Justin Huggler & Phil Reeves


Israel buries the bodies
But cannot hide the evidence

(The Independent, 13 April 2002)

By Justin Huggler in Jenin and Phil Reeves in Jerusalem


The Independent, 13 April 2002.
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Israel was trying to bury the evidence in Jenin refugee camp yesterday, but it cannot bury the terrible crime it has committed: a slaughter in which Palestinian civilians were cut down alongside the armed defenders of the camp.

Israeli tanks circled journalists menacingly as foreign reporters tried to get into the camp, cutting off their approach. But a man who had just fled the camp said he had seen Israeli soldiers burying the bodies of the dead in a mass grave.

“I saw it all with my own eyes,” said the man. “I saw people bleeding to death in the streets. I saw a 10-year-old child lying dead. There was a big hole in his side and his arm had been blown away.

“I saw them burying the bodies. They started work on the grave a few days ago. I recognised some of the bodies in it. I can give you the names.”

And he reeled them off: “Mohammed Hamed, Nidal Nubam and Mustafa Shnewa”. He said the mass grave he saw was in a neighbourhood called Harat Al-Hawashiya. “They dug a big hole in the ground. I saw them filling it in today. They had a big bulldozer pushing dirt in on top of it.”

And so the grieving of Jenin will not be certain where their relatives lie. They will not return to bury their dead, however – the Israeli army will have done that to keep the devastating sight of the carnage away from the eyes of the waiting world.

Yesterday, though, they were unable to stifle the evil smell. The reek of putrefying bodies wafted out of the narrow, rubble-strewn alleys which were barred for a fifth day to international aid agencies trying to send ambulances and doctors to evacuate the many wounded, and recover the dead.

One after another, international officials, angered by Israel's rampant violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the human misery that has resulted, confided to The Independent yesterday that they had reached the inevitable conclusion: a crime has been committed which Israel is trying to cover up.

“It is clear they have something to hide – that is the bottom line,” said one senior diplomatic source. Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances waited on stand-by for yet another day, without getting in to the camp.

The agencies have been tirelessly collecting information in the face of Israel's news black-out, building up details of the scene inside the half-wrecked, water-starved camp – a sprawl of tightly packed homes over one square kilometre. In effect, it has been turned into a prison where thousands of refugees are still in hiding, terrified that the soldiers will add them to the three-figure death toll.

A grim, if incomplete, picture is forming. Electricity supplies in Jenin Hospital are so low that the morgue's refrigerators are not running. Decomposing bodies, retrieved from other parts of the West Bank town, have been buried in the hospital gardens.

But yesterday morning corpses lay unburied in the camp itself, where 15,000 refugees, half of them under 18, lived before the assault, and the ensuing battles, began.

“People who got to the edge of the camp found it incredibly smelly,” one UN official said. How much of the camp still stands is unclear; reports say that bulldozers have cut a swath through homes near the entrance – a tactic which the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, used against the refugees of Gaza 30 years ago, when he was an army commander trying to subdue the same forces that have now reared up against him anew.

Some accounts say that a third of the camp has been flattened.

The besieged Palestinians of Jenin fall into three categories. There is an unknown number in hiding in the refugee camp itself. These are without water, medicines, and risk being shot by Israeli snipers if they step outside, violating the curfew.

There are also an estimated 2,000-3,000 who have fled the camp, and are living in schools and mosques in poor conditions, with limited supplies.

Finally, there are the many thousands of residents of the rest of the town, parts of which have been devastated by tanks, bulldozers and rockets from helicopters.

All of them have been under the army curfew, placing the sick and elderly in serious jeopardy.

Tracing all the dead is likely to be a long and complex task. UNWRA, the United Nations relief agency for refugees, keeps a computer list of the residents of the densely populated camp. When its officials are finally allowed access to the camp, this will be used to identify the number of missing – either in detention, hiding or dead.

Israel may be able to hide the bodies of the dead but it cannot hide all the evidence. Hundreds of refugees have poured out of Jenin camp, many with harrowing stories to tell. The Palestinians are not going to let these stories be buried under the rubble.

Volunteers are compiling meticulous records of the testimony of every refugee who staggered beaten and humiliated by Israeli soldiers out of detention. The Independent has seen the laborious hand-written notes, of which several copies have been made.

Among them lies the story of Jamal Wardun. He was detained in the refugee camp when he tried to take his wife to hospital. She was pregnant and going into labour. The last time he saw her was when he was forced to leave her behind in the street.


Last updated on 17.4.2002