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.