• U.S.

Untangling Jenin’s Tale

18 minute read
Matt Rees

The street is a new one, carved by a huge bulldozer out of what was once a narrow alley. It leads to a place where gunmen and tanks forged a new, terrifying chapter in the long wars of the Middle East. The alley was just three feet wide before the Israeli army sent its heavily armored Caterpillar D-9 down what is now a rutted track; as you walk along it, up a mild gradient toward Hospital Street, your feet raise little puffs of dust from the rubble of what were once concrete homes. The path is covered with the litter of war–broken sea-green ceramic tiles, a punctured cooking-gas cylinder, a thin foam mattress, a blond-haired baby doll. As you make your way into the camp, the snarl of traffic in the town and the calls of peddlers recede, and when you reach Hospital Street, all is silent. The Palestinians who live in Jenin Refugee Camp shuffle and gawk, still stunned by the battle that wrecked their houses four weeks ago. Only the foreigners move purposefully–Oxfam workers setting up room-size plastic water containers; Swedes and Danes in blue and khaki vests, carrying notepads; a delegation from the German Green Party. They seem to think there’s something to be salvaged in the destruction that stretches up the hillside; they seem unable to read the message that this awful landscape writes.

There was a battle in Jenin. It was real urban warfare, as a modern, well-equipped army met an armed and prepared group of guerrilla fighters intimately familiar with the local terrain. For both sides, Jenin has been added to the memories that invest the conflict in the Middle East with such bitterness. Because Jenin has become so potent a symbol, a new battle has broken out over what precisely happened there and what its wider significance will be.

A TIME investigation concludes that there was no wanton massacre in Jenin, no deliberate slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. But the 12 days of fighting took a severe toll on the camp. According to the U.N., 54 Palestinians are confirmed dead. An additional 49 are missing; it is unclear how many of them perished in the fighting and how many either fled or were captured by Israeli troops. In the final count, there may well be fewer dead in Jenin than the 78 killed in Nablus Casbah in a battle that took place at the same time. But it is Jenin that has attracted worldwide attention because of the widespread destruction of property and because some of those who died during the fighting were mere spectators.

Human Rights Watch, which in a published report last week also concluded that no massacre took place, nonetheless documented 22 civilian deaths and said the Israelis used excessive and indiscriminate force during the operation. TIME found that as Israeli soldiers moved from house to house, they sometimes compelled Palestinian civilians to take the dangerous job of leading the approach to the buildings. On the other hand, a senior Palestinian military officer has admitted to TIME that some of those who died were killed by rubble from the exploding booby traps with which Palestinian fighters had honeycombed the camp.

But the accusations and their rebuttals do not capture the lessons of the battle. In Jenin the Israelis sent a message: there is no quarter, no haven, for those who send out human bombers to blow themselves and Israelis apart in restaurants and cafes. And the Palestinians sent their message in return: they can kill Israelis in Palestinian towns just as well as in Tel Aviv. Under the slabs of fallen masonry in Jenin is a new legend of martyrdom and heroism, one that will be used in years to come to stiffen the sinews of those who would fight against Israeli rule: mailed fist met by defiant resistance. Written in the twisted metal and crushed cinder block of Jenin is the new reality of an old conflict with no end in sight. This is how it happened:

–THE ISRAELIS PREPARE In the last week of March, Major General Itzik Eitan, Israel’s Chief of Central Command, submitted his plan to take over the Jenin Refugee Camp to Chief of Staff Lieut. General Shaul Mofaz. Both men knew it would be one of the toughest missions of Israel’s Defensive Shield operation, which began March 28 in Ramallah when the Israelis surrounded the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Jenin camp, which is administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has existed since 1953; 13,055 registered refugees live in a square whose sides are about 600 yds. long.

Even by the standards of Palestinian refugee camps, Jenin is gruesomely special. Since the start of the Aqsa intifadeh in September 2000, the camp’s activists, drawn from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have orchestrated at least 28 suicide attacks on Israeli targets. An internal document of Arafat’s Fatah organization, written in September last year and captured by the Israelis during a recent sweep, characterized the camp’s people as “ready for self-sacrifice with all their means…It is not strange that Jenin has been termed the capital of suicide attackers.”

