Untangling Jenin's Tale

For both Israelis and Palestinians, a deadly battle in a West Bank refugee camp has become a potent symbol of their struggle. What really happened? A TIME investigation

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The street is a new one, carved by a huge bulldozer out of what was once a narrow alley. It leads to a place where gunmen and tanks forged a new, terrifying chapter in the long wars of the Middle East. The alley was just three feet wide before the Israeli army sent its heavily armored Caterpillar D-9 down what is now a rutted track; as you walk along it, up a mild gradient toward Hospital Street, your feet raise little puffs of dust from the rubble of what were once concrete homes. The path is covered with the litter of war--broken sea-green ceramic tiles, a punctured cooking-gas cylinder, a thin foam mattress, a blond-haired baby doll. As you make your way into the camp, the snarl of traffic in the town and the calls of peddlers recede, and when you reach Hospital Street, all is silent. The Palestinians who live in Jenin Refugee Camp shuffle and gawk, still stunned by the battle that wrecked their houses four weeks ago. Only the foreigners move purposefully--Oxfam workers setting up room-size plastic water containers; Swedes and Danes in blue and khaki vests, carrying notepads; a delegation from the German Green Party. They seem to think there's something to be salvaged in the destruction that stretches up the hillside; they seem unable to read the message that this awful landscape writes.

There was a battle in Jenin. It was real urban warfare, as a modern, well-equipped army met an armed and prepared group of guerrilla fighters intimately familiar with the local terrain. For both sides, Jenin has been added to the memories that invest the conflict in the Middle East with such bitterness. Because Jenin has become so potent a symbol, a new battle has broken out over what precisely happened there and what its wider significance will be.

A TIME investigation concludes that there was no wanton massacre in Jenin, no deliberate slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. But the 12 days of fighting took a severe toll on the camp. According to the U.N., 54 Palestinians are confirmed dead. An additional 49 are missing; it is unclear how many of them perished in the fighting and how many either fled or were captured by Israeli troops. In the final count, there may well be fewer dead in Jenin than the 78 killed in Nablus Casbah in a battle that took place at the same time. But it is Jenin that has attracted worldwide attention because of the widespread destruction of property and because some of those who died during the fighting were mere spectators.

Human Rights Watch, which in a published report last week also concluded that no massacre took place, nonetheless documented 22 civilian deaths and said the Israelis used excessive and indiscriminate force during the operation. TIME found that as Israeli soldiers moved from house to house, they sometimes compelled Palestinian civilians to take the dangerous job of leading the approach to the buildings. On the other hand, a senior Palestinian military officer has admitted to TIME that some of those who died were killed by rubble from the exploding booby traps with which Palestinian fighters had honeycombed the camp.

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