No Massacre at Jenin: Says Who?

Good luck finding the sentence “there was no massacre,” in the UN report on the killing of Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp by the Israeli army, though newspaper headlines, and Israel, would lead you to believe the report was very explicit on the matter.

But you don’t have to wade very far into the report before it becomes clear that the indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings did occur.

And you don’t have to spend much time reading the Human Rights Watch report on the events at Jenin to figure out a massacre, as the word is understood colloquially, did happen.

What didn’t happen, it seems, is as many deaths as some initially alleged. Rather than there being hundreds of deaths, there were probably dozens of deaths, a disparity Israel and its apologists have seized upon to “prove” there was no massacre. But this is equivalent to arguing that if three million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, not six million, there was no Holocaust.

The question is, Were many people indiscriminately killed? The answer, according to both reports, is clearly, yes.

Here’s what Human Rights Watch (HRW) had to say about what happened at Jenin:

“At times…IDF military attacks were indiscriminate … Firing was particularly indiscriminate on the morning of April 6, when missiles were launched from helicopters, catching many sleeping civilians unaware. One woman was killed by helicopter fire during that attack; a four-year-old child in another part of town was injured when a missile hit the house where she was sleeping. Both were buildings housing only civilians, with no fighters in the immediate vicinity.”

The report continues:

“Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year-old paralysed man, was killed when the IDF bulldozed his home on top of him, refusing to allow his relatives to remove him from the home. Sixty-five-year-old Muhammad Abu Saba’a had to plead with an IDF bulldozer operator to stop demolishing his home while his family remained inside; when he returned to his half-demolished home, he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.”


“Among the civilian deaths were those of Kamal Zgheir, a fifty-seven-year old wheelchair-bound man who was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp of April 10, even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair; fifty-eight year old Mariam Wishahi, killed by a missile in her home on April 6 just hours after her unarmed son was shot in the street; [here HRW mentions Jamal Fayid again]; and fourteen-year-old Faris Zaiban, who was killed by fire from an IDF armored car as he went to buy groceries when the IDF-imposed curfew was temporary lifted on April 11.”

HRW continues:

“Some of the cases document by Human Rights Watch amounted to summary executions, a clear war crime, such as the shooting of Jamal al-Sabbagh on April 6. Al-Sabbagh was shot to death while directly under the control of the IDF: he was obeying orders to strip off his clothes. In at least one case, IDF soldiers unlawfully killed a wounded Palestinian, Munthir al-Haj, who was no longer carrying a weapon, his arms were reportedly broken, and he was taking no active part in the fighting.”

It should be acknowledged that the HRW report does say that it “found no evidence to sustain claims of massacres or large-scale extrajudicial executions by the IDF in Jenin refugee camp,” but it’s not clear what definition of “massacre” HRW is using. Israel’s supporters dismiss the massacre claim on grounds there weren’t enough deaths. HRW seems to have drawn the same conclusion. But how many have to be killed indiscriminately before a “massacre” occurs? The Racak massacre — the alleged killing of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces in the Kosovar village of Racak — involved fewer deaths, but the massacre label was used freely. There were no reports that said, “no massacre occurred at Racak because dozens, not hundreds, died.”

The UN’s report on the events at Jenin, owing to Israel blocking an investigation, was of necessity based on information already on the public record. Human rights groups, and others, declared the report flawed. (The assertion made by pro-Israelis that blocking the investigation was a tactical mistake, because it didn’t allow Israel to clear its name, is an egregious example of question begging – assuming the truth — that Israel was blameless — of what is to be investigated.)

For example, the British newspaper The Independent commented:

“An investigation by The Independent inside Jenin shortly after the fighting unearthed numerous corroborating accounts of atrocities.

“Of many victims whose stories were published…only Fadwa Jamma, a Palestinian nurse who was shot through the heart while trying to tend a wounded man is mentioned in the new UN report. She was in full uniform and could be clearly seen.

“Nor is Afaf Desuqi (mentioned), killed when Israeli soldiers blew open the door of her house as she tried to open it for them. “

In only four paragraphs from the 50 odd page HRW report, and from The Independent’s brief report, it’s clear that a massacre did happen. Six, possibly seven, deliberate killings and five deaths from the indiscriminate use of force are documented in brief excerpts from these two investigations alone.

