Middle East

Views from the Arab and Israeli Press

Jenin: Massacre or Meta-Narrative?

A girl raises the Palestinian flag over her destroyed home in the Jenin refugee camp
A small girl raises the Palestinian flag over the rubble of what used to be her home in the Jenin refugee camp, April 28, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

At least one thing is certain: During the 11-day Israeli military incursion into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, the camp was the site of a nightmarish and chaotic battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in the midst of the civilian population. If nothing else, the shocking images of destruction that have emerged from the camp since journalists and international observers were allowed in stand as grim memorials to the ferocity of the battle. According to the Israel Defense Forces, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, which has been described as the most intense yet in the 19 month-long Intifada. According to international press reports, an estimated 52 Palestinians were killed, including at least 22 civilians. Israelis say terrorists within the camp had turned it into a maze of booby-traps and endangered Palestinian civilian life by hiding in residential areas. Palestinians have accused the Israelis of massacring civilians and engaging in a cover-up after the fact. Since journalists and emergency medical organizations were prevented from entering the camp during the fighting, the world will likely never fully know the truth.

There have been attempts to piece together what happened in Jenin. On May 3, the international organization Human Rights Watch released a report that found  no evidence of a massacre, but “strong, prima facie evidence” that Israeli troops had committed war crimes, including the “willful and unlawful” killing of civilians, using civilians as human shields, and firing at medical personnel in an effort to keep them from aiding the wounded. Human Rights Watch also found that the Israeli army used “indiscriminate and excessive force” during the operation, but left the question of whether the army’s use of force qualified as criminal “wanton destruction” to the United Nations. On the evening of May 7, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution that simultaneously condemned the Israeli military incursion in Jenin in the West Bank and called for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resurrect the Jenin fact-finding mission he had abandoned on May 2 because of intense Israeli opposition. But the 54 abstentions in the General Assembly’s final vote underscore the difficulty of assessing what really happened during those 11 days in Jenin.

Had there been an official international investigation into what happened in Jenin, Israelis and Palestinians would still have proffered their respective explanations of what happened and what sort of milestone it marks in the history of the region. But the likelihood of an independent assessment receded with the likelihood of an official investigation into events at the camp. And so this is no longer merely a matter of spin doctors weaving a tale for political damage control—it is a battle to determine whose version of history will prevail.

The lasting importance of this episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely be seen in the realm of symbols. For the Palestinians, Jenin quickly became part of a long list of Israeli crimes against Palestinians that should rally the international community to support the Palestinian cause. To the Israelis, Jenin was a terrorist base that, with the Palestinian Authority’s help, dispatched suicide bombers responsible for killing more than 70 Israeli civilians since March 2002.

Just as the Israeli government has tried to draw parallels between the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” and its own military operations in the Palestinian territories, Palestinians believe that Israeli actions in Jenin and throughout the occupied territories belie pro-Israeli propaganda. In an April 22 editorial for Amman’s Al-Ra’i, Jamal al-Tahat frankly assessed the goals of likening Israeli “state terrorism” to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States: “The attempt to demonstrate the similarity between the events of the past September in New York and Washington, D.C., with those that have occurred in Jenin, Nablus, and Bethlehem… is meant to deprive Israel of its ability to employ its ‘Great Lie’ to justify killing us, and to counter the American administration with our own moral message.”

The Palestinian press uniformly refers to the Jenin “massacre.” This has a particular resonance among Arab readers because the word immediately calls to mind Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s involvement in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during his 1982 invasion of Lebanon as minister of defense. And while the Israeli Kahan Commission subsequently found that Sharon was only “indirectly responsible” for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, many Arab journalists—citing the fact that the three Lebanese warlords who, acting as proxies for the Israelis, carried out the massacres were killed just before they were to testify against Sharon at a Belgian war crimes court—believe he was more directly responsible. For this reason, Arabs still find it shocking that U.S. President George W. Bush could call Sharon a “man of peace.” As Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid pointed out in his April 22 editorial for the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “Even the Israelis themselves do not describe Sharon as a man of peace.”

The prevailing Arab view of Sharon relies on his controversial past as well as the knowledge that he has opposed any peace deal with Arabs, whether in 1979 with Egypt, or in 1993 with the PLO. This has led Arab commentators to assume that he is simply fulfilling a long-cherished plan to extinguish any prospect for reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors by “assassinating peace” with the Palestinians. In an April 13 Al-Sharq al-Awsat opinion piece, Karim Baqraduni outlined this view, adding that the timing of Sharon’s West Bank incursion, immediately after the unified Arab support of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal in Beirut, was specifically designed to destroy any chances that the proposal would change facts on the ground. Thus, in editorials such as that of Faleh al-Tawil in Al-Ra’i on April 20, commentators saw Sharon’s actions in Jenin and the West Bank as meant to provoke not only Palestinians, but the Arab world and to rupture any hope for peace. As Ayyad al-Siraj wrote in his April 26 editorial in the Palestinian Al-Quds, Sharon intends for Arabs to come to an inevitable conclusion: “The substance of Sharon’s message in Jenin was that Palestinians must realize that their lives here [in the occupied West Bank] will become a hell, and that it is better for them to depart, therefore allowing for the completion of Jewish settlement [of the West Bank].”

