Phil Reeves, Raymond Whitaker & Colin Brown


The bloody evidence of the tragedy that is Jenin

(The Independent on Sunday,14 April 2002)

By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem and Raymond Whitaker and Colin Brown in London


The Independent on Sunday, 14 April 2002.
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The first evidence emerged yesterday of the scale of the carnage in Jenin refugee camp – an atrocity which could derail Colin Powell’s Middle East peace mission.

Palestinians escaping from the West Bank camp, which has been sealed off by the Israeli army for the past 11 days, have spoken of hundreds of deaths, including many who slowly bled to death because ambulances were prevented from entering. But no photographic evidence of the ferocity of Israel’s attack had emerged until yesterday, when a Reuters photographer managed to enter the camp briefly before being chased out again by an Israeli armoured vehicle.

His two snatched photographs show a house in Jenin which is littered with three-day-old corpses. Most are covered by blankets, and it is impossible to tell whether they are Palestinian fighters or civilians. But when the US Secretary of State meets Yasser Arafat today, the Palestinian leader is sure to tell Mr Powell that Israel is preventing access to Jenin to cover up evidence of a massacre.

Yesterday Mr Powell secured a statement – crucially in Arabic – from Mr Arafat, condemning Friday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem, in which a woman from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades blew herself up at a bus stop, killing six Israelis. The attack caused the Americans to call off a meeting with Mr Arafat planned for yesterday. But after his announcement of “strong condemnation”, read on Palestinian TV, the US State Department said the meeting would go ahead today in Mr Arafat’s devastated compound in Ramallah.

It was always clear that Mr Powell would have to meet the Palestinian leader if his attempts to enforce a ceasefire are to stand the slightest chance of success. The odds, however, remain strongly against success – Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted to the Independent on Sunday yesterday that the mission was “hanging by a thread”.

Israeli tanks and troops thundered into three more Palestinian towns yesterday, underscoring the decision of the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to ignore pleas from the United States, his closest ally, to halt his invasions of the West Bank.

Dealing a further snub to Mr Powell, the Israeli armed forces moved into Arabe, Hashmiyah and al-Yamoun as their government forged ahead with what it insists is destroying “terrorist” structures and not – as many in the international community believe – fanning the flames of violence.

Mr Arafat’s statement condemning terrorism was coupled with an accusation that Israeli forces had committed “massacres and slaughters” against the Palestinians during their 15-day offensive in the West Bank, in which hundreds have died. Israel has made clear that it regards Mr Arafat as an enemy, and has described Mr Powell’s plans to meet him as a “tragic mistake”. Public opinion in Israel has hardened with repeated suicide attacks.

Attitudes on the Palestinian side have become increasingly more hardline and anti-American, and were hardened further on Friday by the sight on TV of the Secretary of State sharing a joke with Mr Sharon about Israel’s claim to all Jerusalem – including the eastern half which it illegally occupies – and by Mr Powell’s apparent inability to stop the Israeli offensive.

But it is the suspicions about what happened in Jenin that have overshadowed Mr Powell’s mission. Israeli forces went in on 3 April as part of Operation Defensive Shield, carried out in the name of winkling out “terrorists”. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the bloodiest engagement by far with Palestinian fighters, but how many died on the Palestinian side remains a mystery. It is one which Israel is in no hurry to solve.


Last updated on 17.4.2002