The Israeli authorities knew all about Jenin, and they knew those in the camp they wanted to take out. Their top target was Mahmoud Tawalbe, a 23-year-old father of two who worked in a record store but also headed the local Islamic Jihad cell. Tawalbe had launched numerous attacks against Israelis, including a shooting last October that killed four Israeli women on the main street of Hadera, a town north of Tel Aviv. Last July, Tawalbe had dispatched his 19-year-old brother Murad on a suicide mission to Haifa. (Murad lost his nerve and surrendered to Israeli police.) Other top Islamic Jihad targets in Jenin included Thabet Mardawi and Ali Suleiman al-Saadi, known as Safouri. Mardawi was behind a March 20 suicide bomb that killed seven Israelis on a bus, while Safouri had planned a November shooting that killed two Israelis.

In February, Israeli soldiers had twice gone into Jenin. Arriving each time along a single route and with limited force, they had encountered heavy resistance and departed quickly. This time Eitan planned to send his troops in from three directions. The 5th Infantry Brigade would close in through the town of Jenin, which abuts the camp to the north. From the southeast and southwest would come two thrusts, one led by a company from the Nahal Brigade, the other by Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade–1,000 troops in all. The force would include units of navy seals, tanks, engineers to handle the roadside bombs that military intelligence predicted would line the alleys of the camp, and heavily armored bulldozers to carve paths for tanks.

Everyone understood that the mission would be dangerous; with soldiers entering the camp from three directions, there was also a risk of friendly fire. (In the end, there were 18 friendly fire incidents, but no Israeli was killed by his comrades.) Eitan ruled out an air attack; he feared giving the Palestinians the public relations coup of mass civilian casualties. His assessment: the army could take control of the camp in 48 to 72 hours. That turned out to be wildly optimistic.

On March 30, the 5th Brigade was mobilized. There was no problem of motivation; like most Israelis, the soldiers had been shocked by the suicide attack on a hotel in Netanya three days earlier, an atrocity that killed 28 Israelis sitting down for a Passover seder. The bomber had been sent by a Hamas cell based in Jenin. As the troops of the 5th Brigade arrived at their base in Ofer, north of Jerusalem, many wore civilian clothes, while some of those in uniform wore tennis shoes instead of boots. As they hauled their kit bags out of their cars, they could see hundreds of Palestinians who had been arrested during the Israeli sweep of Ramallah that began two days before.

The operations across the West Bank had stretched the Israeli army thin. By March 30, Israeli troops were already occupying Ramallah and Bethlehem. On Monday, April 1, they would go into Tulkarem and Qalqilya. The elite Paratroop Brigade was poised outside Nablus. The 5th Brigade, scheduled for Jenin, was made up of reservists mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, but the brass thought they could handle the tough assignment. “There were indications it was going to be hard,” says Major General Dan Harel, the army’s operations chief. “But we didn’t think it was going to be so hard.” The soldiers were supposed to head for Jenin on April 1, but rain and delays in shipping equipment forced Colonel Yedidia Yehuda, the brigade’s commander, to wait until Tuesday, April 2. Around midnight, the Israeli tanks, which had massed west of the town, started to move in.

–INSIDE THE CAMP The Palestinian fighters had made their own preparations. Booby traps had been laid in the streets of both the camp and the town, ready to be triggered if an Israeli foot or vehicle snagged a tripwire. Some of the bombs were huge–as much as 250 lbs. of explosives, compared with the 25 lbs. a typical suicide bomber uses. On Day 2 of the battle, when the town had been secured but the fight in the camp was just beginning, a huge Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer rolled along a three-quarter-mile stretch of the main street to clear booby traps. An Israeli engineering-corps officer logged 124 separate explosions set off by the vehicle. In the camp, the explosive charges were even more densely packed, and tunnels had been dug between houses so that Palestinian fighters could move around without exposing themselves on the street. Many noncombatants had fled; Israeli intelligence believes half the camp’s residents had left before the troops arrived, and that by the third day of the battle 90% of the residents were gone. Even so, that left as many as 1,300 people inside the camp. According to leaders of Islamic Jihad interviewed by TIME, around 100 of those left were armed fighters.

At first, the Palestinians considered themselves lucky. Captured fighters later told Israeli interrogators they had expected an air strike. The Israelis had repeatedly bombed police barracks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; they didn’t seem eager to risk the casualties of house-to-house combat. Ata Abu Roumeileh, a leader of the Fatah gunmen in the camp, now in hiding, told TIME that it was only when his forces saw the Israelis advancing on foot that they decided to stay and fight.

