Media Distortions and the UN Report on Jenin

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on August 1, 2002 published his report, mandated by the United Nations Security Council, into the Israeli attack on Jenin refugee camp in the Occupied West Bank last April.

Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Israel is crowing that the report exonerates it from charges that there was a “massacre” in the camp. As we shall see, the Palestinian claims against Israel have been deliberately exaggerated and misrepresented in such a way as to diminish and obscure ample evidence that Israel committed serious breaches of international law. The most important thing about the new UN report on Jenin is that it is not an investigation into the events at the camp last April: none of the authors visited Jenin, since the UN Security Council-mandated investigation was blocked by Israel, which refused all cooperation.

The text states:

“The report was written without a visit to Jenin or the other Palestinian cities in question and it therefore relies completely on available resources and information, including submissions from five United Nations Member States and Observer Missions, documents in the public domain and papers submitted by non-governmental organizations.”

Israel not only blocked the Jenin investigation, but refused repeated requests by Annan for it to submit written testimony for inclusion in the report. Hence while having done everything possible to block, discredit and undermine an investigation into Jenin, the Israeli government is today citing the same report as vindication. The Israelis cannot have it both ways. If Israel claims that UN reports are not credible when they criticize Israel, it cannot then claim that they suddenly regain legitimacy when they appear to “exonerate” it.

The UN report does repeat the findings of several international aid and human rights agencies that Israel used excessive and disproportionate force in civilian areas, blocked medical treatment for wounded civilians for days, and prevented access to the camp to humanitarian aid and journalists.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which unlike the UN team, actually sent investigators to Jenin, reported that these actions by Israel may constitute “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” among other serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Media Distortions: The Myth that Palestinians claimed that 500 were killed in Jenin

‘There was no massacre’ is the main headline coming from most media organizations reporting about UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report about the Israeli attack on Jenin refugee camp last April.

In fact, Annan’s report does not use the word “massacre” at all. The report does state:

“Fifty-two Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by the hospital in Jenin by the end of May 2002. IDF also place the death toll at approximately 52. A senior Palestinian Authority official alleged in mid-April that some 500 were killed, a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of the evidence that has emerged.”

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat was widely cited in press reports as having said that 500 people were killed in Jenin. Yet, despite an extensive search, I have been unable to find any directly quoted statement from any Palestinian official, including Erekat, using that figure for the death toll in Jenin. None of the reports which cited Erekat said where he allegedly made the claim, and some provided conflicting accounts of when he allegedly said it. For a claim that is so widely cited, it should not be so difficult to find a direct quote.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials, commentators and journalists alike repeated constantly that Erekat or sometimes other Palestinian officials had put the Jenin death toll at over 500. So what did Erekat actually say?

On April 10, 2002, Erekat did tell CNN that he believed that up to 500 people had been killed throughout the West Bank, not just in Jenin, since Israel had begun its “Operation Defensive Shield” at the end of March.

In the context of a discussion about the entire Israeli offensive and the announced visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, Erekat told CNN Anchor Jim Clancy:

“What we’re saying, we see an opportunity in the secretary’s visit. We want to help in order to insure the success of the secretary’s visit, because insuring the success of implementing [UN resolution] 1402 means stopping the killing fields out there, and you know as the numbers I am receiving today is that the numbers of killed could reach 500 since the Israeli offensive began. Thousands of wounded. You know, the Jenin refuge camp is no longer in existence, and now we’ve heard of executions there.”

Later the same day, CNN News Anchor Bill Hemmer stated on air, apparently in reference to Erekat’s earlier appearance:

“Also a heavy war of words today, Saeb Erekat the Chief Palestinian negotiator, live on CNN earlier today said, Palestinians have lost now 500 people between the battles in Jenin and Nablus.”

It is clear from a comparison of Hemmer’s claim with Erekat’s actual statement, that Erekat said nothing of the kind, and yet inaccurate though he is, even Hemmer does not state that Erekat was referring only to Jenin. Amongst others, Xinhua news agency reported accurately that

“Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Wednesday [April 10] that at least 500 Palestinians had been killed since Israel launched the military offensive in the West Bank on March 29.” (“Military operations bolster Palestinian militant spirit: Israeli source,” Xinhua, April 12, 2002)

Since Annan’s just published report put the actual Palestinian death toll in the period from March 1 to May 7 at 497, and since the Palestinian Red Crescent places most of those deaths squarely in the period of the Israeli invasion, Erekat’s estimate, which he had stated at the time was unconfirmed, was far from unreasonable. Most of the comments from Palestinian officials such as Erekat about Israeli actions in Jenin were premised on the notion that urgent UN intervention and investigation was necessary precisely because no one knew exactly what was really going on in the camp.

Yet, on April 11, the day after the CNN interview, The Jerusalem Post reported that

“The actual number of Palestinian casualties in Jenin is unknown. IDF sources estimated it at between 100 and 200. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNN that Israel had “massacred” 500 people in the Jenin camp.” (“Hundreds of gunmen surrender in Jenin,” by Arieh O’Sullivan, April 11, 2002)

Erekat did not even use the word “massacre” in this interview, although the Jerusalem Post quoted him as having done so. The false claim about Erekat appears to have originated here. Yet while the Jerusalem Post misreports what Erekat said it does highlight that at the same time that Erekat allegedly claimed 500 were killed, even Israeli sources were putting the death toll at up to 200. There are numerous contemporaneous press reports that Israeli Major General Ron Kitrey had put the death toll in Jenin alone at up to 300, but had later issued a statement saying that figure included dead and wounded.

Thus, the myth of Erekat’s claim that 500 were killed in Jenin had begun. It has become so durable that it even made it into the report of the United Nations Secretary General.

Without the claim that Palestinians explicitly accused the Israelis of killing 500, the main accusation from supporters of Israel and the media is that Palestinians alleged a “massacre.”

Although Erekat and several other Palestinian officials did later use the term “massacre,” the first person to whom it was publicly attributed is Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres in an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on April 9, 2002, under the headline “Peres calls IDF operation in Jenin a ‘massacre’ ”. Peres is also quoted saying “When the world sees the pictures of what we have done there, it will do us immense damage.”

There is no scientific or precise definition of a massacre, and no rule that says that hundreds must be killed before an event qualifies as such. “Massacre” is a subjective term and certainly for those who live through it the killing of ‘only’ dozens would qualify. Perhaps it is for this reason that Israeli officials routinely refer to Palestinian attacks which kill 20 or fewer people as “massacres.”

In conclusion, the UN report provides no new information to those who are seriously interested in the truth of what happened in Jenin last April. To the Israelis it provides another propaganda coup and plenty of misleading headlines clearing it of any fault, to Kofi Annan and the UN it provides a welcome end to an embarrassing and politically awkward chapter, and to Palestinians it proves yet again that for Israel impunity, not law, is the rule.

Further readings:

  • Report of the Secretary-General on recent events in Jenin and other Palestinian Cities
  • What Happened In Jenin? What Is Happening In Jenin
  • LAW responds to failures of disappointing Kofi Annan Report
  • BBC: Jenin deaths video implicates army
  • Human Rights Watch report: Jenin, IDF Military Operations (pdf)
  • Jenin: Map of destruction
  • Online chat with Peter Bouckaert (HRW)
  • Jenin: Texts, photos, sounds