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The Middle East

Massacre Allegations Smolder in Camp Ruins

Mideast: Palestinians are convinced that Israelis slaughtered several hundred people in Jenin. But few bodies have been recovered.

April 16, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The center of this refugee camp is a vast wasteland, where scores of homes have been leveled into rubble and the stench of death hangs in the dust-choked air.

An area greater than two football fields, once teeming with children, chickens and angry residents, is now a sea of concrete chunks, pieces of glass and metal, and scattered items of clothing--largely the work of a legion of Israel's armored bulldozers and missile-firing helicopters. More than a scene of combat, the place looks like it was flattened by an earthquake.

Yet the mystery remains: How many people were killed here, and what happened to the bodies? The Palestinians are convinced that a massacre took place, that Israeli soldiers slaughtered several hundred men, women and children. Israel says there was a fierce battle but no massacre, and that "dozens, not hundreds" of Palestinians were killed, the majority of them fighters.

The Jenin camp, home to at least 13,000 refugees, was indisputably the theater of the deadliest fighting in the 18-day-old offensive in the West Bank, which Israel says it launched to wipe out terrorism. In addition to the Palestinian casualties, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed here, including 13 who died in a single ambush. Palestinians in Jenin, home to numerous suicide bombers, used explosives and rigged many of the homes with booby traps.

Stoking the confusion and heated rhetoric over what really happened, the army for days after the fighting ended banned all journalists, relief workers, medical personnel and the International Committee of the Red Cross from entering the camp. In the last couple of days, the army has begun to take reporters in on guided and highly restricted visits, and a few reporters have managed to sneak in with the help of local people who spot tanks and point out safe, if circuitous, routes.

On one such tour Monday, reporters reached the center of the camp, ground zero of this conflict.

As the journalists picked their way through back alleys and partially destroyed homes, dozens of survivors emerged tentatively for the first time since the offensive began, to assess the damage and look for missing friends and relatives.

"This is where all the killing was," Hania Kabia said, waving her arms over the mountains of rubble. Kabia's house faces the devastation but was spared, she said, because soldiers used it as a post. Like many residents, she insisted that numerous Palestinians lay entombed in her wretchedly altered surroundings.

As yet, it has been impossible to verify large numbers of dead. No clear evidence has emerged so far to corroborate the assertion of a massacre. Both sides agree that, at the least, about 100 fighters probably died, along with civilians.

While there are pockets that smell of death, the odor is not as pervasive as might be expected if hundreds of corpses lay underneath the rubble. Witnesses can offer the details of a handful of deaths, including executions and the killing of civilians in their homes, but there are so far no long lists of dead, nor witness accounts of mass murder.

There is clear evidence, however, of destruction that seems to go beyond the stated goal of fighting terrorism.

Intense combat usually leaves buildings with innumerable bullet holes or gaping gashes caused by rockets and artillery. Here, the buildings have been demolished, apparently to clear a path for tanks to enter the camp more easily. The army has not fully explained the wreckage, other than to describe the Jenin operation as ferocious house-to-house combat in which militants fought from homes in the camp's center and set off scores of explosions that did considerable damage.

The practice is not a new one for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose nickname is "The Bulldozer" because of his hard-driving style. Forces commanded by him leveled homes in the West Bank village of Kibya in 1953 in retaliation for the slaying by Palestinians of a Jewish woman and her two children. Sixty-nine people were killed in the houses, about half of them women and children. Sharon said at the time that he believed the homes were empty. The episode earned Israel its first formal U.N. condemnation.

Earlier Monday, the army, forced by a Supreme Court decision, allowed the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to enter the Jenin camp for the first time to retrieve bodies.

The Red Crescent teams entered about 7 a.m. and immediately encountered a body hanging out of a window of a smashed house. Then they found the body of a renowned militia commander wanted by Israel. They found a woman in her 50s near the central square, and then two more men on the northern edge of the camp. Closer to a U.N. building, they found three corpses but could only remove one because the other two were wearing belts of explosives like those used by suicide bombers.

The seventh body recovered Monday was of a fighter who had been shot in the forehead at close range, according to Dr. Mohammed abu Gali of the Jenin hospital.

The teams found seven other bodies, but they were trapped in heavy rubble and could not be removed.

In another neighborhood, Ali Damage, the head of local emergency relief committees, had taken refuge on the unfinished top floor of a neighbor's house--along with 30 other people--after the bulldozers arrived on his street. In scarcely 10 minutes, he said, the bulldozers systematically plowed through six homes, sending families into flight and killing a mentally impaired man who insisted on staying at his house.

"If Charles Dickens came here, he would be paralyzed trying to describe the destruction and punishment of a people," Damage said.

*

Times staff writer T. Christian Miller in Jenin contributed to this report.

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