In Jenin, scenes of demolition and decay

West Bank refugee camp a desolate pile of rubble after Israeli incursion

April 15, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - The man had died sitting, or so it seemed. The body of the Palestinian sat against a pile of concrete blocks yesterday, the corpse perched on a cascading field of rubble that had once been the walls and furnishings of homes.

His head was slumped. His left hand rested on a partially outstretched leg. His green fatigues were caked with dirt, and a streak of blood lined his forehead. Flies buzzed around his head; he had been there for days.

Bullet cartridges were scattered near his hiking boots. Israeli soldiers said that a few minutes earlier they had taken away a rifle that had been in the corpse's hands. He was a lone dead sentry with nothing left to guard.

"He was a fighter, and we killed him," said Israeli army Lt. Yoni Wolff, offering no other explanation or proof. In the army's view, no other justification is needed for the casualties and damage from the nine-day battle fought in the Jenin refugee camp.

Soldiers had found an entrenched enemy that had rigged streets and houses with explosives and refused to surrender despite facing an overwhelming military force. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers died in a warren of alleyways, which the army says was home to Palestinian militants who had recruited and dispatched suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians.

The number of Palestinian dead remains unknown - and a matter of dispute. Israeli officials revised their estimate sharply downward yesterday, saying 45 people were killed. Palestinians say the number was in the hundreds, including many noncombatants.

There have been other battles in the past two weeks, some of them still under way. A standoff continues between soldiers and armed men at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains besieged by tanks in his Ramallah office.

But for Palestinians, Jenin has become the focus, as the scene of what they say were widespread and unnecessary killings.

The Israeli army escorted a small group of reporters and photographers into the refugee camp yesterday for a glimpse of the battlefield. There was stark proof of the widespread destruction but no answers to two pressing questions: How many people did the army kill? And were large numbers of noncombatants among the victims?

The seated corpse was the only body reporters saw as they walked up the camp's main street. The journalists were stopped from venturing into alleys or side streets and from exploring collapsed buildings, where bodies are entombed in the rubble.

Israel's Supreme Court ordered the army yesterday to turn the bodies over to relatives, barring it from carrying out a plan to collect and bury the bodies in unmarked graves in a military cemetery. Aid agencies and army officers said they have found 39 bodies. Nine were turned over to hospitals, and four were turned over to relatives. The other 26 remained where they died in the camp.

Army officers here said they had bulldozed buildings with Palestinians inside. But they insist that most or all of the victims were gunmen. The armored bulldozers, larger than tanks, had plowed through the center of town. People surrendered as they approached. The bulldozers knocked down buildings to create a 40-foot-wide corridor. And then the Palestinians' gunfire stopped.

"Bulldozers don't run over everything they see," Wolff said. "We were very careful. We had no choice. We had Palestinians firing from inside, and they were stubborn. They refused to give up. They had plenty of chances."

The heart of the refugee camp looked as if an earthquake had pulverized everything man-made. Broken concrete blocks lay in 25-foot-tall mounds. Gray was the only color. Mattresses and clothes poked out from the mounds, but almost everything else had been crushed.

A few buildings were still standing but teetered on the brink of collapse. The ground-floor rooms were scooped out, and only narrow pillars supported the buildings. Large chunks of concrete hung from twisted reinforcement rods.

Water spewing from broken pipes muddied the roads. Choking, blinding dust swirled in the air. Downed power lines crisscrossed the streets.

Bulldozers had shaved off the sides of homes and shops. The doors to a hardware store were caved in. Duct tape, hammers and brushes remained neatly lined up on the dust-covered shelves, ticketed in red for a sale.

What wasn't knocked down was raked with gunfire; an intact window was a surprising find. Piles of dirt blocked the entrances to most doorways. The only signs of life were chirping birds and the crowing of a single rooster hidden amid the rubble.

Soldiers said it took them a full day to advance 100 yards along al-Awda Street, fighting not house to house but window to window. Militants threw gasoline-filled soda bottles, the soldiers said. Suicide bombers pretending to surrender had blown themselves up as they approached. Streets had been lined with tripwires attached to booby traps.

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