, the camp came under Palestinian Authority control. UNRWA also runs two schools in the camp, one for boys (750 pupils) and one for girls (727 pupils).
None of this is the case anymore. On April 3, 2002 the IDF moved into Jenin in their War on Terrorism. They were there according to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Uproot the Terrorist Infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. For some two weeks the Jenin camp was a closed military zone. Journalists and Red Cross personnel, UN employees and humanitarian aid workers were forbidden entry.
Now the camp is open again. The first two (and only for the day) truckloads of relief supplies were let in on April 16, 2002.
According to a press release from the UNRWA:
"The destruction to Jenin looks like the aftermath of an earthquake. The wholesale obliteration of homes, streets, and commercial buildings will leave a large number of Palestinians homeless. The teams were told by residents that they hear noises coming from people trapped under collapsed buildings but are unable to free them. Earthmoving equipment cannot currently gain access to the scene nor can the number of rescue workers that would be needed to dig out survivors to safety."
The Guardian newspaper of London had this to say about the Jenin camp:
"The Hart al-Hawashin neighborhood, the heart of the Jenin refugee camp, was a silent wasteland, permeated with the stench of rotting corpses and cordite. Palestinians accuse Israel of a massacre, and there are convincing accounts from local people of the occasional summary execution. However, there are no reliable figures for Palestinian dead and injured. The systematic bulldozing of Palestinian homes began four days after Israeli forces blasted their way into the camp on the night of April 3, strafing houses from helicopter gunships, and pounding them with tank shells.
A few hours later, soldiers entered the camp on foot, shooting their way between the cinderblock homes in groups of 15 or 20.
An Israeli soldier injured in Jenin describe this as the most nerve-wracking part of the battle. "They booby trapped every centimeter. In one meter you would find 20 small booby traps or a big balloon attached with a wire. Every meter was very dangerous," said Dori Scheuer, who was shot in the stomach by a Palestinian gunman a week ago on Monday. "It was much more dangerous for us than it was for them because they knew the territory."
Palestinians admit the camp was liberally mined two or three days before the assault."
The Independent also of London reported the following:
"Derrick Pounder, professor of forensic medicine at Dundee University, who is working with Amnesty International, visited the ruined camp and said:
"Claims that a large number of civilians died and are under the rubble are highly credible. It is not believable that only a few people have been killed, given the reports we have that a large number of people were inside three and four-story buildings when they were demolished." The autopsy on one 38-year-old Palestinian revealed that "he was either shot in the foot, and then in the back, or shot in the back first – receiving a fatal wound – and his corpse was for some reason shot in the foot," he said. "Whichever order the shots occurred in, it was highly suspicious."
Why go to such lengths to hit a refugee camp?
According to several newspaper accounts Jenin was the starting point for many of the suicide bombers that have hit Israeli civilians in the past weeks and months. Israel called the Jenin camp a "hornets' nest" of suicide bombers.
Ariel Cohen comments in the National Review, that "There were important assets to be protected in the refugee camp. Several dozen chemical labs where explosives for suicide-bomber belts and Kassam rockets were being manufactured, and arsenals of machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and a cadre of would-be suicide bombers."
"Yoni Wolff, 26, led a platoon in the Jenin fighting. He insisted Israeli troops did their utmost to avoid harming civilians.
"Every alley we walked down was booby-trapped, wires were connected along the streets. Almost every house we walked into was booby-trapped...The doors, the stairways, closets, cabinets, draws, weapons that were left behind," Wolff told Reuters.
Many of the camp's 15,000 residents fled, but about 2,000 stayed on, said Wolff. The camp became the domain of cat and mouse battles and ambushes between troops and Palestinians.
"We had to deal with snipers hiding in mosques and houses ...They were fighting and we were definitely fighting back and doing our best to stop them without doing any damage," he said.
Wolff added that the army brought bulldozers to demolish booby-trapped houses in the heart of the camp where dozens of gunmen had been cornered only after the 13 reserve soldiers were killed in the ambush in the last days of fighting last week.
"If we had used bulldozers before, the 13 (soldiers) would not have been killed but that's not the way we work... We were trying to avoid hurting civilians." he said."
New Human Rights Watch report blames both sides from preventing civilian casualties and abuses.
The report is the result of investigations of four IDF raids in late 2001 and early 2002 into the Palestinian towns of Beit Rima, Salfit, Artas and Tulkarem (not Jenin).
The report, based on interviews by victims and eyewitnesses, says: "Since violent clashes broke out in September 2000, the conflict has been marked by attacks on civilians and civilian objects, by Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups.
"Both Israeli and Palestinian authorities have failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the security forces under their control from committing abuses. They also have failed to investigate and punish the perpetrators."
Some Thoughts of My Own in Conclusion
It is clear that the situation in Jenin is still developing; was there a massacre, were there war crimes committed? 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in the camp this is a fact. How many Palestinians died depends on who’s telling you... the number runs from dozens to hundreds and there is a fear that the truth will never be know.
Noam Chomsky has stated that "If the standards of the Nuremberg Trials were applied today, then every post World War 2 American President could be hanged as a war criminal." This is probably true for Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat as well.
But, clearly the question remains open as to what exactly happened in Jenin. Fierce battle or civilian massacre, or both.
Personally I think something stinks and it’s not just the smell of the corpses. However, proof is needed... perhaps now the Israeli government will allow full humanitarian aid and workers as well as journalist to go in and discover the truth, because IMHO neither side can be expected to give it to us.
Human Rights Watch issued a report (http://hrw.org/reports/2002/israel3/isra el0502.pdf) on May 3, 2002 saying it found no evidence that Israeli troops committed a massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp, as Palestinians contend.
But the group, which spent seven days in the camp, said an international investigation is needed because evidence suggests war crimes may have been committed by Israeli forces.
Israel continues to deny there was any massacre or that its soldiers committed any atrocities, but refused to cooperate with a now-abandoned U.N. investigatory mission. The Palestinian Red Crescent has said the bodies of 53 Palestinians have been recovered and buried but its claims haven't been independently corroborated. (according to cnn.com)
Latest update: August 2, 2002
A new UN report says Israeli forces did not massacre civilians at the Jenin refugee camp. However the UN report was conducted from afar. Israel never cooperated with them and they never visited the camp. It was written based on newspaper stories, submissions from six U.N. member countries and accounts from Palestinians and non-governmental organizations.