The battle took shape in the environment that soldiers like least, in and around pinched alleys and houses, with ample hiding places and sniper positions. Inevitably, civilians were caught in the fray. Awad Masarweh, a 49-year-old laborer who works in Jenin’s vegetable market, took shelter in his house on the edge of the camp near the U.N. Relief and Works Agency’s school, on the side of the camp through which the 5th Brigade advanced. At the end of the first day, says Masarweh, there were 90 others in his home, which Palestinians deemed to be among the safest. As the Israelis moved from street to street, the gunmen moved ahead of them. At one moment, Masarweh heard an enormous fusillade and explosions outside his house; everyone, he says, climbed out a window, crossed a yard and crowded into another house, which was crammed with 200 people. Masarweh’s wife received shrapnel wounds in her leg and neck.

Israeli officials insist that they gave clear warning before entering any house. Masarweh heard an Israeli intelligence officer bellowing in Arabic through a megaphone from the street outside. “People in the house,” the Israeli said, “get out. We don’t want you to be hurt.” The officer waited: “People, get out. People in the house, we are going to come in.” Palestinians say Israelis frequently used camp residents to knock on doors to persuade people to come out into the street. Israeli army sources confirmed to TIME that they used this practice, which Human Rights Watch condemned in its report as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Masarweh eventually persuaded the women to step outside, waving white sheets. The men followed. They were ordered to strip and were then taken in armored personnel carriers to a camp, before being transferred to a jail inside Israel. On April 6, after three days of detention, Masarweh was bused back to the Jenin area. “Don’t go back in the camp,” the Israelis told him. He didn’t need the advice; by then, the battle had become far too intense.

–BULLDOZERS AND BODIES Three days into the operation–by which time, according to Eitan’s plans, the camp should have been in Israeli hands–the Palestinians were still dug in. The Israelis had already lost seven men, but as they advanced, the Palestinian defenders retreated to the Hawashin district at the camp’s center, where their defenses were strongest. It was time to hit harder.

Cobra attack helicopters began to pound rooftop Palestinian positions. But the Israelis’ most effective weapon was unconventional: the huge, armored D-9 bulldozer, 20 ft. tall and weighing more than 50 tons; its shovel can crush a car with a single blow. Eventually, a dozen of them went into action, clearing paths for the tanks and detonating booby traps; Palestinians say Israeli troops rode atop them, firing rocket-propelled grenades. Undoubtedly, the D-9s destroyed houses, but they certainly didn’t bury as many people as Palestinian officials have alleged. It takes the D-9 at least half an hour to fully wreck a building. Israeli soldiers say they always called to residents to come out before the bulldozers went in. But even if the innocents were too frightened initially to leave, most would surely have done so as soon as the D-9 started its work. A senior Palestinian military officer tells TIME it was probably the gunmen’s own booby traps that buried some civilians and fighters alive. There were bombs that were certainly big enough to wreck a cinder-block refugee house more devastatingly than a D-9 ever could.

But the increasing ferocity of the fighting led to tragic errors. On Day 6, Fatih Shalabe, 63, was hiding in his home with his family, including his son Waddah, 37. At 6 p.m., Shalabe says, soldiers entered his neighbor’s home. Those residents, the Saadeh family, tried to flee into Shalabe’s yard. Soldiers followed and ordered all 17 people out into an alley. Fatih and Waddah were ordered to stand against a wall with their neighbor’s son, Abdel Karim Saadeh. The soldiers followed the procedure now widely used to guard against suicide attacks–they ordered the men to lift their shirtfronts to reveal whether they were wearing suicide belts packed with explosives. Abdel Karim had a bad back and wore a medical support; when he lifted his shirt, the soldiers saw his corset and thought it was a bomb belt. According to Shalabe, the officer then said, “Shoot, shoot.” The Israelis gunned down Waddah and Abdel Karim. Waddah slammed back against the wall. Fatih went down too and lay covered in his son’s blood, pretending to be dead until the Israelis moved on. “I would have been luckier if I had died,” Fatih later told TIME.

Not all the Palestinians who died were so innocent. The man the Israelis most wanted to find in Jenin, Mahmoud Tawalbe, took a quick break from the fighting on Day 7 to visit his mother Tuffahah and his brother Ahmed. Ahmed told TIME Mahmoud looked pleased with his work: camp lore holds that Mahmoud killed 13 Israelis in the fighting. He and his crew of about 50 Islamic Jihad fighters were hitting the Israelis hard. On Day 6, two more Israeli soldiers had been slain. “Don’t worry about me,” Mahmoud told his mother. “I feel strong.”

