A Plump woman with white hair and a sun-wizened face sits cross-legged in the entrance to her home. “My name is Maali Wahdan and I live here,” she says stoutly. Her figure is framed by jagged concrete. Red spray paint in the rear of the room indicates that the caved-in structure is now slated for demolition.
Wahdan and nearly 3,000 other refugees were made homeless during the 13 days that the Israeli army invaded and then controlled the Jenin Refugee Camp. “The house caught on fire from the missiles,” she remembers. “It was me and my children – five families.”
She, like others in the camp, first fled to the neighbors, assisted by some of the camp’s men. “We were in this house é some 200 people. There was no water or electricity. There was no milk to drink for the children.”
“Then when the shelling started, we said it is better to die in the street than to die here. We left and the soldiers took the men from us. They told us to go inside. We said, ‘Where inside? We have no house.'”
The soldiers then told Wahdan and her family to go to the city center. Behind them, she saw bulldozers moving in to demolish more homes.
Nearly one month after the Israeli army entered Jenin, the facts seem fairly clear. Both Palestinians and Israelis say that a terrible confrontation took place here. In that battle, no more than 200 Palestinian fighters laced the camp with bombs in an attempt to keep the Israeli army out. Residents tell of armed sons and husbands, as well as fighters from outside the camp, guiding them to safety and sharing precious water.
But the Israeli army was determined to gain control of the square kilometer area. Slowly, its 1,000 soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships bulldozed and bombed their way into the camp’s heart. In some cases, it warned those inside to leave; in others, the army razed homes on top of the living and already dead.
The uncertainties that remain are not whether war crimes were committed in the Jenin Refugee Camp, but whether they amount to serious enough abuses to warrant an international tribunal. And, of course, whether the world community will pursue them.
“We have found evidence of very serious violations of humanitarian laws,” says Miranda Sissons of Human Rights Watch. The group has carried out over 100 interviews in eight days, documenting 52 deaths and at least 21 cases of what it characterizes as “unlawful killing of civilians.”
One week ago, rescue workers pulled the body of a newborn from the rubble, its tiny decayed corpse placed carefully in a plastic bag. The other body retrieved that day was that of an adolescent girl.
Human Rights Watch will issue an extensive report this week based on those interviews. The report focuses on three specific areas: unlawful killings, use of civilians as human shields and the unnecessary destruction of property. In a BBC interview, one Human Rights Watch representative said the group found “prima facie evidence” that war crimes were carried out in the camp.
“We are pressing for an impartial investigation,” says Sissons. “One that is empowered with prosecutorial powers.”
Amnesty International also came to Jenin and issued a stinging statement on its findings. “What was striking is what was absent,” said delegate Derrick Pounder after doing several autopsies in the Jenin Hospital. “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?”
The lack of injured people is one of the traditional trademarks of a “massacre,” although there is not one single human rights definition of that kind of atrocity. Human Rights Watch defines a “massacre” as the intentional and concerted killing of a significant number of civilians (more than four). Because the group has gathered no evidence of concerted targeting of civilians, Sissons says that it does not support charges that Israel perpetrated a massacre per se in the Jenin camp.
But, she quickly adds, “I don’t want any of this to sound weak. The word ‘massacre’ is a very imprecise word and it is very clear that terrible things happened in the camp.”
Amnesty says that it found “credible evidence” that the Israeli army did not give civilians ample opportunity to leave the camp, that those in the camp were left without medical assistance, water or food supplies for 13 days, that civilians were used to shield the military as it entered non-secured areas, that detainees were ill-treated and property needlessly destroyed and that Palestinians alleged that soldiers had carried out extra- judicial killings.
“The evidence compiled indicates that serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed, including war crimes, but only an independent international commission of inquiry can establish the full facts and the scale of these violations,” Javier Ziga, Director of Regional Strategy of the organization’s International Secretariat, told the press.
Despite the condemnations, international rights representatives say that Israel’s obstruction of humanitarian aid continues even today.
As early as April 13, the Israeli High Court denied a petition asking that the Israeli army be ordered to provide equipment to search for survivors. The appeal, made by the Israeli human rights group Hamoked, reported evidence that two women may have been buried alive by Israeli bulldozers. They argued that noises on site indicated that 60-year-old Farida Alsa’adi and her sister, Lina Abdel Latif, 50, might still remain inside. The court responded negatively, writing that rescue crews were already searching for survivors.
