The last thing I saw when I left the Jenin refugee camp this past April was a large black flag placed triumphantly atop a heap of ruins at the camp’s entrance. It was the flag of Islamic Jihad. If there was any sign that Sharon’s military blitz into Jenin had been an utter failure, this was it. All the might and ferocity of the Israeli military machine cannot crush the Palestinian uprising. On the contrary, it appears to be fueling the most extreme factions within Palestinian society. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombing of a bus outside the Israeli town of Meggido killing 17 people. The timing was intentional: the 35th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
Sharon can blockade Arafat’s compound in Ramallah; he can order his troops to make house to house searches in the cities and towns of the West Bank. His government can tighten travel restrictions in the occupied territories even further; it can strangulate the Palestinian economy and leave its civil society in almost total disarray. It can prevent the UN from carrying out an investigation of what took place at Jenin and then spread lies about what happened there. But truth has a way of getting out in the most unexpected ways. Jenin has become the most popular name for newborn baby girls in Palestine. Their legacy will eventually contribute to the demise of the current Israeli state. Occupation will ultimately destroy the occupiers.
Dead bodies were laid out in the dirt outside the wrecked hospital in the Jenin refugee camp where workers with surgical masks over their faces waited to load them into open-backed trucks. The smell of death was so overpowering that children covered their faces with their shirts and some of the journalists covered their mouths and noses with strips of cloth torn from articles of their clothing. A young man weeping uncontrollably into the arms of his friend stood near the bodies, and an old woman shouted through tears of rage “stop taking pictures”. A man smeared with blood from the bodies nearby led her away.
I counted twenty-four bodies. Emergency relief workers had just brought some of them to the back of the hospital from inside the devastated camp, though not all had yet been recovered. Another group of men dug up more bodies from makeshift graves in a nearby pit where some of the dead had been buried temporarily during the siege. The Israeli Army had prevented their families from giving them a proper burial in the cemetery outside. It also prevented medical relief and ambulances from entering the camp. I interviewed the chief doctor at the Shifa Surgical hospital in the city of Jenin and verified this information with two other doctors and an ambulance driver. No, there was no shortage of blood or oxygen in their hospital. Why? Because these supplies were not allowed into Jenin to help the wounded. In fact, when the ambulance drivers attempted to go in anyway, IDF soldiers fired on them. Emergency food aid was allowed in only after the IDF left. I spoke to people from Save the Children and Medicins Sans Frontiers whose outrage at the situation could barely be contained.
Walking through Jenin that day was nightmarish. What had been a crowded refugee camp was now a wrecked, bulldozed mass of destruction unlike anything I had ever seen or even imagined. Between 13- and 14,000 people lost their homes and all of their possessions during the indecently named operation “Defensive Shield”. Nothing is left in the former Jenin camp except ruins. The interior of the camp is a moonscape of rubble and dirt, flattened beyond recognition. A woman rummaging through a pile of concrete said she couldn’t even tell where her former home had been.
The houses along the perimeter of the camp are still standing like empty shells in a semicircle facing the flattened interior. They have been so completely destroyed inside that no one could again live in them. Tank shells blew huge holes into the external walls; gaping wounds offering an uninvited view into people’s bedrooms, kitchens, and the living rooms. Broken glass lay scattered across the floors along with chunks of concrete that fell randomly from the ceilings and staircases, many of which had holes in them from missiles and tank shells. Soldiers had in some instances burned family photographs.
In one house, flour for making bread had been dumped on the kitchen floor along with all of the kitchenware. Soldiers had scribbled offensive graffiti inside the walls of many of the homes: in one, a Star of David with hateful words written in it covered part of a living room wall; in another, a picture of the Dome of the Rock being blown up defaced the wall behind a staircase. On a bathroom door someone had scribbled in Hebrew “if you need to take a piss, go upstairs” where a child’s bedroom was. There was garbage strewn everwhere inside the houses where soldiers had taken over. The IDF had cut all electricity and water to the camp. In some of the houses soldiers had defecated inside refrigerators or kitchen pots and peed into the sinks. In the camp mosque the loudspeaker from the minaret, from which a muezzin calls his people to prayer, had been broken. Someone had defecated in it as it lay on the floor.
Walking was unsafe in Jenin, whether you were outside picking your way through blasted blocks of cement and wire, or inside trying to step over destroyed furniture, scattered and torn clothing, or broken household items. A television set had been shot. The speakers of a stereo had bullets in them. Were these appliances part of the “terrorist infrastructure”? I wondered.
I watched in horror as a small family shack at the edge of the camp burst into flames after a loud explosion. A missile fired from an American-made helicopter had not exploded when it landed in the house three days previously. The family mercifully escaped, but nothing remains of their belongings. Throughout the camp one could find spent ammunition, used bullets, tank shells, the remnants of missiles, and more – the fingerprints of Israel’s crime. Worse, however, were those that were lying unexploded, half-hidden from view, waiting for the unsuspecting child to stumble across them.
Do not tell me that this was a humanely carried out military operation in defense of Israel. I was there. I spent two days and a night in Jenin’s ruins immediately after the Israelis pulled out. I saw people desperately searching for remnants of their former lives; heard people begging for information about loved ones killed, missing, or taken away to prison; listened to a story of how four men were summarily executed, their hands tied behind their backs while they were made to kneel outside at a wall. Soldiers fired bullets into the back of their heads at close range. Different individuals repeated this story to me at different times but with the same details. I watched as children wandered aimlessly around the expanse of debris with expressionless, traumatized faces. I smelled the putrid smell of death coming from heaps of rubble where houses had been blown up on top of their inhabitants. I still lack the words that can fully express the horror of what I saw. Perhaps my photographs will do a better job; they can at least partly document what I have written here.
Do not tell me that Israel was defending itself from “militants, terrorists, and gunmen” in Jenin. The Palestinians of Jenin were defending their own homes on their own land, a land that has been illegally occupied for 35 years. Israel has no legal or moral right to be on that land. It has no legal or moral right to murder people for opposing this occupation. It has no legal or moral right to keep building Jewish settlements on Palestiian land and to continue stealing the resources of this land. It has no legal or moral right to continue depriving this people of their basic humanity. But, for the record, the Palestinian people do have the right, under international law, to resist this barbaric occupation (UN General Assembly Resolution 42/159; 7 December 1987).
If Ariel Sharon and his government want the deadly and horrible suicide bombings in Israel to stop; if indeed the Israeli government truly cares about its own citizens‚ lives and security, it will end the occupation unilaterally today and save its own future in the process. The choice is in their hands.