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Israel Faulted for Ignoring Victims

West Bank: Army denies U.N. envoy's allegation that it failed to mount rescue efforts in Jenin.

April 19, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JENIN, West Bank — The highest-ranking U.N. official in the Middle East harshly condemned the Israeli government Thursday, accusing it of failing to mount rescue efforts here that might have saved Palestinian lives.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations' special envoy to the region, said the Israelis should have immediately sent search-and-rescue teams after their invasion of this West Bank town, which saw the fiercestIsraeli-Palestinian fighting in decades.

As Larsen spoke to reporters in the ruins of Jenin's former refugee camp, he watched a man burrow through rubble with his hands to pull out the remains of his elderly father.

"What we are seeing here is horrifying, horrifying scenes of human suffering," said the Norwegian diplomat. "After the military offensive in Jenin, the government of Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict."

Israeli military officials angrily denied the accusations, saying search-and-rescue teams had been sent in whenever the army received reports of trapped victims. They said one body was found.

"These are lies. I am sorry that Mr. Larsen has let himself be misled by this kind of propaganda," army spokesman Capt. Kfir Luzzatto said.

Thursday was the first time since the Israeli operation in Jenin began 16 days ago that U.N. officials were allowed in to assess the damage to the camp, which was established in 1953.

They encountered a scene of frantic despair. Hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children, rushing to take advantage of a brief lifting of the military curfew, streamed into the camp to gather meager possessions, collect their dead and search for the living.

The center of the camp that once was home to 13,000 refugees has been destroyed. Homes and shops that lined the main square have been replaced by looming piles of rubble, the result of Israeli bulldozers, tanks and shelling.

But earthmoving equipment remained in short supply. So far, a single bulldozer owned by the Palestinian city government has served to sift through the debris.

As a result, Palestinians on Thursday dug with their hands or scraped at the earth with small plastic buckets. At least two bodies were found. Both were unrecognizable.

Samih abu Siba and his children dug into their former basement, hoping to find the remains of his father, Mohammed Masoud abu Siba, who they said was about 65.

The elder Abu Siba was killed early in the fighting when he walked onto the family's glass-walled veranda and was shot by Israeli snipers, his son said. They tried to get help, but Abu Siba bled to death in the family home.

They wrapped the body in a rug, but two hours later, Israeli bulldozers began knocking down the house, the son said. They fled, leaving Abu Siba's body behind.

When they returned Wednesday and again Thursday, family members found the rug and tried to recover the remains.

"We were able to get half of my father," said Samih abu Siba, 43. "The other half is still in there."

A few yards north of Abu Siba's former residence, another body lay just inside the wall of a dangerously tottering house. Camp residents gathered around, but nobody could identify the corpse, a tangle of flesh and bone wrapped in a blanket.

The number of dead and the circumstances of their deaths have become the central controversy in the battle of Jenin. The Israeli army lost 23 soldiers, including 13 in one explosion.

Palestinians say that between 300 and 500 died during about a week of intense fighting. So far, however, the number of Palestinian bodies pulled from the rubble is 37.

Human rights officials, who sneaked into the camp in recent days, said it is still too early to tell what happened. But they urged the Israeli government to open the area up to complete inspection.

"There's a need to establish the facts with authority," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It would be helpful if the United States took a stronger stand to demand access to these places."

Dr. Mohammed abu Gali, director of the town's general hospital, has an office with a view of a hastily created graveyard at a construction site behind the hospital. Medical workers have been burying bodies there because the hospital has a spotty power supply and no reliable way to cool its morgue.

Abu Gali said he believes that the Israeli government is hiding some of the dead in refrigerated trucks. He said Israeli military officials had recently given him five bodies recovered from the camp after storing them in this fashion.

Israeli military officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Abu Gali also said 16 people were taken out of a home in the camp Tuesday after having been trapped for several days. They could not be located, and at least one former resident said the men were Palestinian fighters who had since fled.

"The death statistics will not be known for two or three months," Abu Gali said. "All the camp is rubble."

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