On Native Ground
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN JENIN?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If the total destruction of the Palestinian Authority and all other civic and cultural institutions on the West Bank was the goal of "Operation Defensive Wall," Israel got what it wanted.
Did the suicide bombing campaign - culminating in the killing of 22 Israelis at a pre-Passover seder in Netanya on March 27 - justify the destruction of the West Bank's towns and refugee camps? To read the news accounts in the American press, the answer is yes; the West Bank had to be destroyed in order to save Israel from terrorism. This line of reasoning is as bogus as the need for the U.S. to kill thousands of Afghan civilians to avenge the deaths of Sept. 11. In both cases, the innocent suffered a hell of lot more than the guilty.
For three weeks, Israeli troops rampaged through the West Bank, leaving behind a devastated land and countless civilian casualties. Nowhere was the Israeli rampage worse than in Jenin.
United Nations envoy Terje Reed-Larsen, who toured the refugee camp in Jenin after the Israeli army withdrew from the town, described the scene as "horrific beyond belief."
The camp, which covers less than one square mile, was home to 15,000 people - half of whom are under age 18 - before Israeli forces launched an attack that lasted more than two weeks.
Helicopters and tanks fired thousands of rockets and shells into the crowded camp. There were other similar attacks in the West Bank, but the battle in Jenin - the place Israelis call the "capital of the suicide bombers" - was particularly ferocious because the Palestinians attempted to fight back. After 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush, the Israeliarmy countered by using bulldozers to knock down houses - some say with people still inside. By the end of the Israeli operation, the camp was reduced to rubble.
Human rights, relief and humanitarian groups have compiled a long list of atrocities allegedly committed by Israeli troops. They include shooting Palestinians as they surrendered, forcing Palestinians at gunpoint to enter buildings, open packages and generally act as "human shields" and blocking ambulances from entering the camp to treat the wounded.
There are no reliable counts of the dead and wounded Palestinians in Jenin. The number of dead could be in the hundreds. Israel did its best to try and keep the worst of the scenes of destruction and the eyewitness accounts of atrocities away from the world for as long as possible. But slowly, the story is being told and it is not a pretty one. Palestinians have accused the Israeli army of committing a massacre at Jenin.
The Israeli government says great care was taken to minimize civilian casualties. Whether a massacre took place in Jenin is debatable and still under investigation. What isn't debatable is that what happened in Jenin and other towns in the West Bank was urban warfare at its worst.
But only one side had tanks and helicopters. That was the side that was supported and armed by the United States and kept up the battle after its staunchest ally asked it to stop.
The Palestinian suicide bombing campaign is morally indefensible. But what the Israelis have done in Operation Defensive Wall is equally indefensible. It was not an act of self-defense. It was an act of war.
The United States also stands accused in aiding and abetting Israel's show of excessive force. America sold Israel the weapons used to destroy Jenin and gives it nearly $6 billion a year in aid. President Bush looked the other way while Ariel Sharon carried out his policy of destroying any hope of a politically and economically viable Palestinian state. Bush only intervened when the violence threatened to derail his dream of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.
President Bush has said that he believes "moral clarity is important." Where is the moral clarity in the Middle East? Bush's simplistic "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" line looks meaningless in the face of the events of the past few months.
The brutality displayed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis since the second Intifada began in September 2000 was plain to all who had open eyes and ears. But the Bush administration failed to step in until now. That delay by President Bush, strictly for political reasons, meant more suffering and death on both sides and the end of any chance of a peaceful settlement. Instead of peace, we have more young people on the West Bank eagerly lining up to be trained as suicide bombers and Israeli tanks and bulldozers parked outside of West Bank towns. There will be more suicide attacks by Palestinians in Israel and there will be retaliatory attacks at Palestinian targets in the West Bank. There will be more Jenins. There will be more Netanyas.
Only the United States has the power and leverage to step in and stop this senseless slaughter. It's long past time to do so.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).