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Jenin: The Camp That Became a Slaughterhouse
14 April 2002
A woman with her leg all but ripped off by a helicopter rocket, the mangled remains hanging on by a thread of skin as she slowly bleeds to death. A 10-year-old boy lying dead in the street, his arm blown off and a great hole in his side. A mother shot dead when she ran into the street to scream for help for her dying son. The wounded left to die slowly, in horrible agony, because the ambulances were not allowed in to treat them.
A terrible crime has been committed by Israel in Jenin refugee camp, and the world is turning a blind eye. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, visited the scene of a suicide bombing that murdered six Israelis in Jerusalem, but he did not visit Jenin, where the Israelis admit they killed at least 100 Palestinians. The Israel army claims all of the dead were armed men, that it took special care to avoid civilian casualties. But we saw the helicopter rockets rain down on desperately crowded areas: civilian casualties could not have been prevented.
The Israeli army sealed off the entire area around Jenin yesterday, arresting journalists who ventured into it. That is because they have something to hide in Jenin: the bodies.
The Israeli army has told the Israeli courts that it will not start burying the bodies until Sunday. But there are abundant eyewitnesses who say they have already seen the soldiers piling the bodies in mass graves. Hiding the bodies is what Slobodan Milosevic did in Kosovo.
Either way, the Palestinians are not allowed to bury their own dead, because Israel does not want the world to see what happened inside Jenin refugee camp. The grieving have no way of knowing where to find the bodies of those they have lost.
For nine days, Jenin camp became a slaughterhouse. Fifteen thousand Palestinians lived in a square kilometre in the camp, a packed warren of narrow lanes. Thousands of terrified civilians, women and children, cowered inside their homes while the Israeli helicopters rained down rockets on them and tanks fired shells into the camp.
The wounded were left to die. The Israeli army refused to allow ambulances in to treat them, which is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. The Red Cross has publicly said people have died because Israel blocked the ambulances. Slobodan Milosevic is on trial in the Hague for breaking the Geneva Conventions, while Ariel Sharon shakes Colin Powell's hand for the television cameras. The Geneva Conventions are in tatters in Israel.
The Israeli authorities may be able to hide the evidence, but they cannot silence the stories that have been pouring out of those who managed to escape the carnage in the camp. These stories cannot be verified yet, but there are scores of them, and many agree in details. Fikri abu al-Heija was one of those who came out of the carnage in the camp.
"At the beginning the soldiers came and surrounded the camp with tanks," he says. "There were two Apache helicopters. A rocket hit our house they were concentrating the rockets on the houses. All the windows were broken by the explosions. All you could hear was explosions. When the rocket hit the house, everybody gathered together on the lower floors. A woman was with us from the second floor who had had her leg almost cut off by the rocket. It was just hanging on by a little piece of skin. We saw the ambulance coming for her but the soldiers stopped it."
Six days after the attack, Mr abu al-Heija was captured by the soldiers. "They made us take off our clothes and tied us in groups of five with metal wire. As we were walking through the camp we saw demolished houses, burning houses, bodies in the street. Every 10 or 20 metres there was a body. I recognised some. One was a cousin of mine. His name was Ashraf abu al-Heija."
The Palestinians have been writing all the accounts like Mr abu al-Heija's down: they are not going to allow what happened at Jenin to be covered up. The Independent on Sunday has seen these meticulous handwritten notes, of which several copies have been made. There are records of everybody who used to live in the camp, and it will be possible to match the missing with the accounts of the dead. The Palestinians say there are 200 missing.
The names are coming out now: Mohammed Hamad, Nidal Nubam, Mustafa Shnewa. A man who asked to remain anonymous says he saw their bodies being put in a mass grave in the Haret al-Hawashin neighbourhood.
Yusra Ahmad, a mentally disabled woman, was killed by a helicopter rocket in her home. Her nephew Mufid Ahmad says he saw it happen.
Munir Washashi bled to death over several hours after a helicopter round came through the wall of his home. When an ambulance came for him, Israeli soldiers shot at it.
Munir's mother, Maryam, ran into the street screaming for help for her son and was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. Abdullah, her other son, told The Independent on Sunday he saw it all happen.
The events of the last two weeks in Jenin will not go away, however hard Israel tries to keep the refugee camp away from the eyes of the world. For the Palestinians, this is the place where they finally stood and fought, and where Palestinian fighters armed only with rifles managed to hold off the Israeli tanks and helicopters for nine days. It is also the place where at least 100 Palestinians were slaughtered by the Israeli army.