One week later, while many foreign representatives could be seen touring the wreckage, only a handful of internationals were engaged in the active rescue work so desperately needed. Members of the Norwegian Red Cross were marking buildings for demolition and propping those up that were on the verge of collapse. Another team from the United Kingdom was busy clearing munitions from the well-trafficked area.
But the massive 500-meter-square area of cement rubble several meters deep remained nearly untouched, save the Palestinian workers digging with their hands and pick-axes. The mountain of twisted metal and concrete dwarfed a single yellow bulldozer moving at its base.
“Israel has been turning people away at the airport,” says Sissons. “It is blocking humanitarian access.” Three United States-funded international aid organizations report difficulties bringing experts into the country and representatives of Save the Children and CARE were actually denied entry. Another team of Greek workers was also turned away.
Israel denies that it is hindering the humanitarian work in the camp and even goes so far as to say that some humanitarian workers have refused to use the access they have been given. The United Nations Relief Works Agency has stridently denied those charges, as do relief workers on the scene. As recently as April 29, two United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Officers were refused entry to Israel at the Tel Aviv airport.
Local politics have also hindered distribution of aid. When the US government funding arm USAID attempted to deliver tents and food, camp residents threw the donations back in the truck and threatened to burn them before allowing distribution. The popular committees of other West Bank refugee camps have reiterated that stand, vowing not to accept money from the US government, which they accuse of supporting Israel. “The crime committed is large and extensive,” the committees wrote in a leaflet. “Its traces cannot be erased by the aid and assistance that is now being provided in order to humiliate our people and to desecrate the blood of our martyrs.”
Clearing the area is the only way to make a final determination of how many bodies lie in the camp, say rights groups. “We cannot estimate anything because no one knows what is under the rubble,” says Arjan Al Fassed of LAW human rights organization. On April 28, the United Nations Relief Works Agency said that 6,400 people remain unaccounted for. A large number of those may have been imprisoned by the Israeli army, but since it has not released any lists, no one is sure.
Medic Haitham Weiss was driving ambulances the entire time of the Israeli invasion. He points to one street leading into the camp. “In there, I saw some 20 bodies. We don’t know what happened to them. I almost died here from the hail of bullets.”
The suspicions that Israel actually removed some bodies from the camp have been heightened by early Israeli estimates that 200 Palestinians died here. Days later, when the media and United Nations representatives were allowed inside, the army downgraded its assessment of casualties to “several dozen.” Ha’aretz journalist Amos Harel said that an army-guided tour of the camp on April 14 yielded only one Palestinian body “out in the open, where most of the fighting took place.”
“So what happened to the rest of the bodies?” Harel goes on to ask. The army’s plans to remove the bodies and bury them in the Jordan Valley were ordered to a halt by a court injunction telling the army to bury bodies with the assistance of the Red Cross. Journalists reported seeing refrigerated trucks enter the camp, although the army says they left empty when it was determined that they were not needed.
“There was no burial of terrorist bodies or of Palestinian civilians in Jenin,” Major Rafi Lederman said in a press conference. “All of the bodies that were discovered were given to the hospital during the fighting. Afterwards we stopped this because of the High Court ruling. Some of the corpses were booby trapped in order to hurt our soldiers; after we took care of the bombs, the bodies were brought to the hospital or the Red Cross. No bodies were brought into Israel.”
All of this begs the question of whether or not anyone in Israel will ever be brought to trial for the mounting documentation of abuses. “Israel is obliged to investigate wrongdoing and bring those responsible to justice as a signatory to the Geneva Convention,” says Sissons. “If it doesn’t, other signatories have obligations. We can’t let them evade that responsibility.”
Now that Israel has successfully blocked the first attempt by the United Nations to send a fact-finding committee, rights groups are looking to other means of bringing the evidence to trial. It appears that international rights groups are building their strongest case for grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the charge that Israel carried out wanton or excessive damage beyond military necessity. The case requires a great deal of documentation, says Sissons, “and that is going to take a while.”
She, for one, doesn’t seem daunted by the fact that sitting heads of state are rarely brought before war crimes tribunals. After all, she notes, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “won’t be the head of government forever.”
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.