Jenin: Defiant to the Death

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The Israelis figured they had an advantage at night. During a week of relentless fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, they had forced the Palestinian militants inside a smaller and smaller perimeter. At about 4 a.m. last Tuesday, 16 reservists of the 5th Infantry Brigade began moving forward again, peering through night-vision goggles as they searched for a house to use as a lookout. The first one they chose proved inadequate, but a second, about 30 yards away, seemed better situated. The soldiers walked into a 3-foot-wide alley next to the house, searching for an entrance. They paused while an officer, Major Oded Golomb, walked ahead to set charges to blow the door open.

The blast they heard next wasn't theirs. "I saw a flash of light that was thrown at us, but it didn't reach us. Immediately after, another flash of light," Sergeant Ron Drori told Time. "I understood right away it was a bomb." It wasn't a suicide attack, as early reports suggested, but a bomb thrown from a balcony. When the device detonated just feet from the soldiers, Palestinians on the roof opposite opened up with automatic weapons. "It was like a curtain of fire," said Drori. "We couldn't see anything, and all we could hear was the sound of bullets flying and hitting the walls. I started to hear the crying of people who were injured."

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During a brief lull, Drori retreated behind a courtyard wall and returned fire until a magazine in his M-203 rifle jammed. He switched to a grenade launcher attached to the rifle. His fire drew an answer, and he was hit in the leg. Of the 16 men in his company, only three escaped being wounded or killed.

The first phase of the fight lasted an hour. It was followed by a bizarre tug-of-war in which the Palestinians tried to drag three Israeli bodies out of the area. They were stopped by an Israeli rescue force. One of the rescuers, Lieut. Eyal Yoel, and another soldier rushed into a house overlooking the ambush to provide covering fire. But as Yoel entered a room, he hit a trip wire. The explosion knocked him unconscious and set him afire. He died before his comrades could reach him. When the shooting finally stopped, 13 Israelis lay dead, including four members of a rescue squad. Ten Palestinians were killed. The distance between opposing forces: 10 yards.

The night before the ambush, soldiers from the 5th Brigade had gathered in a house inside the camp to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. The 28-year-old head of one company, Lieut. Dror Bar, had spoken about the symbolism of the moment. "In Europe, Jews couldn't fight back," he had said. "Today we're being attacked, but we can fight back." The soldiers had lighted candles and read a Psalm. During the next morning's ambush, Dror Bar was killed.

The Jenin camp was bound to be a killing zone. Both sides knew as much. Established in 1953 to provide temporary shelter for refugees still homeless after the 1948 war, the camp has 14,000 residents crammed inside a 2 1/2-sq.-mi. maze of attached cinder-block houses on streets barely wide enough for a Toyota, much less a tank. It is home to a fiercely nationalist tradition and some of the Palestinians' most successful terrorists. When the tanks came two weeks ago, Jenin's fighters were surrounded and outgunned but not outfought. In a radio broadcast, Hamas vowed to fight to the death. With the Israeli army busy in Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank in late March, the Palestinians had nearly a week to organize a defense--on their own turf, on their own terms. The slope of the camp favored their position at the crest. And their bombmakers expertly set about the delicate task of making every alley and building a lethal conquest for the Israeli attackers.

The 5th Brigade paid a heavy price on Tuesday, but by Thursday, when the Israeli military finally pulled back its armored curtain, the camp had been obliterated. Bulldozers and tanks had blasted a long, wide attack corridor through the camp. In a house-to-house, wall-to-wall onslaught of helicopter gunships, armor and infantry, Israeli forces say they killed at least 100 Palestinians and captured nearly 700 others, including some on Israel's list of terror suspects. The last group of 37 surrendered only after running out of bullets. Dozens of civilians perished, some crushed by falling walls, others in the cross fire. Palestinians put the total number of their dead as high as 500; the Israeli military says it lost 23 in all.

Israel's capture of Jenin was never in doubt. It will go some way toward sating Israeli hunger for revenge after the suicide attacks. But it isn't likely to halt the attacks. In Palestinian minds, Jenin will forever be a heroic stand, a Middle East Stalingrad.

Palestinians and some human-rights activists charge that Israeli troops massacred civilians and then covered up the evidence. When reporters were allowed into the camp on Thursday, there were no bodies to be found. Yet residents reported that dozens of corpses had been left in the streets for days, and later they directed reporters to what they said was a mass grave. "They want to hide their crimes, the bodies of the little children and women," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told the Associated Press. On Friday the Israeli Supreme Court barred the army from carrying out a plan to bury some of the camp's dead Palestinians until a hearing into the deaths could take place two days later.

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