Word Games and Body Bags
Only an unbelievably brutal world can look at the remains of what was once home for 13,000 impoverished 1948 Palestinian refugees, scratch its head and say "we don't know what actually happened in the Jenin refugee camp."
The camp is now described by the media as an "earthquake zone" -- a natural disaster of sorts. Unlike real earthquake zones, you don't see massive search and rescue teams in this one (Israel's rescue team, which aided in Istanbul and Kenya, is probably busy doing something else). Only the survivors and a handful of Red Crescent workers are there to search the rubble for the corpses, guided by their stench. Man made earthquakes do not, apparently, warrant real relief efforts.
On April 9th, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on its website that "Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is very worried about the expected international reaction as soon as the world learns the details of the tough battle in the Jenin refugee camp." It added that Israeli Defense Force (IDF) officers have similar worries: "The bulldozers are simply 'shaving' the homes and causing terrible destruction. When the world sees the pictures of what we have done there, it will do us immense damage."
"It will do us immense damage" is the closest that official Israel can come to expressing shock or remorse.
The next day, the London Guardian reported that Germany suspended arms sales to Israel. "The reports about the Israeli troops' conduct are shocking," said Schroeder's minister of development aid. On the same day, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called for the suspension of trade agreements between the EU and Israel. Later, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that "the situation is so dangerous and the humanitarian and human rights situation so appalling . . . an affront to the conscience of mankind" that the dispatching of an international force to the area under the auspices of the UN "can no longer be deferred." Schroeder supported discussing the idea, the US and Israel as usual opposed (Agence France Press, April 12). Even the British foreign minister summoned the Israeli ambassador and said he was "disturbed" by reports from Jenin (This Is London, April 13).
That was last week, when we knew what was happening in Jenin. But since then, the Israeli "damage control" apparatus has changed that. Now we don't know. We need a UN "fact finding" committee to find out why an Israeli tank and helicopter attack on a densely populated refugee camp ended up like an earthquake. As if Sharon was absolved merely by the decision to appoint the "fact finding" committee, the criticism from foreign governments seems to have faded into thin air.
The media, after a series of shocking reports ("A monstrous war crime," "The sickly sweet smell of death," "The camp that became a slaughterhouse"), gradually turned more technical, unemotional, formalistic, legislative. The mumbling began around April 16th. The Guardian's editorial that day, titled "The battle for truth: What really happened in Jenin camp?" describes at length the extensive destruction and death in the camp. It points out that "if the leaders of the 'international community' had been more resolute Mr. Sharon would have been no more able to mount his West Bank invasion than Hamas would have been allowed to pursue its suicidal attacks." But then it calls for an investigation to find out "is [Sharon] guilty, as the Palestinians claim, of a heinous and exceptional crime? In short, what really happened inside Jenin?"
What happened in Jenin? Was it a heinous and exceptional crime? Or just an ordinary one? The world needs to know. We need to find the exact definitions for what was done, and to identify which precise clauses of international law were violated. Before that is done, we cannot take a stand.
The name of the game now is "there was no massacre." Palestinian eyewitnesses who escaped the camp reported that people were summarily executed and their bodies disposed of (e.g., The Guardian, April 11). Israel denies that. This is what we should talk about now: was there a proper massacre or not. If hundreds of people were killed in a different manner, such as by being under curfew in their home when it was bulldozed or bombed, that's not a massacre. And the only question in our word game today is, "was there a massacre?" Ha'aretz, the newspaper of choice of the "intellectual elite" in Israel, joined the choir with its editorial of April 19. There was no massacre, they say, because "No order from above was given, nor was a local initiative executed, to deliberately and systematically kill unarmed people." An old timer in apologetic liberalism. There wasn't an order to systematically kill, so the corpses should not be billed to our account.
Ha'aretz doesn't question the operation itself. It also doesn't question the occupation. It doesn't say what we know, but are so easily made to forget: The 35 year long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a crime. Israel has no right and no justification to invade occupied towns and destroy them, regardless of what "exactly" happened in Jenin. Ha'aretz also doesn't put the destruction of the camp in the context of the statements by Israeli government ministers who openly speak about ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories (e.g., minister Effie Eitam: "I think our Jewish conscience will be clean if we say [to the Palestinians], 'you brought war and in war there are great human tragedies,'... They will cross the river and go to Jordan." AP, April 8).
It is reasonable to assume that the UN "fact finding" committee won't go into these issues either. This is why it will have very little impact on the prospects of preventing Sharon's next earthquake. In the meantime, while the committee will "find facts" and the 13,000 second-time-refugees of Jenin will try to survive, the man with the smoking gun in his hand who promises only more of the same, is given a green light to go on by an unbelievably brutal world which is playing with words.
Irit Katriel is an Israeli activist, currently living in Germany.