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Massacre by Israelis at Jenin so quickly forgotten

By Jonathan Cook, DAWN,
Tuesday 04 June 2002; 22 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1423

JENIN: United Nations special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen entered Jenin refugee camp on April 18, shortly after Israel lifted its three-week news blackout, and visibly shaken declared the sight of the devastated camp horrific beyond belief.

He was not alone in being appalled. The pictures of a vast grey wasteland that days before had been home to thousands of Palestinians sent shockwaves around the world. Six weeks later the horror of the camp is undiminished. The only visible difference is that peacemakers like Roed-Larsen are nowhere to be found. They left long ago, taking their international tea and sympathy with them.

Last week there were plenty of families sitting out the midday heat under makeshift tents or in crumbling buildings propped up with wooden scaffolding. At least 2,000 people are homeless and some were still scavenging for whatever belongings survived the collapse of tons of debris that were the walls and ceilings of their homes. Children proudly showed off the live rounds and shells they had collected.

According to the UN's refugee arm UNRWA, since the Israeli army left there have been 34 injuries from unexploded ordnance and two deaths, including that of a 12-year-old girl.

Many of the camp's 15,000 inhabitants are still in shock. Ten days of overhead bombardment from Cobra and Apache helicopters and shelling and gunfire from Merkava tanks have left a significant proportion in urgent need of psychological counselling, according to aid agencies.

Occasionally, a body is unearthed. The official Palestinian death toll stands at 56, but in the confusion caused by Israel's mass round-up of men no one is sure how many people are still unaccounted for. While I was in the camp, a skull was found. Unaided, bystanders scratched at the dust to try to locate the rest of the body.

After the week-long frenzy of concern in mid-April, the current lack of help being offered to the camp and the silence of the international community that sanctions it are truly scandalous. One cannot but suspect that the world has chosen hurriedly to forget Jenin.

Two related factors contributed to this rapid loss of interest. The first occurred with the West's supine acceptance of Israel's decision to block a UN fact-finding mission. There is little doubt that the UN, faced with Israeli threats to expose UNRWA's failure to root out militant elements in the camp, lost its nerve to push for an inquiry. The fierce criticism the organization now faces in the US, and its continuing funding crisis, have only increased its reluctance to publicize the camp's plight.

The second factor were the hasty claims that hundreds of Jenin's inhabitants had been killed. Given the world's inflated expectations, the talk of a massacre seemed grossly disproportionate once the camp was opened to scrutiny.

The massacre theory was soon discounted. The numerical threshold, wherever it lay, had not been crossed - and neither, argued Israel, had the moral threshold. This position was justified by Israel's assertion that almost all of Jenin's victims were fighters. The evidence from UNRWA, however, is that at least a quarter of the dead were women, young children, pensioners or disabled, as were many of the injured. Human Rights Watch estimates that nearly half the deaths were civilian, suggesting a far from targeted Israeli attack.

But there is no need to get bogged down in imprecise debates about what constitutes a massacre. These deaths can be judged as war crimes according to legal yardsticks we already possess, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Aid agencies and human rights groups, including the International Red Cross, Medicine sans Frontieres, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have produced weighty research indicating that the Israeli army committed a variety of such crimes, both during the fighting and afterwards. At least some of their evidence has been confirmed by soldiers, who admit their comrades panicked and shot indiscriminately after the army started incurring losses.

The charge sheet against Israel is long. It includes the failure to allow enough time for the civilian population to evacuate before the bombardment began, the apparent policy of using human shields to protect soldiers, the mass round-up and degrading treatment of the camp's male population, the blocking of humanitarian aid, attacks on medical teams trying to reach Palestinian victims and the denial of access to search and rescue teams while victims were known to be under the rubble.

I and other journalists can personally substantiate some of these claims. For example, after Jenin town and its refugee camp were militarily secured, I saw dozens of lorries bearing aid supposedly delivered to Jenin days earlier stranded in a car park in the neighboring village of Jalameh. And a Red Crescent driver who gave me a guided tour of the battlefield in his ambulance showed me several bullet holes in the vehicle, including one in the windscreen. But one does not need to look to the past for evidence of Israeli war crimes - such a crime is still being committed in Jenin.-Dawn/The Guardian News Service.