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Grieving survivors say the Israelis buried war crimes in heaps of reeking rubble

17 April 2002

Gaunt and exhausted, tormented with worry about his missing family, Jamal Fayed yesterday wandered round the vast heap of reeking detritus where Israel has buried the war crimes of Jenin refugee camp.

The last time Mr Fayed, a Palestinian science teacher, saw his wife and children, eight-year-old Majed and six-year-old Ahmed, was just after Israeli forces had invaded a fortnight ago. He told the family to leave their house because he feared a nearby Israeli tank was about to begin shelling. He stayed behind, because he thought that if he left with them the soldiers would open fire on them, assuming him to be a fighter.

"Maybe they have gone to another village," he said. "I just don't know where they are." He stood in the dust of what used to be a large residential area, now reduced by Israeli bombardment and bulldozers to a wasteland, fetid with the stench of decomposing human bodies beneath it. Nearby, old women picked through the debris, trying to salvage the pitiful, battered remains of their lives.

International aid workers are beginning the arduous task of establishing how many people were killed in the camp in the Israeli's so-called counter- terrorism operation, a long bout of fighting which culminated with the bulldozing by the army of hundreds of dwellings. Witnesses said civilians were inside. The UN agencies and Red Cross say they find a growing number of refugees who are missing relatives.

Humanitarian aid workers who got into the devastated area of the camp yesterday reacted with deep anger and shock. A large area, about a third of a mile wide, has been flattened. Many other homes, half-wrecked by the heavy fighting, including rocket bombardments from Israeli helicopters, are uninhabitable. One official called the sight "absolutely unbelievable" and a "humanitarian catastrophe".

A senior UN official said: "Given the deplorable and unprecedented refusal to allow international relief organisations in to the camps while people were slowly dying in the rubble of their wounds and thirst, the onus is definitely on the state of Israel to account for the missing thousands of refugees who lived in that camp until a few weeks ago.

"I have not met one person in the international community who had any other explanation for this refusal other than the fact that they were hiding a war crime, in fact, two war crimes: the mass killing and the denial of humanitarian relief."

The Palestinian minister for planning and international cooperation, Nabil Shaath, called for an inquiry into the "massacre" in Jenin. Amnesty International also called for a full investigation by the UN Security Council. A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the camp "looks as if it has been hit by an earthquake". Barred entry for a week, the Red Cross found and rescued a badly injured man trapped under rubble. The Israelis appear to have made no efforts to use heat-seeking equipment, or dogs, to find survivors, aid workers said.

Amnesty investigators in Jenin have taken dozens of witness statements covering the past fortnight. People say they saw bodies being buried in individual graves. One claims Israeli soldiers buried 32 corpses in a trench. They have also interviewed many refugees who fled the camp after their houses were demolished. Derrick Pounder, a professor of forensic medicine from Dundee University working with the Amnesty team, said a "pattern of credible evidence" is emerging from witnesses that residents were not warned by the army before bulldozers crashed into their homes. "The only warning was their house collapsing," he said.

Professor Pounder, who has worked in Sarajevo and Kosovo, believes the Israeli tactics inevitably means large numbers of dead civilians. "Sooner or later those bodies will be discovered and the facts will become absolutely clear."

Unrwa, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, is to re-register all surviving refugees and match their names to its previous list of 13,000 camp residents in the hope of establishing the number of dead. But the task is expected to take months. Thousands are unaccounted for, although many fled to surrounding villages. Hundreds of men were rounded up and are thought to be in Israeli detention.

Phil Reeves, Jenin
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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