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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But the accusations and their rebuttals do not capture the lessons of the battle. In Jenin the Israelis sent a message: there is no quarter, no haven, for those who send out human bombers to blow themselves and Israelis apart in restaurants and cafes. And the Palestinians sent their message in return: they can kill Israelis in Palestinian towns just as well as in Tel Aviv. Under the slabs of fallen masonry in Jenin is a new legend of martyrdom and heroism, one that will be used in years to come to stiffen the sinews of those who would fight against Israeli rule: mailed fist met by defiant resistance. Written in the twisted metal and crushed cinder block of Jenin is the new reality of an old conflict with no end in sight. This is how it happened:

--THE ISRAELIS PREPARE In the last week of March, Major General Itzik Eitan, Israel's Chief of Central Command, submitted his plan to take over the Jenin Refugee Camp to Chief of Staff Lieut. General Shaul Mofaz. Both men knew it would be one of the toughest missions of Israel's Defensive Shield operation, which began March 28 in Ramallah when the Israelis surrounded the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Jenin camp, which is administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has existed since 1953; 13,055 registered refugees live in a square whose sides are about 600 yds. long.

Even by the standards of Palestinian refugee camps, Jenin is gruesomely special. Since the start of the Aqsa intifadeh in September 2000, the camp's activists, drawn from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have orchestrated at least 28 suicide attacks on Israeli targets. An internal document of Arafat's Fatah organization, written in September last year and captured by the Israelis during a recent sweep, characterized the camp's people as "ready for self-sacrifice with all their means...It is not strange that Jenin has been termed the capital of suicide attackers."

The Israeli authorities knew all about Jenin, and they knew those in the camp they wanted to take out. Their top target was Mahmoud Tawalbe, a 23-year-old father of two who worked in a record store but also headed the local Islamic Jihad cell. Tawalbe had launched numerous attacks against Israelis, including a shooting last October that killed four Israeli women on the main street of Hadera, a town north of Tel Aviv. Last July, Tawalbe had dispatched his 19-year-old brother Murad on a suicide mission to Haifa. (Murad lost his nerve and surrendered to Israeli police.) Other top Islamic Jihad targets in Jenin included Thabet Mardawi and Ali Suleiman al-Saadi, known as Safouri. Mardawi was behind a March 20 suicide bomb that killed seven Israelis on a bus, while Safouri had planned a November shooting that killed two Israelis.

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