Eyewitness Jenin

Jessica Azulay

Last spring Jessica, an activist and free lance writer, spent five weeks in Israel-Palestine. "Jenin" was written last May. It's an excerpt from her 56-page zine (a small booklet), "Retaliatory Strikes: a Journey Through the Israeli-Palestine Conflict." For copies, send $3 each to 203 Bassett St., Syracuse, NY 13210.

To the Israelis, the Jenin Refugee Camp is a place crawling with terrorists and potential suicide bombers, a place where they lost 23 Israeli comrades in their latest reoccupation of the West Bank, and a place that stained the Israeli image in the eyes of the outside world. To the Palestinians, the Jenin Refugee Camp was until a month ago the home of 14,000 people, then a battleground where Palestinian fighters courageously resisted Israeli soldiers trying to take the camp for 11 days, and now the site of immense heaps of rubble where houses once stood _ the homes of families now homeless or, worse still, dead and buried underneath their demolished houses. For me, the Jenin Refugee Camp was the site of my first real look at what war really is and what the destruction caused by war looks like.

When we first started hearing about the attacks on the Jenin Refugee Camp back in early April, we feared the worst. From the eyewitness accounts that leaked out of the camp during the days of intense fighting it seemed that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were dying in the camp. There were reports of heavy sniper fire at anything that moved, of missile attacks from the air, of houses being bulldozed over while their occupants screamed inside, of injured people moaning and screaming, left to die because ambulances were not allowed through. There were stories of men being bound, blind-folded, lined up, and shot point blank in the head; there were reports of food and water shortages and children having to drink from open sewers; there were accounts of Israeli solders going house to house, arresting and killing. And then, after the fighting was over, there were the stories of truck loads of bodies being driven out of the camp and hidden; of prisoners released miles from their homes, sometimes stripped naked, unable to make it back through the Israeli checkpoints to reunite with their families; and of the stench of death being so strong in Jenin that those working on rescue and recovery had to wear face masks.

The Israeli officials stated that there had been fierce resistance from the camp. They said that their soldiers had been under heavy fire from the houses, that the whole camp had been booby-trapped, and that they were attacked repeatedly by suicide bombers. This resistance is what they claim justified their bulldozing the 800 houses that were demolished or damaged during those 11 days of fighting. Furthermore, they claimed to have taken every precaution to have only killed militants and to arrest only those who were deemed a security threat to the State of Israel. It is still not known how many people died in the fighting in Jenin because the Israelis have not released the names of all of the prisoners being held. There are still over one hundred missing people and it is not known if they are dead or in prison.

The contrast between the Israeli story and the Palestinian story is large. We will probably never know the whole truth about what happened in Jenin, in part because the United Nations fact-finding mission that was set to investigate Jenin was cancelled due to Israel's refusal to cooperate with the United Nations. Chances are, though, that both stories contain both fact and fiction and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. It is on this middle ground that the arguments take place, where the accusations and justifications stake their claims, and where differing opinions jockey for moral and strategic position. I can't clear up the facts for you after walking around Jenin for a couple of hours, but I can tell you what I saw, how I felt, and what my thoughts are now.

As soon as I walked into the camp, I saw it: 100 meters by 100 meters of rubble. At first all I saw was huge broken pieces of concrete, tons of dust, and the remains of mutilated rebar sticking up and twisting around everything. Then I looked closer and I started to discern household items. Broken dishes, dirty clothes, children's toys, splintered furniture… A smashed bicycle, its frame bent beyond repair. A handwritten letter, torn and lying in the dirt. A framed picture of flowers, resting under shattered glass. As I walked past this huge mound of rubble and up into the rest of the camp where most of the houses are still standing, I noticed that many of the houses are riddled with bullet holes. Some have gaping charred holes from rockets that were fired into them. Many have entire sides torn off by bulldozers, their insides exposed. Inside are living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. As I continued up the hill I came across the Mosque. It, too, was damaged by bullets, and some camp residents told me that the Israeli soldiers had stayed in there during their occupation of the camp and that they had used some of the rooms as latrines. From the vantage point of the Mosque, my guide and I looked down on the huge pile of rubble that lies at the front of the camp, and he told me his version of what had happened there. He told me that the front of the camp was the site of the heaviest resistance against the Israeli army, and that since the Israelis could not tell from which houses the shooting was coming, they brought in huge bulldozers and toppled every house in the area. That's the story behind the hundred meters squared of rubble.

It's been less than a month since the Israeli soldiers pulled out of the camp, and somehow life in the camp goes on. The children are back in school, the small stores in the camp are open, people sit around in their ripped up houses and drink tea. And yet, very little has been done to repair any damage done by the fighting. It's obvious that the scars left by the Israeli attack will be fresh for a long time to come. Angry and defiant graffiti is everywhere among the rubble and destruction, written in both Arabic and English. Phrases like "The blood of our martyrs is what makes us stubborn," "Sharon, you only make us stronger," "We will not leave," "Israeli soldiers are cowards," "Israeli killing must stop." Then, the familiar words: "Give me liberty or give me death," and "Live free or die," scrawled in several places.

I had the pleasure of meeting some of the child residents of the Jenin Refugee Camp. A group of them followed us throughout the camp, interacting with us when their curiosity overcame their shyness. Many of them had lost family members only one month before. One boy showed me a picture of his brother who had been killed. What do you say to a child who just lost his brother? I hid behind my camera. As we walked with the children, fights kept breaking out among the boys. They threw rocks at each other, hit and kicked each other. My guide told me that this animosity between children was a new phenomenon, probably a result of all of the violence in their lives _ one of the many lasting effects that will take its toll on the children of the occupied territories.

Some of the kids were wearing small pictures of suicide bombers around their necks. I have heard the sickening accusations that Palestinian children are fair targets because they support terrorists. When I think of this now, I remember that hanging from a building in Jenin was a wheelchair that had been completely crushed. I found out later that the chair had belonged to a boy who was deaf, blind, and paralyzed. He was killed when the Israeli bulldozers knocked over his house on top of him, and residents of the camp had hung his chair on that building as a kind of memorial to him. That kid was an innocent victim of the Israeli attack on Jenin, as were many other children _ their only crime, remembering a suicide bomber, probably someone they knew who blew himself up.

Before I went to Jenin, many people's response to the news coming out of the Jenin was, "Well, that's war. War is ugly. Innocent people die in war." These same people also had words of praise for the Israeli army, claiming that the Israelis spared many lives by entering the camp and fighting from house to house instead of just bombing it from the air. Both of those statements are true. War is horrible and the Israelis probably did spare some lives by choosing the tactics they did. But they could have chosen not to attack the camp at all, so I find it problematic to congratulate them for the way they handled the job when the job itself was unnecessary and counterproductive to peace efforts. Which brings us to the questions that I'm afraid we will be asking for a long time to come. What is the best way to stop terrorism, and is it ever acceptable to punish collectively those who share homes or neighborhoods with suicide bombers? At some point the killing and revenge in the name of self-defense need to give way to rational analysis. The ruthless and destructive attacks like the one against the people in the Jenin Refugee Camp are useless to stop terrorism. Instead, those types of attacks only make terrorism more likely. Just read the graffiti on the wall.

Editors note: The UN finally issued a statement about its inquiries into the Jenin attack. However, many dispute it because the fact-finders were never actually allowed to enter Jenin to investigate.

Jessica is available to speak about her experience. She lives in Syracuse and can be contacted at azjessica@hotmail.com.