A day later, he was dead. TIME visited the rubble of the house where Tawalbe died. The three-story structure shows signs of attack from two directions. One wall was charred by fire; the wall on the other side had collapsed. David Holley, a British military expert working in the camp for Amnesty International, deduces from the bomb craters and tank tracks that Tawalbe and the two fighters who accompanied him went into the house to get close enough to a tank or D-9 to plant explosives on it; the Palestinians’ bombs, says Holley, were useless unless they were placed directly on the armor of a vehicle. Holley surmises that the bulldozer driver saw the Palestinians and rammed the wall down on top of Tawalbe. A week later–by which time Tawalbe’s name was known throughout the Arab world–his family dug out his body and that of another fighter who died with him. The bodies had been so badly mangled by the falling masonry that the burial party could not distinguish one from the other; they were interred together in Jenin’s Martyrs’ Cemetery. A few days later, posters of Tawalbe labeled GENERAL OF THE MARTYRS appeared all over the camp, and children marched along the alleys chanting his name.

But it was not just the Palestinians who watched their men die in the alleys of Jenin. On Day 7, Sergeant Major Dror Harazi, 34, with 14 years of service in the reserves, was ordered into a house overlooking an alley where a platoon of the 5th Brigade had been ambushed. Gunmen were firing at the Israelis from a building above the alley. With Lieut. Eyal Yoel, an officer from a kibbutz outside Jerusalem, Harazi went into a half-built house to provide covering fire for the injured. Yoel crossed the room and tripped the wire of a booby trap; the explosion knocked him unconscious and set him on fire. Harazi, who had been protected from the blast by a pillar, was unhurt and ran to Yoel just as another bomb was thrown through a window. Shrapnel wounded Harazi in the legs and face, but he got out and ran 50 yds. back to the medic unit. “Eyal is lying in there burning!” he shouted to the medics. “There are a lot of others you need to rescue.” But nine men caught in the initial ambush died, as did Yoel and three others of their would-be rescuers. A few hours later, a Golani Brigade soldier was shot on the edge of the camp. With 14 dead, Day 7 became the Israeli army’s worst day of combat casualties since the Lebanon war ended in 1985.

The Israelis, however, were winning; the sheer force of their assault was beginning to tell on the Palestinian fighters. The D-9s rumbled farther into the heart of the camp, flattening an area 200 yds. square; Human Rights Watch reports that 140 buildings were leveled, and more than 200 were severely damaged. On Day 9, 37 gunmen surrendered in Hawashin, the center of the camp. A D-9 had sliced the wall off a house; dazed fighters came out with their hands in the air. They were told to strip to the waist and were taken to a building on the edge of the camp for processing. One man took off his blindfold; on an Israeli army videotape viewed by TIME, he was haggard and pale, his hair tousled and his shoulders slumped toward the grizzled gray hair on his chest. “Who are you?” asked an Israeli officer. “Ali Suleiman al-Saadi,” the man mumbled. “Safouri? You’re Safouri?” The prisoner nodded and grunted, “Yeah.” With Thabet Mardawi–the third of the Israelis’ top targets–captured in the same incident, the end was in sight.

Then came the counting of casualties–and arguments about the count. Throughout the operation, Palestinian officials had said that as many as 800 had been killed. As is the case in the Middle East, the figure was inflated to fit local beliefs of Israeli depravity and Palestinian victimization: last week an Iranian waiter in Rome told an Israeli visitor of 16,000 people slaughtered in Jenin.

The reality was different, though body counts and estimates of civilian casualties vary. Charles Kapes, the deputy chief of the U.N. office in the camp, says 54 dead have been pulled from the wreckage and 49 Palestinians are missing, of whom 18 are residents of the camp. Human Rights Watch says 52 were killed, of whom only 27 were thought to be armed Palestinians. The Israelis say they found 46 dead in the rubble, including a pile of five bodies that had been booby-trapped. Of these 46, say the Israelis, all but three were “fighters,” men ages 18 to 40. The Jenin Hospital, meanwhile, says 52 camp residents died, including five women and four children under the age of 15. Of the 43 dead men, eight were 55 or older and therefore probably not involved in the fighting. No matter whose figures one accepts, “there was no massacre,” concludes Amnesty’s Holley.

That said, Jenin was awful; all wars are. The Israelis themselves lost 23 men, and an additional 75 were wounded. Dr. Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of the Jenin Hospital, said he counted 220 injured, a number that doesn’t include those who received treatment at home. On April 17, more than two weeks after the battle began, Abu Ghali was allowed by Israeli soldiers to make his third foray into the camp to tend to victims. Abu Ghali saw the body of a man crushed by a bulldozer or tank track, his intestines spilling out. “We could see what he had eaten,” the doctor said.

He will remember Jenin. So will countless others, both Israeli and Palestinian. And in the Middle East, memory is the fuel that nourishes violence, revenge and unending hate. –With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh and Jamil Hamad/Jenin and Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com