Finally, Arab writers commonly depict Jenin and the Israeli government’s latest incursions in the West Bank as part of a historical process; even in instances where this is not said outright, the point may be made through allusions, with the assumption that the Arab readership already agrees. An example of an explicit reference can be found in Nawwaf al-Zarou’s editorial in the April 28 edition of Jordan’s Al-Dustour, in which he depicted Jenin as the inevitable result of the Zionist colonization program. In doing so, he harked back to the most infamous of massacres: “The onslaught of terrorism and bloody Zionist carnage against our people in Palestine began in earnest with the onset of the 1940s, having reached its culmination at that time in the perpetration of the massacre of Deir Yasin at the hands of Zionist terrorist organizations [in April 1948, members of the pre-state Zionist guerrilla groups Irgun and the Stern Gang killed 254 civilians in the Palestinian village of Deir Yasin], thus initiating an uninterrupted sequence of events, massacres, and war crimes…leading up to the massacre of the refugee camp of Jenin.” Deir Yasin has always been a sensitive topic for Israeli governments, not least because Irgun’s leader, Menachem Begin, later became Israel’s prime minister.

Al-Zarou’s invocation of Deir Yasin—as both a harbinger of and proxy for Jenin—would have immediately reminded his Arab readers, already steeped in similar discourse, that even before Israel was founded in May 1948, Zionist extremists saw it necessary to use brute force and psychological warfare to remove the Palestinian population from their land, and that many of these extremists later helped found Israel's political establishment. Menachem Begin was one of the founding members of the political movement that, with Ariel Sharon’s cooperation, became the Likud party in 1973.

On the other hand, the Israeli government and its supporters view the furor over Jenin as a crowning achievement in the public-relations campaign waged by the Palestinians. In an April 21 article in Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz, Zvi Bar’el used a reported quote from an unnamed Jordanian official to frame precisely this argument: “This is a dispute,” the Jordanian official reportedly said, “in which each side counts not only its dead, but also the points which it has won in the international arena.” The official Israeli stance is that in the course of clearing out militants and bomb-making facilities in Jenin, perhaps as many as 70 armed insurgents were killed, though this may include up to 20 unfortunate and unplanned civilian casualties. Many comment that it was the purposeful restraint of the Israeli army that actually kept civilian deaths quite low while simultaneously endangering Israeli soldiers’ lives.

Mindful of the international court of public opinion, the Palestinians and Israelis recognize the importance of wresting control over the historical record from one another. In an April 26 feature for Ha’aretz, Amir Oren reiterated the explanation given by Israeli Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon: “In the main battle, for international validation, Arafat wants to make ‘Jenin’ a formative concept in rallying the international community…The Palestinian narrative—the ‘Big Lie’ according to the best intelligence information and the impression on the ground—will be accepted as a basic description of the truth, while the Israeli narrative will be rejected as the criminals’ version. Depriving Israel of validation and conferring it on the Palestinians will constitute a victory for [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat.”

In an April 29 editorial for the conservative Jerusalem Post, Shlomo Gazit described Jenin as one of the four main arenas of struggle between Israel and the Palestinians which the Palestinians use to gain the world’s sympathy. The ultimate goal of this multi-front challenge, according to Gazit, is to “change the rules of the game…and force the presence of an international supervising or policing force to limit Israel’s military freedom of action.” Gazit later suggested that Jenin may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Israel; having successfully wiped out Jenin’s “terrorist infrastructure,” the Palestinians are managing to reverse this victory into a diplomatic coup that is being manifested as an intense examination of the nature of Israel’s “war on terrorism” from abroad.

In a May 2 editorial for the same paper, Matthew Gutman echoed this view in a discussion of Israeli scholar Amikam Nachmani’s views. According to Gutman, Nachmani, “comparing the Palestinian symbols and myths of the first Intifada and the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada,’ is certain that Jenin will be used as another symbol…[and] will be manipulated to bring pressure on the international community to protect the Palestinians from the Israelis...‘The facts of what really happened in Jenin are actually immaterial,’ note[d] Nachmani. ‘What counts here is how the Palestinians portray the events in the camp to the world.’ ” While trying to underline the political utility of Jenin as a symbol to the Palestinian national struggle, Gutman also tried to highlight the mythical resonance of “massacres.”

