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Jenin: Defiant To The Death

9 minute read
Bill Saporito

The Israelis figured they had an advantage at night. During a week of relentless fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, they had forced the Palestinian militants inside a smaller and smaller perimeter. At about 4 a.m. last Tuesday, 16 reservists of the 5th Infantry Brigade began moving forward again, peering through night-vision goggles as they searched for a house to use as a lookout. The first one they chose proved inadequate, but a second, about 30 yards away, seemed better situated. The soldiers walked into a 3-foot-wide alley next to the house, searching for an entrance. They paused while an officer, Major Oded Golomb, walked ahead to set charges to blow the door open.

The blast they heard next wasn’t theirs. “I saw a flash of light that was thrown at us, but it didn’t reach us. Immediately after, another flash of light,” Sergeant Ron Drori told TIME. “I understood right away it was a bomb.” It wasn’t a suicide attack, as early reports suggested, but a bomb thrown from a balcony. When the device detonated just feet from the soldiers, Palestinians on the roof opposite opened up with automatic weapons. “It was like a curtain of fire,” said Drori. “We couldn’t see anything, and all we could hear was the sound of bullets flying and hitting the walls. I started to hear the crying of people who were injured.”

During a brief lull, Drori retreated behind a courtyard wall and returned fire until a magazine in his M-203 rifle jammed. He switched to a grenade launcher attached to the rifle. His fire drew an answer, and he was hit in the leg. Of the 16 men in his company, only three escaped being wounded or killed.

The first phase of the fight lasted an hour. It was followed by a bizarre tug-of-war in which the Palestinians tried to drag three Israeli bodies out of the area. They were stopped by an Israeli rescue force. One of the rescuers, Lieut. Eyal Yoel, and another soldier rushed into a house overlooking the ambush to provide covering fire. But as Yoel entered a room, he hit a trip wire. The explosion knocked him unconscious and set him afire. He died before his comrades could reach him. When the shooting finally stopped, 13 Israelis lay dead, including four members of a rescue squad. Ten Palestinians were killed. The distance between opposing forces: 10 yards.

The night before the ambush, soldiers from the 5th Brigade had gathered in a house inside the camp to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. The 28-year-old head of one company, Lieut. Dror Bar, had spoken about the symbolism of the moment. “In Europe, Jews couldn’t fight back,” he had said. “Today we’re being attacked, but we can fight back.” The soldiers had lighted candles and read a Psalm. During the next morning’s ambush, Dror Bar was killed.

The Jenin camp was bound to be a killing zone. Both sides knew as much. Established in 1953 to provide temporary shelter for refugees still homeless after the 1948 war, the camp has 14,000 residents crammed inside a 2 1/2-sq.-mi. maze of attached cinder-block houses on streets barely wide enough for a Toyota, much less a tank. It is home to a fiercely nationalist tradition and some of the Palestinians’ most successful terrorists. When the tanks came two weeks ago, Jenin’s fighters were surrounded and outgunned but not outfought. In a radio broadcast, Hamas vowed to fight to the death. With the Israeli army busy in Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank in late March, the Palestinians had nearly a week to organize a defense–on their own turf, on their own terms. The slope of the camp favored their position at the crest. And their bombmakers expertly set about the delicate task of making every alley and building a lethal conquest for the Israeli attackers.

The 5th Brigade paid a heavy price on Tuesday, but by Thursday, when the Israeli military finally pulled back its armored curtain, the camp had been obliterated. Bulldozers and tanks had blasted a long, wide attack corridor through the camp. In a house-to-house, wall-to-wall onslaught of helicopter gunships, armor and infantry, Israeli forces say they killed at least 100 Palestinians and captured nearly 700 others, including some on Israel’s list of terror suspects. The last group of 37 surrendered only after running out of bullets. Dozens of civilians perished, some crushed by falling walls, others in the cross fire. Palestinians put the total number of their dead as high as 500; the Israeli military says it lost 23 in all.

Israel’s capture of Jenin was never in doubt. It will go some way toward sating Israeli hunger for revenge after the suicide attacks. But it isn’t likely to halt the attacks. In Palestinian minds, Jenin will forever be a heroic stand, a Middle East Stalingrad.

