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Perspectives Vary After Jenin Raid

April 22, 2002

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JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) _ The first column of Israeli tanks rumbled over the ridgeline in darkness, their heavy reverberations shaking the concrete foundations of the shantytown that lay below. Within moments, the crack of Palestinian gunfire rang out from the dank alleyways of the Jenin refugee camp.

In the gray dawn of April 3, tumult and tragedy were about to envelop nearly everyone within earshot of those first disordered sounds of combat.

A Palestinian gunman, a housewife, an Israeli soldier, a young doctor _ all would be caught up in a confrontation whose means and methods would be almost as hotly contested as the battle now being joined for this jumble of ramshackle buildings that was home to some 14,000 Palestinians.

To Israel, the Jenin camp was a viper’s nest, a haven for gunmen and weapons makers, a spawning ground for about 20 suicide bombings that killed or maimed scores of Israelis over 18 months. To Palestinian fighters, it was a stronghold in their struggle against an occupying power.

For the combatants, the battle lines could not have been more clearly drawn. To 1st Lt. Yoni Wolf, an Israeli military reservist who would take part in more than a week of fighting in the camp _ the fiercest and costliest engagement of Israel’s biggest military operation in two decades _ this was the chance to strike a decisive blow at suicide bombers.

``We believe we are fighting so our families can go to our restaurants and feel at peace,″ said Wolf, a 26-year-old teacher who, like the bulk of Israeli troops who fought in the Jenin camp, was a part-time soldier.

Ziad Amer, a 35-year-old Palestinian and the camp’s acknowledged military leader, was determined to teach the Israelis ``a lesson they will never forget.″ Hours after Israeli tanks ringed the camp, Amer boasted that everyone was ready fight to the death _ even the children, he said, who had been given homemade hand grenades.

Others, though, felt only foreboding as Israeli helicopter gunships juddered overhead and Palestinian gunmen took up sniper posts. Haya Ghattash, a 30-year-old Palestinian who lived near the camp’s center with her husband and three children, believed it would be a fight to the finish _ with families like hers caught in the middle.

By the time the guns were silenced, a zone beginning just across the street from her house would be a wasteland, an area the size of several city blocks filled with demolished buildings and strewn with the books, shoes, bedding and other possessions of those who once lived there. And Israel and the Palestinians _ with the growing involvement of international bodies, including the United Nations _ would be locked in a bitter dispute over how many had died on this debris-choked ground, and how.

Ghattash could not know the scale of the destruction, but what she could see was frightening enough. ``It was a hell, coming toward us from the hills and from the sky,″ she said. ``I called on God then to protect us.″

___

As the battle began, doctors at Jenin’s main hospital on the edge of the camp braced for a flood of casualties. They were right: the dead and wounded _ some gunmen, some not _ began arriving within hours.

A 27-year-old Palestinian named Fadwa Jammal was among the first to die, hit April 3 by what hospital officials said they believed was Israeli gunfire when she went to the roof to see what was going on. Amer, the militia leader, was killed shortly after the fighting began; witnesses said he fired at an Israeli tank and died in a volley of return fire.

Israel, too, was bloodied early on: a 29-year-old major named Moshe Gerstner fell in an ambush in a camp alleyway _ the first of seven soldiers to die in the initial 48 hours of the Jenin offensive.

But neither side was daunted. The Israeli army said it was reinforcing its troops. On the Palestinian side, militia leader Ali Safouri said his men were making every bullet count. Civilians, meanwhile, were slipping out whenever they dared to take shelter in nearby villages and in the adjoining town of Jenin.

After two days, with fighting intensifying, ambulances and medical personnel were prevented from coming and going, Red Crescent officials said. Nihal Sawalha, a 39-year-old surgeon who was trapped in the hospital, could hear heavy machine-gun fire ripping through the camp, ``and wire-guided missiles, with that noise they make: fzzz-fzzz and then boom!″

The hospital began fielding frantic phone calls from residents trying to help the wounded. Sawalha spoke to women who were caring for an elderly man with a sucking chest wound caused by shrapnel; they called again an hour later, weeping, to say he had died. The blockade of ambulances went on for another 10 days, doctors said.

