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THE WORLD | THE MIDDLE EAST

Controversy Over Israeli Plan to Bury Camp Dead

West Bank: Palestinian survivors accuse the army of trying to hide the bodies of civilians slain at Jenin.

April 13, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JENIN, West Bank — With smoke still rising from the ruins of a quieted urban battlefield, Israel's army provoked a bloodless but bitter skirmish Friday by moving to collect and bury the bodies of Palestinian gunmen killed as it occupied Jenin's refugee camp.

Announcement of the impending burials caused anxiety among Palestinian survivors as they wandered the bleak landscape on foot, searching desperately for husbands, sons and cousins still missing in the aftermath of the eight-day assault. The news stirred fresh allegations, denied by Israel, that the army killed hundreds of civilians here and is trying to hide the bodies.

Israel's chief justice, Aharon Barak, ordered a temporary halt to the burial plan late Friday. He scheduled a Sunday hearing of the full Supreme Court on a motion by Mohammed Baraka, an Arab member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Baraka joined leaders of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in accusing Israel of war crimes. "We want to make sure that those responsible for crimes in the camp won't be able to hide the evidence," the lawmaker said.

What will happen to the dead is one of several lingering questions about the West Bank's bloodiest battle since the 1967 Middle East War. A day after Israel said it subdued the last resistance by gunmen inside the camp, no one is certain how many Palestinians died, how many of them fell in battle and how many were unarmed civilians.

But it was clear that the fierce fighting here will make Jenin a powerful symbol of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years to come.

To Israel, Jenin was the chief breeding ground of the suicide bombers who carried out a string of bloody attacks in Israel last month. The attacks prompted the army to invade Palestinian-ruled cities of the West Bank starting March 29 in an effort to root out what Israeli leaders call a "terrorist infrastructure."

Subduing the camp's fighters cost Israel the lives of 23 soldiers, including 13 killed this week in an explosion.

Brig. Gen. Eyal Shlein, commander of Israeli forces in Jenin, said soldiers cleaning up after the battle Thursday discovered the bodies of three key militants who had directed suicide attacks--Jamal Akhuil, head of the military wing of Fatah, Arafat's political movement; and Thabet Mardawi and Ali Safuri of the Islamic Jihad organization.

Palestinians seized upon Jenin as a symbol of resistance and martyrdom--a moral victory in which as few as 200 gunmen held out more than a week against an arsenal of tanks and helicopter gunships.

In the Gaza Strip, hundreds of people demonstrated Friday to commemorate the gunmen who died fighting in the camp. Doctors in Gaza City said three babies born in the last three days have been named Jenin.

More ominously, Palestinians saw Friday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem, which killed six Israelis, as revenge for the assault on the refugee camp.

"In military terms, the Israelis did not achieve their goal" to stop suicide bombings, said Assad Hashash, a 37-year-old medic who watched the fighting from the top of his three-story home just across a road from the camp's western perimeter. "People who never thought about doing anything against the Jews are now going to try to do something because of what they have seen here."

As Hashash spoke, black smoke rose from deep inside the half-square-mile camp. Most of the densely packed community's multistory cinder-block houses were still standing, but many bore battle scars--gaping holes left by tank rounds, scorched walls, shattered windows. Scattered homes were flattened.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled along all the camp's perimeter roads, chasing away journalists who tried to get in.

Many of the camp's 13,000 residents fled during the fighting, especially from homes in the center, which took the heaviest pounding from tanks and attack helicopters. Hundreds of people are believed to be still in the camp, but reporters who stood at the western edge Friday saw no one.

"Unfortunately, nobody is moving inside the camp and nobody knows what's inside the camp," said Guy Siri, a Frenchman who is deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which oversees aid programs inside Palestinian refugee camps.

"The living conditions are just incredible," he said. "They have been without food, without water, without anything. The handful of people who moved out of the camp today had been drinking sewage water just to keep their throats moist."

Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey said soldiers were collecting bodies Friday, separating those of armed men from those of civilians.

He said the gunmen would be buried in unmarked graves in a special cemetery in the Israeli-controlled part of the Jordan Valley. The cemetery is in a field where Lebanese fighters killed in cross-border clashes have been buried in graves marked only by numbers.

"The civilians we will try to give back to the Palestinians," he said.

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