The Jenin refugee camp’s jagged concrete hillside of homes-turned-into-graves has yet to yield all its secrets. It is here, Palestinians charge, that Israel perpetrated a “massacre” during its April incursion into the territories. And while Israel stridently denies those charges, international human rights groups are now saying there is evidence that the Israeli army committed serious abuses of international humanitarian law.

“What was striking is what was absent,” said Amnesty International delegation member Derrick Pounder at a press conference. “There were very few bodies in the hospital. There were also none who were seriously injured, only the ‘walking wounded.’ Thus we have to ask, Where are the bodies and where are the seriously injured?” Amnesty’s research shows that the Israeli army did not allow humanitarian assistance into the camp for thirteen days, used Palestinians as human shields, and may have carried out extrajudicial executions and damaged property over and above that required by military necessity. All of these are breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.

The charges are so serious that the United Nations dispatched its own team of fact-finders to investigate. Israel says the accusations are patently false. “The intelligence that the company commander in Jenin received is that there aren’t that many civilians, but that most of them were terrorists,” Israel Defense Forces brigade chief of staff Major Rafi Lederman told the press. “In the Jenin refugee camp alone, 3.5 tons of terrorist weaponry welcomed the IDF forces that entered. Many bombs exploded on our forces.” Twenty- three soldiers were lost in the battle, a fact that Israel says proves the morality of its army. “From a military perspective, it would have been very easy to bomb the camp from the sky. The army went from house to house so as not to harm civilians,” said brigade doctor David Tzengan.

But the Israeli leadership knows it’s in trouble. Its public relations message–that the camp was so full of terrorists that the only civilians present were there against their will–is a carefully gauged attempt to release Israel from its obligations toward civilians and prisoners in the camp. The government’s lawyers advised it not to cooperate with the UN fact-finding mission until it was given assurances that those who testify will not be prosecutable. At this writing, the Israeli press is reporting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a deal releasing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat from his monthslong siege in Ramallah only after US President George W. Bush promised to stand by Israel during the Jenin accounting. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which unanimously dispatched the fact-finding mission, the United States has considerable power to influence its mandate.

Human Rights Watch has carried out more than 100 interviews in eight days inside the camp. That work shows “evidence of very serious violations of humanitarian laws,” says researcher for the Middle East and North Africa division Miranda Sissons. “We are pressing for an impartial investigation, one that is empowered with prosecutorial powers.”

London’s Independent trailed the group’s researchers and published an extensive report on their interviews. Included is the story of 65-year-old Mohammed Abu Sba’a, who was shot in the chest after going outside to warn a bulldozer driver that his house was packed with families seeking refuge. A nurse wearing insignia was also killed by Israeli troops as she stood talking to Palestinian fighters. These account for only two of the fifty-two bodies Human Rights Watch identified, nearly half of which were civilians. In several hours in the camp last week, diggers pulled up the unclaimed bodies of a newborn baby and an adolescent girl.

As to whether what happened in Jenin amounts to a “massacre,” rights groups vary on the definition of that charge. Generally, the term applies to deliberate killing of a significant number of civilians (for Human Rights Watch, that means four) in a concerted manner. The initial research by Human Rights Watch does not show evidence of that. However, the group also says that the splitting of hairs over language does not absolve the Israeli government of what could amount to grave breaches of the laws of law.

“Israel is obliged to investigate wrongdoing and bring those responsible to justice as a signatory to the Geneva Convention,” Sissons says. “If it does not, then other signatories have the obligation to pursue this. We can’t let them evade that responsibility.”

The Israeli public continues to receive the allegations with a substantial dose of defensiveness. Where were these human rights groups when Israeli civilians were being blown up in city centers? they ask. “Human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned suicide bombings,” replies Sissons. But prosecuting under international law requires that the guilty party answer directly to a state that is subject to that law. For groups like Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which have carried out attacks on Isareli civilians, that connection, if it exists at all, is difficult to prove.

The arrival of the UN fact-finding commission in Jenin was first delayed for three days by the Israeli government, then blocked altogether. Now the question is whether the UN will move to implement its own resolutions and guiding laws. Whether or not it does, major human rights groups are saying that the evidence they have gathered demands an international hearing.