Tuesday, April 23, 2002
A lot of you have been asking me what really happened in the Jenin refugee camp, the scene recently of the fiercest battle yet in Israel's ongoing war against Palestinian terrorism.
By chance last week we heard an insider's perspective at perhaps the unlikeliest of places.
Friday night, at a small local synagogue in the remote desert town of Mitzpe Ramon, when we were expecting the rabbi's sermon, a softspoken young man stood up instead. He had returned from three weeks of fighting in Jenin, he said, and he wanted to tell the story.
With quiet calm he told of how his army reserve unit was called up shortly after the Passover seder massacre in Netanya's Park Hotel, a suicide bombing which killed 28 civilians. Of the soldiers who received callup notices, 120 percent reported for duty. That is, on top of those drafted, many who had been exempted from duty volunteered for service. In fact, once word got out that their unit had been called, comrades urgently phoned the draft office asking why they hadn't been notified yet.
One reservist cut short a trek to Thailand, flying home to do his part for his country. Another interrupted a visit to Canada for his sister's wedding, leaving immediately after the ceremony. Soldiers came from all walks of life, and morale was high, with reservists motivated by the conviction that they were fighting in defence of their homes and families from the terrorists who had turned every Israeli town into the front line.
Some were sceptical at first - what would rusty reservists be asked to do? Clean equipment? No, they were told, they were "going in," into the lair of the suicide bombers, to engage the enemy in the Jenin refugee camp.
At the pre-combat briefing, uppermost on the minds of many soldiers were the moral questions. They were to be fighting in a densely-populated urban area. How were they to act upon encountering terrorists sheltering behind women and children? What if they were fired upon from inhabited buildings, or from mosques?
The speaker emphasized this point especially. In preparation to fight against hardened terrorists, his colleagues were primarily concerned about avoiding harm to civilians. No other army would go to such lengths - not America, with its high altitude bombing raids over Afghanistan; not NATO with its indiscriminate bombing in Serbia. How many of his comrades might have survived the fighting had Israel resorted to similar tactics? Despite the heavy losses, though, he was proud that for Israelis, fighting morally was a priority.
One could argue, he noted, as to whether women and children sheltering terrorists merited such protection. In many cases, they took an active part in the combat, helping to prepare - or even detonate - booby traps and bombs. In others, terrorists holed up in a house would have a woman or child open the door to the approaching Israeli soldiers, forcing them to hesitate just long enough for the terrorists to shoot first. This reluctance to harm enemy civilians cost the lives of several Israeli soldiers. But the prevailing attitude was that this is the proper way for the army of a Jewish state to fight.
In one incident, Israeli troops were threatened by a Palestinian sniper holed up in the minaret of a mosque. The easy solution would have been to destroy the minaret from the air. This was rejected for fear of harming a holy site. Instead a riskier tactic was used: an Israeli sniper was positioned to take out the enemy alone. On another occasion, terrorists were holed up in a facility of UNRWA, the United Nations humanitarian agency responsible for the refugee camps, using it as cover to fire on Israeli forces.
Fighting in Jenin was like none they had experienced. The streets were death traps. Every alley was booby trapped; every exposed space was surrounded by enemy snipers. The enemy wore no uniform, blending in with the civilian population. Suicide bombers roamed the streets; every civilian encountered was a potential human bomb. Israeli forces avoided exposure, moving from building to building through the walls where possible - though the buildings were often booby trapped too.
One night Israeli soldiers were stationed in a building flanked by two others. The adjacent buildings were full of people, a mix of civilians and combatants. Suddenly, people began streaming out of one of the buildings, mostly women and children. They were shivering from the cold and the children were whimpering. An Israeli soldier took pity on them, but going out into the street was too risky. Instead, he opened a window and threw them army-issue blankets. The blankets were quickly snapped up, though not by the women and children - rather, by the few men in the crowd, who huddled in the blankets while the women and children continued to shiver and whimper.
The young reservist, no older than my husband, spoke with obvious pride at having done his duty for his people. But he seemed most proud of the high moral standards and compassion demanded of Israeli soldiers, which they stuck to so eagerly, even at times at the cost of their own lives. He thanked God for the privilege to serve his country in its time of crisis, and for bringing him home safely. Then we proceeded with evening prayers.
Knowing what we know, it hurts all the more to hear the Palestinians bandying about lies about a "massacre" in Jenin, while the United Nations and foreign press corps parrot these fabrications without a shred of evidence. Contrary to claims that Jenin was "destroyed" or "levelled" and thousands made homeless, only a small area of the refugee camp was damaged, where the heaviest fighting took place, as can be seen from aerial photographs at: http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0ll60 .
Much of the damage was perpetrated by the terrorists themselves, who booby trapped buildings in the hope of destroying them on the heads of Israeli forces. In one incident, this tactic succeeded in killing thirteen soldiers at once. One of the terrorists from Jenin described these tactics at some length, including the use of civilians as human shields, in an interview in Egypt's Al Ahram daily newspaper at: http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2002/582/6inv2.htm . It makes chilling reading.
Before the UN starts accusing Israel of "creating a humanitarian crisis", perhaps it is time they investigated how UN-run refugee camps have turned into havens for terrorists and bombmakers?