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Feature Article

Palestine under attack

Inside the camp of the dead
from janine di giovanni in jenin refugee camp
The Times
April 16, 2002

BASHIR died in agony. The hands of the 23-year-old Palestinian are clenched into tight fists, his body charred. He lies buried under rubble and cement, his head twisted towards the door as if crying out for help. His tomb is a wasted house that crashed around him after the Israelis tried to bulldoze it to make a road.

Next door, up a blackened stairway and across shards of glass, is the body of Ashran Abu Hadel, also 23. Someone tried to pull him out of the rubble but gave up. His arm lies straight out, as though he tried to push himself away from the cement as he lay dying.

Elsewhere in the Jenin refugee camp I saw bodies of men who were clearly fighters, replete with ammunition belts and other paramilitary trappings. Bashir and Ashran had nothing.

The refugees I had interviewed in recent days while trying to enter the camp were not lying. If anything, they underestimated the the carnage and the horror. Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.

This was not only a town of fighters, as Israeli soldiers told me. It was a town of women, children and old men, who have seen the camp grow into a warren of ramshackle homes over half a century. Amnesty International called for an immediate investigation into “the killings of hundreds of Palestinians”, saying crucial evidence may be destroyed as Israel “continues to impede access”.

Throughout the camp, which the Israelis called a production line for terrorists, there is the stench of death, of bodies that have been rotting in the sun for days. Everyone who survived the fiercest battle of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield has a terrible story to tell. They take your hand and lead you into their houses across bulldozed mounds of rubble including photo albums, clothing, toys and pillowcases. There, there are more bodies, burnt or twisted grotesquely, caught off guard by sudden death. Nothing prepares you for the smallness of a dead body.

The dead are everywhere. Kamal Anis, a labourer, leads us to an area called Harat al-Hawashim, a mound of rubble the size of four football pitches where 200 houses once stood. He says the Israelis levelled the place; he saw them pile bodies into a mass grave, dump earth on top, then ran over it to flatten it. There are still bulldozers and tanks at work, sending us fleeing into destroyed buildings. There is the sound of children crying. There are people looking for survivors under rubble.

“We have passed dark days,” says Aisha, whose house was turned into a snipers’ nest and base for 50 soldiers. “What we have passed through, I cannot describe to you but I will remember all of my life.”

“What my son told me is that when they get older, they will resist occupation because they have seen this,” says Aisha, a mother of five. For five days since the last Palestinian fighters surrendered the Israelis have prevented us from entering this camp, saying it was booby-trapped. Thirteen Israeli soldiers died in an ambush in its narrow alleys last week.

The Army is still seeking to keep us out. I write this, hiding from an Israeli tank 50 metres away, inside the home of a man called Jamal who, in a state of shock, shows the destruction of his once-grand home. “Israelis broke down this wall so they could shoot from here,” he says. He touches the head of his young son. “I do not want to think how he will survive these memories.”

Yoni Wolff, 26, an Israeli lieutenant who has spent weeks here, told me that no deliberate destruction had taken place and that the soldiers had killed only terrorists. But the hundreds believed dead were not all fighters. Buried under the rubble are the bodies of women and children whose houses caved in around them.

“We destroyed the infrastructure of terror,” Yoni boasted. He said the camp was empty, that civilians had fled and that it was booby-trapped. He said he saw no bodies of civilians, and that it was a successful operation. To reach this “successful operation” we had to run through olive groves, dodging from tree to tree because of an Israeli sniper. I have seen demolished houses before. I have seen wells stuffed with bodies. I have seen civilians terrorised and living under siege. But what remains of Jenin camp is a wasteland of death that once housed 13,000 people.

Sofas and satellite dishes hang from the crevices of third floors of what once were family villas. A red curtain, peppered with bullet holes, flaps in the breeze. This is what war does: it leaves behind imprints of lives. A sewing machine with a girl’s dress still under the needle inside a house with the walls blown out. A goosedown pillow ripped, the feathers fluttering. A photograph of a child with a bird hangs on a partly demolished wall.

“I saw some children who were wounded take four days to die, bleeding to death because there was no one here to tend them,” says Fahdi Jamal, a 30- ear-old labourer.

Soraya and Harej, small sisters living in a ruined house with electrical wires hanging from the ceiling and a tank round through the living room wall, do not know their father is dead. Their mother does not know either but their aunt does; she heard it on the radio.

“They stripped him and shot him,” she says. “We can’t tell his wife, she is too sick. She thinks he may still be alive.”

Ramsey, 28, who returned from Germany to be with his family, leads us to where five fighters lie dead inside a house, shot in the head. Flies swarm around and the smell is overpowering. For Muslims, whose custom dictates burial within 24 hours, this is the ultimate degredation.

“There is no justice, no ethics to this war,” says Abu Bashir who is 70 years old. He points at a photo album heaped with the other trash. “This was someone’s life, now it is gone, do you understand?” he shouts. Down the road, near Harat al-Hawashim, Abu Salim, who has passed 50 years in this camp, wanders though the rubble in shock. “What did they do?” he asks. “What did they do?”