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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In February, Israeli soldiers had twice gone into Jenin. Arriving each time along a single route and with limited force, they had encountered heavy resistance and departed quickly. This time Eitan planned to send his troops in from three directions. The 5th Infantry Brigade would close in through the town of Jenin, which abuts the camp to the north. From the southeast and southwest would come two thrusts, one led by a company from the Nahal Brigade, the other by Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade--1,000 troops in all. The force would include units of navy seals, tanks, engineers to handle the roadside bombs that military intelligence predicted would line the alleys of the camp, and heavily armored bulldozers to carve paths for tanks.

Everyone understood that the mission would be dangerous; with soldiers entering the camp from three directions, there was also a risk of friendly fire. (In the end, there were 18 friendly fire incidents, but no Israeli was killed by his comrades.) Eitan ruled out an air attack; he feared giving the Palestinians the public relations coup of mass civilian casualties. His assessment: the army could take control of the camp in 48 to 72 hours. That turned out to be wildly optimistic.

On March 30, the 5th Brigade was mobilized. There was no problem of motivation; like most Israelis, the soldiers had been shocked by the suicide attack on a hotel in Netanya three days earlier, an atrocity that killed 28 Israelis sitting down for a Passover seder. The bomber had been sent by a Hamas cell based in Jenin. As the troops of the 5th Brigade arrived at their base in Ofer, north of Jerusalem, many wore civilian clothes, while some of those in uniform wore tennis shoes instead of boots. As they hauled their kit bags out of their cars, they could see hundreds of Palestinians who had been arrested during the Israeli sweep of Ramallah that began two days before.

The operations across the West Bank had stretched the Israeli army thin. By March 30, Israeli troops were already occupying Ramallah and Bethlehem. On Monday, April 1, they would go into Tulkarem and Qalqilya. The elite Paratroop Brigade was poised outside Nablus. The 5th Brigade, scheduled for Jenin, was made up of reservists mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, but the brass thought they could handle the tough assignment. "There were indications it was going to be hard," says Major General Dan Harel, the army's operations chief. "But we didn't think it was going to be so hard." The soldiers were supposed to head for Jenin on April 1, but rain and delays in shipping equipment forced Colonel Yedidia Yehuda, the brigade's commander, to wait until Tuesday, April 2. Around midnight, the Israeli tanks, which had massed west of the town, started to move in.

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