If any doubt remains, consider what the UN report, widely criticized as a whitewash, has to say:

“By the time of the IDF withdrawal and the lifting of the curfew on 18 April, at least 52 Palestinians, of whom up to half may have been civilians, and 23 Israeli soldiers were dead.”

Note the qualifier, “at least.”

The UN goes on to admit, “It is impossible to determine with precision how many civilians were among the Palestinian dead,” while the report of the European Union adds that “the number of Palestinian fatalities could increase when the rubble is removed. Most observers share the certainty that there must be some bodies lying under the debris.”

But while Israel hotly denies a massacre happened, and groups like HRW worry about whether the rules of war were followed, a larger issue is missed.

Recall the reference in the HRW report to al-Haj being “unlawfully” killed, suggesting others may have been “lawfully” killed. Those who were “lawfully” killed, were those who took an active part in the fighting, repelling an armed attack. Contrary to a widely held view, the IDF was an invasion force, not a police force, unlawfully in the Jenin camp. The distinction between “lawful” and “unlawful” killing is, therefore, academic in the extreme. It’s like saying, “Yes, it’s true he robbed the bank, but he didn’t hurt anybody, so why all the fuss?”

Surely, the bigger issue is, “Was a crime committed?” not “How did the criminal conduct himself in the act of carrying out the crime?” The IDF’s invasion of Jenin was a crime under international law, and stands as a crime, whether civilians were indiscriminately killed, whether militants were summarily executed, and whether non-combatants were deliberately killed. If none of these killings occurred, the invasion would still be a crime, because the IDF had no right, moral or legal, to be in Jenin. So how then can killings, carried out in the commission of a crime, be lawful?

To make the point clearer, imagine that Palestinian militants fought their way into an IDF base within Israel proper, where they proceeded to mow down 250 Israeli soldiers. Suppose further that in the fight, a dozen civilians were unintentionally killed (the militants fired rockets at the base, but missed, destroying nearby houses.) The killings of IDF personnel would be “lawful.” Likewise, the civilian deaths — because the militants didn’t target the civilians — would be unintentional and excusable. Would a report that concluded “no unlawful killings occurred”, or “no massacre occurred,” not be condemned for missing the larger issue?

Ironically, the UN report, which has been widely reviled as flawed as well, is a little better than the HRW report on some grounds. For while the report is unduly cautious in reporting on the devastation at Jenin, it does at least provide some context on the larger legal issues, which HRW reports never do. The HRW report on the bombing of Yugoslavia could devote itself entirely to the question of whether the conventions of war were followed, and whether NATO could be excused for civilian casualties (the report said it could), without ever addressing the larger question of whether the bombing itself was a crime.

The UN report notes:

“Israel’s obligations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are set out in the Geneva Convention…Palestinian residents…are ‘protected persons’…which provides they may not be willfully killed, tortured, taken as hostages or suffer humiliating or degrading treatment. Israel has obligations not to engage in acts of collective punishment or reprisals and is to refrain from appropriating or extensively destroying the property of protected persons…”

Since running over a disabled man in a tank amounts to willful killing, it’s apparent the Geneva Convention wasn’t being respected. And as Israel’s actions in the occupied territories are, in the first, a huge campaign of reprisal, collective punishment, and the infliction of humiliating and degrading treatment, the Convention is being ignored in these — and indeed, in all — respects.

But not only does Israel not respect the Geneva Convention in deed, it doesn’t in words either. As the UN notes, “The Government of the State of Israel has not…accepted the de jure applicability of (the Geneva Conventions)…to all territory occupied since 1967.”

This, of course, is a tactic employed frequently by Israel’s patron, the United States, which simply exempts itself from international covenants when convenient, all the while claiming to be a civilized democracy that holds the rule of law and human rights in high esteem. How many covenants do you have to ignore before you’re recognized for what you are — a rogue that does what it pleases?

So, was there a massacre? In any common, everyday understanding of the word, yes. And not only of Palestinians, but of the truth, as well.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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