Referring to Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling’s study of Palestinian symbols, he wrote “[They] will be forced to classify this conflict in one of two categories—regardless of how many bodies are discovered in the ruins of the camp. The first model…is that of Deir Yasin, Kafr Kasim [on Oct. 29, 1956, the day Israel, the United Kingdom, and France attacked Egypt after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Israeli forces shot roughly 50 Palestinian civilians at close range at the gates of Kafr Kasim], Safed [on May 11-12, 1948, members of the pre-state Jewish army called Haganah wrested the town from Palestinian control after a bloody battle], the Baruch Goldstein/Cave of the Patriarchs massacre [In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a U.S.-born fundamentalist Jew who had emigrated to Israel, shot 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarch Abraham and his family], and Sabra and Shatila, where Palestinians solely played the role of victims…[or] the model of Karameh, a story of a heroic battle across the Jordan River in which the Palestinians supposedly defeated the Israeli superpower immediately after all the Arab states suffered a shameful defeat following the 1967 war. I guess for external consumption they will stress the first model and for internal, the second one.”

Saul Singer, in a May 3 opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post, went further: “The real war criminals in Jenin were the Palestinians who booby-trapped a large civilian area and deliberately caused civilian casualties on their own side. The whole Palestinian ‘military’ strategy was to take advantage of the IDF’s willingness to suffer casualties in a concrete test of the laws of war…. Palestinian terrorists hid out in a crowded warren of homes, because they knew the civilians endangered would be on Israel’s head rather than their own.”

There are some dissenting Israeli voices. “What is [Sharon’s] plan?” Doron Rosenblum asked in an April 26 op-ed piece for Ha’aretz. “It’s well-known that conventional wisdom is divided. There are those who say that Sharon was practically born with a ‘grand’ Sisyphean plan (pushing the Palestinian problem into Jordan), which every decade he tries anew to advance, despite various obstacles in the form of peace-shmeace plans.” In another editorial from the same edition of Ha’aretz, David Landau connected the success of Sharon’s right-wing agenda to what he perceives as the rise of the right worldwide. “With macabre timing,” Landau concluded, “on the day that Le Pen restored dark and irrational French anti-Semitism to its former glory…Sharon, drunk with his victory over Jenin, proclaimed that he would never dismantle a single settlement. Not even the most isolated and indefensible of them. Nor would he ever discuss the subject in his government. Forever and ever, until eternity. Amen.”

Inside Israel, critics also deplore the absence of a countervailing Labor Party vision. Political analyst Yoel Marcus, also writing in the April 26 edition of Ha’aretz, opined that not only has Sharon made a laughingstock out of the Labor Party members of his government, he has also effectively relinquished government policy-making to the dictates of former Likud prime minister and Sharon's political rival Binyamin Netanyahu. Since the Labor Party is paralyzed by indecision and lack of public support, Sharon has viewed his only real electoral threat as coming from Netanyahu, causing him to implement increasingly controversial military policies and run as far right as possible.

Uri Avery, an Israeli author, peace activist, and a columnist for Tel Aviv’s centrist Ma’ariv, is among those lamenting Israel’s perceived shift to the right. In an April 20 article titled “Something Stinks,” he argued that the Israelis had committed a massacre in Jenin after all, based on the fact that journalists were barred from entering Jenin and that even before Israeli troops withdrew, “the government propaganda machine, in which all the media are now voluntarily integrated, did everything possible to prepare the public in advance. It was said beforehand that the Palestinians were about to spread a horrible lie, that they were ready to heap dead bodies (from where?) in the streets. It got almost to the point of saying that the Palestinians had blown up their houses over their families in order to create a blood libel…The result is that again a huge gap was created between Israelis and the rest of the world. Around the world, many were horrified that Jews, of all people, were capable of doing such things. Jews were again confirmed in their belief that all goyim [non-Jews] are anti-Semites.”

Arabs and Israelis alike realize the potential negative ramifications of the Jenin incursion for the future of the region. Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist Jonathan Kuttab, in an April 20 editorial for Al-Ra’i, reminded his readers that the majority of the recent Palestinian suicide bombers have not been religious extremists, but rather secularists who see themselves as resisting the Israeli occupation, and that this bodes ill for the future.

West of the Jordan River, Doron Rosenblum looked with dismay at the situation in his homeland. “Once again we experience that equally familiar cycle of déjà vu—the same drag into agreement because ‘there’s no choice,’ the same ‘quiet, there’s shooting,’ the same ‘whole world’s against us,’ the same trampling of the ‘traitors’ at home, and the same paranoia about a worldwide ‘blood feud’ against us. Here is the same, nearly narcotic, fog about the purposes and goals of all of it. And soon, when the flood bursts with ever-doubling force, will come [Sharon’s] same shrug of the shoulders: ‘I tried. It didn’t work. Because of you. Not only did you disrupt me in the middle again, but again, you should never show a fool a job half-done.’ ”