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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--INSIDE THE CAMP The Palestinian fighters had made their own preparations. Booby traps had been laid in the streets of both the camp and the town, ready to be triggered if an Israeli foot or vehicle snagged a tripwire. Some of the bombs were huge--as much as 250 lbs. of explosives, compared with the 25 lbs. a typical suicide bomber uses. On Day 2 of the battle, when the town had been secured but the fight in the camp was just beginning, a huge Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer rolled along a three-quarter-mile stretch of the main street to clear booby traps. An Israeli engineering-corps officer logged 124 separate explosions set off by the vehicle. In the camp, the explosive charges were even more densely packed, and tunnels had been dug between houses so that Palestinian fighters could move around without exposing themselves on the street. Many noncombatants had fled; Israeli intelligence believes half the camp's residents had left before the troops arrived, and that by the third day of the battle 90% of the residents were gone. Even so, that left as many as 1,300 people inside the camp. According to leaders of Islamic Jihad interviewed by TIME, around 100 of those left were armed fighters.

At first, the Palestinians considered themselves lucky. Captured fighters later told Israeli interrogators they had expected an air strike. The Israelis had repeatedly bombed police barracks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; they didn't seem eager to risk the casualties of house-to-house combat. Ata Abu Roumeileh, a leader of the Fatah gunmen in the camp, now in hiding, told TIME that it was only when his forces saw the Israelis advancing on foot that they decided to stay and fight.

The battle took shape in the environment that soldiers like least, in and around pinched alleys and houses, with ample hiding places and sniper positions. Inevitably, civilians were caught in the fray. Awad Masarweh, a 49-year-old laborer who works in Jenin's vegetable market, took shelter in his house on the edge of the camp near the U.N. Relief and Works Agency's school, on the side of the camp through which the 5th Brigade advanced. At the end of the first day, says Masarweh, there were 90 others in his home, which Palestinians deemed to be among the safest. As the Israelis moved from street to street, the gunmen moved ahead of them. At one moment, Masarweh heard an enormous fusillade and explosions outside his house; everyone, he says, climbed out a window, crossed a yard and crowded into another house, which was crammed with 200 people. Masarweh's wife received shrapnel wounds in her leg and neck.

Israeli officials insist that they gave clear warning before entering any house. Masarweh heard an Israeli intelligence officer bellowing in Arabic through a megaphone from the street outside. "People in the house," the Israeli said, "get out. We don't want you to be hurt." The officer waited: "People, get out. People in the house, we are going to come in." Palestinians say Israelis frequently used camp residents to knock on doors to persuade people to come out into the street. Israeli army sources confirmed to TIME that they used this practice, which Human Rights Watch condemned in its report as a violation of international humanitarian law.

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