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Massacre in Jenin

Human Rights Watch & The Stage-Management of Imperialism

by Sara Flounders
Covert Action Quarterly
Number 74 Fall 2002, pp. 8 13

On a fact-finding trip to the West Bank and Gaza, one of our delegation's main goals was gaining entry to Jenin. For most Palestinians a trip to Jenin during that period would have been impossible. Even a U.S. passport didn't guarantee travel through the numerous roadblocks and closures on the way. We left the outskirts of Ramallah on foot at early dawn on May 23, 2002. To avoid Israeli roadblocks and lines of tanks, we met a driver in a village, then drove through back roads and across fields far to the east up the Jordan valley, headed first for Nablus.

But an Israeli assassination operation was under way in Nablus. The city was under total curfew, tightly sealed no exceptions. A call to a doctor in Nablus confirmed there was no way in and no way for anyone in Nablus to move that day.

The call also made clear that Israel could no longer enforce total isolation or operate with total impunity. Cell phones and computers mean that even in the midst of total lockdown it is possible to hear exactly what is happening miles away on a street corner, from the buzz of an Apache helicopter to giant bulldozers crushing cinderblock homes.

Just the day before, the IDF had swooped into Jenin once again to carry out an assassination, killing three Palestinians. Firing a missile from a U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter, the IDF executed its target plus two innocent bystanders.

As we arrived in Jenin, a funeral for those assassinated the previous day was under way. Children with flags gathered as young girls in pinstripe uniforms carrying book bags picked their way home through rubble. Their uniforms were clean even though some of the homes they entered had only three walls.

Rashid Mansur, Director of the Emergency Committee for the Relief and Rebuilding of Jenin Camp, took us atop a mosque overlooking what was the center of Jenin Camp so we could see the scale of destruction. Mansur pointed to the ruins of a home about 100 feet away; the remains of the roof lay on the ground. "Everyone fled that home except one disabled relative. The IDF bulldozers began their work. His family pleaded with the IDF to let them remove him before they bulldozed the house. They just went on, burying him alive. The family still has been unable to retrieve the body." Hardly a building still standing was free of holes gouged by tank rounds.

It's justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source even how the German army fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, said one IDF officer.

Mansur informed us that there had been 55 funerals with burials. Of the known dead, 17 were fighters the rest were civilians. Another 40 to 50 people are unaccounted for and presumed under the rubble. "The stench of death hung over the camp for many days," he told us.

This description corresponds to an April 18 CNN interview by Christianne Amanpour with Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special envoy to the Middle East.[1]

The smell was horrible decaying corpses below the rubble. And we saw, for instance, a 12-year-old boy being with some people digging with their hands they were digging him out, and his completely, demolished body. We saw, for instance, two brothers who were digging out their father and their other brothers below the rubble, the corpses in pieces. It was horrible, an absolutely unbelievable scene.

What happened in Jenin was no isolated incident. It is part of a systematic policy for the Sharon government. A few days earlier in Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza at the Al-Awda Hospital run by the United Health Work Committee, Dr. Abu Sitta had explained to us Sharon's policy. In 1971, General Ariel Sharon attacked Jabalya Camp with tanks and bulldozers. Hundreds of homes in the narrow streets of the camp were bulldozed to create broad avenues that would allow Israeli tanks to move with ease through the center of the camp. The occupiers allowed no rebuilding on the avenues. Today they are called "Sharon's boulevards."

Two stories of Jenin

The story of Jenin can be told two ways. One is of the resistance of poorly armed guerrillas who fought to the death rather than surrender to a powerful occupation army. Their heroism was such that Israeli progressive journalist Uri Avnery wrote that, "the Palestinian nation was born in Jenin."

The other way and equally true is of a civilian population trapped by the fire of that occupation army, massacred by it. The IDF, the Israeli regime of Ariel Sharon, the U.S. government and the powerful corporate media did their best to insist there was "no massacre" in Jenin and to prevent an investigation. Why was this so important to them? How did they do it?

