The truth about Jenin

April 25, 2002

IN THE historiography of the Palestinian struggle, the villages of Deir Yassin and Kfar Qasim evoke the killing of innocents by Israeli fighters. Now Jenin has entered the lexicon of the massacre. In some quarters of the Arab world, Israel's military assault on the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin has taken on historic proportions, even though the number of dead and the manner in which they died is in dispute.

A moderate newspaper in Saudia Arabia, the Arab News, said in a recent editorial that the deaths in Jenin evoke "the name of Srebrenica," the Bosnian town in which 7,500 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serbs. Jenin, the newspaper said, "encapsulates all the horror of the present phase of the long war for Palestinian freedom."

But the truth of what happened in Jenin is not yet known. The truth is what history should recall and memorialize. That's why the fact-finding mission appointed by United Nations chief Kofi Annan should proceed without delay and its members receive unfettered access to Palestinian residents and Israeli soldiers to determine what happened during the eight days of fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suspecting some team members of an anti-Israeli bias, is trying to impede the mission. His resistance fuels the allegations of a cover-up and human rights abuses that already have tarnished Israel's image.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said Israel has nothing to hide, and his forthrightness is to be applauded. But Mr. Annan's representatives have their work cut out for them.

The refugee camp was the scene of the fiercest fighting in Israel's three-week campaign against Palestinian towns and cities. The camp and city also produced many suicide bombers, 23 by Israel's count. Israel stormed Jenin on April 3 and quickly found itself in the midst of an urban war with Palestinian militias. Palestinian fighters explained in interviews with the Arab press how they relied on booby-trapped houses and remote-controlled bombs and got help from women and children.

The Israeli army closed off the camp to medical crews, rescue workers and journalists. When the fighting ceased, the camp looked like an earthquake zone. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers had died in the camp. Palestinians who survived the fighting accused Israel of killing hundreds, mostly civilians, and burying the bodies under bulldozed homes. Israel's defense chief countered that the Palestinian dead numbered 48, mostly fighters.

In 1948, Jewish militia men stormed Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem, and killed more than 100. In 1956, Israeli soldiers shot and killed dozens of farmers in a village near the Jordanian border for breaking a curfew. They remain legendary as "Zionist massacres."

Israel knows the potency of those names. That's why it should insist on a fair and accurate reporting of the casualties in Jenin. And Palestinians should be as concerned about finding out the truth in memory of the victims, no matter their number.

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