Soldiers by now were conducting house-to-house searches, detaining most fighting-age men and ordering women and children to leave. Despite the danger, Ghattash decided to stay home after her 32-year-old husband, Nasser, was handcuffed by soldiers and locked in a nearby house.

``I couldn’t leave him,″ she said. She and her children hid in a single room by day, and sneaked him food at night, she said.

What might have been the battle’s turning point came on April 9.

Israeli military officials had been quoted in the Israeli press as saying they had conquered most of the camp and were wrapping up operations. But that day, in a walled courtyard deep in the camp, a group of Israeli reservists walked into an elaborately choreographed Palestinian ambush that employed powerful explosives triggered by tripwire, followed by a hail of sniper fire.

Thirteen soldiers died, more than half the 23 whose lives would be claimed in the camp. For the army, it was the single deadliest incident in years. ``Deathtrap in Jenin,″ said Israeli newspaper headlines.

Within hours, the army assembled a convoy of armored D-9 bulldozers, each of them nearly the size of a house, which newspaper columnist Nahum Barnea called ``the terrifying beast of this war.″ Amid the deafening roar of the engines, soldiers in the cab would not be able to hear cries from anyone inside homes being knocked down.

``Instead of the soldiers going house to house,″ Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, ``the bulldozer would go house to house.″

Residents say it was during the next 48 hours that the center of the camp was reduced to a sea of rubble. Ghattash said she believed nearly all her neighbors had fled by then, but she did not think anyone could have made it out alive once this onslaught began.

``When I came out of my house in the end, I could hardly believe what I saw,″ she said.

The army defended the destruction of the camp’s center as necessary, and insisted civilians have been given every opportunity to get out of harm’s way. Wolf, the teacher-reservist, said soldiers moved carefully, working with aerial maps.

``Only after we saw a house that was occupied by (gunmen) or was on the way to getting to the important positions we had to get to, and we couldn’t get there any other way because the houses were booby-trapped, the D-9 tore down houses,″ he said.

By the morning of April 11, the last main group of holdouts, about three dozen exhausted gunmen, had surrendered to Israeli troops. Sporadic fighting trailed over the next few days. In all, about 1,000 Palestinians were arrested in Jenin.

Now the war of words would begin.

___

In the week since the Jenin camp began reopening to the outside world, Palestinian claims of a massacre _ the deliberate and systematic mass killings of civilians _ have gone unsubstantiated, although doctors say women, children, the elderly and other noncombatants are included among dead and injured. About four dozen bodies have been recovered in the camp, and Palestinians _ who had said the toll would run into the hundreds _ insist the enormous piles of debris could yield many more corpses.

Israel now finds itself facing perhaps the harshest international denunciations in nearly 19 months of conflict, as much over the battle’s aftermath as the fighting itself. It has been faulted, in particular, for failing to allow in search-and-rescue teams during after the fighting ceased, of initially delaying shipments of supplies into the camp, and for not allowing treatment of the wounded during the fighting.

``When we are confronted with the extent of destruction of the Jenin refugee camp, it is difficult to accept that international humanitarian law has been respected,″ said Rene Kosirnik of the International Committee of the Red Cross. On Monday, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said it had evidence human rights abuses occurred in Jenin.

Israel took angry exception to U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen’s description of the destruction as ``horrifying beyond belief″ and not justified by any military goal. Some Israeli officials suggested the outcome of a U.N. fact-finding mission, with which Israel has agreed to cooperate, may be tainted by prejudice.

Despite the criticism, Israel calls the Jenin operation a military victory, saying it destroyed a large explosives factory in the camp’s center, seized weapons caches and smashed a hard core of militants. But even Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer sounded a note of pessimism about whether suicide bombings would abate for long.

``You can’t uproot a terror infrastructure _ there is no such thing,″ he told the Maariv newspaper. ``Let there be no misunderstanding, terror is like a snake. You chop it and it grows back ... I can’t prevent the next terror attack.″

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