Jenin: Defiant to the Death

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Israel denied committing any atrocities and blamed the Palestinians' defensive strategy for the damage and civilian casualties. "A refugee camp is where there are people who are living with a humanitarian crisis," said Colonel Gal Hirsch, the Israeli army's chief of operations. "The Jenin refugee camp is a military combat position. It was set up that way because the Palestinians decided they wanted to fight us there. There wasn't a massacre there; there was a battle." The pattern of the Israeli attack was frighteningly direct. Helicopter gunships pounded areas where gunmen had taken positions. As the gunmen were chased closer to the camp's center, tanks, bulldozers and troops advanced on the areas that had been abandoned.

Jihad Hanoun, 30, lived in a compound with his six brothers and their families in the camp's main square. On the morning of April 6, the army started shelling his three-story house, briefly setting the third floor on fire. There were 60 people inside. They heard a voice over a loudspeaker telling them to leave, but they didn't. "We were scared to death," said Hanoun. Then soldiers broke through a wall from a neighbor's house.

In a pattern repeated throughout the campaign, the soldiers forced Hanoun to knock on his neighbor's door, shooting over his head as he did so to prevent ambush. (Palestinians also accused Israeli soldiers of using them as human shields.) Hanoun persuaded his neighbors to come out. The soldiers separated the men, forced them to take off their clothes, then blindfolded and handcuffed them, he said. "I was beaten on my head and chest with the butt of a rifle. They burned my face [with cigarettes]," he said.

Other residents told similar stories of harrowing escapes as bulldozers or sledgehammers punched through walls of occupied houses. Fearing suicide attacks--five Palestinians died after blowing themselves up as they surrendered--the soldiers forced hundreds of men to strip naked in the streets and march to detention centers. Some prisoners said they were kept for days without clothes. Ambulances were prevented from reaching the wounded. A 15-year-old boy was forced to dump a dead body outside an Islamic Jihad leader's house. After the fighting died down, a middle-aged man rushed among the refugees, trying to reunite families torn apart by battle. "I'm appealing to everybody to take notes and find names," he said.

Israeli army officials say the Palestinians were shooting from minarets and carrying munitions in ambulances. The Israelis say they uncovered labs for making explosives and factories for assembling Qassam II rockets. Certainly, the camp's defenders used every resource available. Trip wires attached to 200-lb. charges were laid across streets. Each morning D-9 bulldozers swept the streets, setting off explosions. Hundreds of doorways were booby-trapped.

Israeli soldiers avoided suspicious-looking doors and instead tunneled through walls or had bulldozers shear off the facades of buildings to expose any snipers within. Any building that could serve a military function was leveled. "We could have taken the camp in one day by using artillery and aircraft bombardment," said Brigadier General Eyal Shlein, who commanded the operation. "But we didn't. That cost us a lot of casualties."

The Israelis were willing to take such risks because they wanted to catch big fish and take them alive. Three "heavy terrorists" were captured, including Ali al-Saidi, 40, known as Safouri. Born in the camp, he was allegedly behind a series of terror attacks inside Israel. Jamal Ahawil, 32, head of the Fatah Tanzim in the camp, surrendered Thursday. Thabet Mardawi, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, also gave up. Israeli officials have not confirmed reports that the man they most wanted, Mahmoud Tawalbe, is dead. Known as Nursi, he is head of Islamic Jihad's suicide-bombing operation in Jenin.

As for Jenin's civilians, they have, in another of this conflict's twisted ironies, become refugees from their refugee camp. Jenin has been shattered. Very much like the peace process itself.

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