Palestinians and some human-rights activists charge that Israeli troops massacred civilians and then covered up the evidence. When reporters were allowed into the camp on Thursday, there were no bodies to be found. Yet residents reported that dozens of corpses had been left in the streets for days, and later they directed reporters to what they said was a mass grave. “They want to hide their crimes, the bodies of the little children and women,” Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told the Associated Press. On Friday the Israeli Supreme Court barred the army from carrying out a plan to bury some of the camp’s dead Palestinians until a hearing into the deaths could take place two days later.

Israel denied committing any atrocities and blamed the Palestinians’ defensive strategy for the damage and civilian casualties. “A refugee camp is where there are people who are living with a humanitarian crisis,” said Colonel Gal Hirsch, the Israeli army’s chief of operations. “The Jenin refugee camp is a military combat position. It was set up that way because the Palestinians decided they wanted to fight us there. There wasn’t a massacre there; there was a battle.” The pattern of the Israeli attack was frighteningly direct. Helicopter gunships pounded areas where gunmen had taken positions. As the gunmen were chased closer to the camp’s center, tanks, bulldozers and troops advanced on the areas that had been abandoned.

Jihad Hanoun, 30, lived in a compound with his six brothers and their families in the camp’s main square. On the morning of April 6, the army started shelling his three-story house, briefly setting the third floor on fire. There were 60 people inside. They heard a voice over a loudspeaker telling them to leave, but they didn’t. “We were scared to death,” said Hanoun. Then soldiers broke through a wall from a neighbor’s house.

In a pattern repeated throughout the campaign, the soldiers forced Hanoun to knock on his neighbor’s door, shooting over his head as he did so to prevent ambush. (Palestinians also accused Israeli soldiers of using them as human shields.) Hanoun persuaded his neighbors to come out. The soldiers separated the men, forced them to take off their clothes, then blindfolded and handcuffed them, he said. “I was beaten on my head and chest with the butt of a rifle. They burned my face [with cigarettes],” he said.

Other residents told similar stories of harrowing escapes as bulldozers or sledgehammers punched through walls of occupied houses. Fearing suicide attacks–five Palestinians died after blowing themselves up as they surrendered–the soldiers forced hundreds of men to strip naked in the streets and march to detention centers. Some prisoners said they were kept for days without clothes. Ambulances were prevented from reaching the wounded. A 15-year-old boy was forced to dump a dead body outside an Islamic Jihad leader’s house. After the fighting died down, a middle-aged man rushed among the refugees, trying to reunite families torn apart by battle. “I’m appealing to everybody to take notes and find names,” he said.

Israeli army officials say the Palestinians were shooting from minarets and carrying munitions in ambulances. The Israelis say they uncovered labs for making explosives and factories for assembling Qassam II rockets. Certainly, the camp’s defenders used every resource available. Trip wires attached to 200-lb. charges were laid across streets. Each morning D-9 bulldozers swept the streets, setting off explosions. Hundreds of doorways were booby-trapped.

Israeli soldiers avoided suspicious-looking doors and instead tunneled through walls or had bulldozers shear off the facades of buildings to expose any snipers within. Any building that could serve a military function was leveled. “We could have taken the camp in one day by using artillery and aircraft bombardment,” said Brigadier General Eyal Shlein, who commanded the operation. “But we didn’t. That cost us a lot of casualties.”

The Israelis were willing to take such risks because they wanted to catch big fish and take them alive. Three “heavy terrorists” were captured, including Ali al-Saidi, 40, known as Safouri. Born in the camp, he was allegedly behind a series of terror attacks inside Israel. Jamal Ahawil, 32, head of the Fatah Tanzim in the camp, surrendered Thursday. Thabet Mardawi, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, also gave up. Israeli officials have not confirmed reports that the man they most wanted, Mahmoud Tawalbe, is dead. Known as Nursi, he is head of Islamic Jihad’s suicide-bombing operation in Jenin.

As for Jenin’s civilians, they have, in another of this conflict’s twisted ironies, become refugees from their refugee camp. Jenin has been shattered. Very much like the peace process itself.

–Reported by Nasser Abu Bakr/Jenin; Matt Rees and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem; and Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem

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