Israel and the U.S. feared the impact of international condemnation. For example, the Guardian of London wrote on April 17:

"Israel's international reputation slumped to its lowest point for two decades yesterday, amid condemnation in Britain and Europe of the Israeli army's behavior at the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin in the West Bank."[2]

Under Jordanian rule in 1953, Jenin Camp was established as a refugee center within the municipal boundaries of the city of Jenin. Its inhabitants gradually replaced the emergency tents that once provided shelter with cement homes, most the size of the original small UNRWA tent. They dug basements in some places adding second, third and even fourth floors.

As we walked through this wasteland and along narrow alleys, people, drawn by the camera and microphone, told us their stories. An elderly woman said, "I was made a refugee in 1948. I was driven out in 1967. I'm not moving again." She was camped with her whole family in front of the two remaining walls of her home, tending a cooking pot over an open fire.

A young woman, a student, called us over. "This was my home," she said as she pointed to a pile of rubble. We saw two boys, 9 and 11 years old, sorting through wreckage on the ground. "This was where we lived," they said. "We go to school near where we are sleeping now, but we come here every day to look for our things." School was five miles away. "My mother's sister was inside," we heard. "My cousin was trapped." Again and again in places of packed earth or rubble, we heard descriptions of homes that had been demolished with someone still inside.

A man who walked with a cane described his terror as Israeli troops used him as a human shield. They forced him to enter buildings and rooms in front of the troops to check for fighters. As he backed out of a room, the troops would toss in a grenade.

Four members of one family described how they crawled from building to building seeking an exit as the Israeli bulldozers moved in unannounced in the middle of the night to clear houses. Their own home was pushed over just as they entered the basement of the small cinderblock home next door.

Mansur recounted his 15-year-old son's arrest and detention, with hundreds of other camp residents, saying this made him the 4th generation in his family to spend time in Israeli jails. He also told us the Israelis used 25,000 IDF troops and 270 Israeli tanks against 13,000 refugees, very few of whom were armed.

The New York Times described the scale of the attack in Jenin and the type of weapons used: "The mismatch in force of arms was stark." The Israeli Army used:

Vulcan antiaircraft guns, able to shoot 3,000 rounds a minute, inside the camp. It used Cobra helicopters with thermal detection capability to fire TOW missiles intended for use against tanks on open battlefields through walls of houses, some with noncombatants inside. It deployed scores of Merkava tanks and armored vehicles equipped with machine guns. It used bulldozers to raze civilian homes, crushing more and more of them with less warning, Palestinians said. Buzzing drones and balloons carrying cameras monitored the fighting from above, and from a hilltop encampment just outside Jenin, officers coordinated the combat, using detailed maps and sophisticated communications.[3]

But a statement published in the major Israeli daily Ha'aretz, more than two months before the attack on Jenin, shows that Israeli military planners intended exactly the scale of destruction that unfolded:

In order to prepare properly for the next campaign, one of the highest Israeli officers in the territories said not long ago, it's justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source. If the mission will be to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or take over the Casbah in Nablus... then he must first analyze and internalize the lessons of earlier battles even, however shocking it may sound, even how the German army fought in the Warsaw Ghetto.[4]

The quote shows how Israel now seeks to learn the tactics of the Nazi Army of occupation in Poland, while recognizing that Palestinians would choose the resistance of the besieged Jewish community of the Warsaw ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on April 19, 1943, when 2,000 SS troops entered the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, home to 60,000 people. The Nazi troops met machine-gun fire and Molotov cocktails and suffered 200 casualties on the first day. In a month of fighting, the Nazis totally leveled the ghetto.

The scale of the Israeli Army's destruction of Jenin was hardly an isolated incident. During the same days, the IDF forces in Nablus had carried out a similar offensive. As they had planned, large sections of the ancient Casbah of Nablus were reduced to rubble. Tanks, giant bulldozers and helicopter gunships were used in the center of 'Old Nablus.' The entire West Bank was under military occupation. Tanks patrolled city streets in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tulkarm.

Helicopters are strafing civilian residential areas, systematic shelling by tanks has wounded hundreds, bulldozers are razing refugee homes...

Again the New York Times, April 11, 2002, reported conditions throughout the West Bank. "It is safe to say that the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state roads, schools, electricity pylons, water pipes, telephone lines has been devastated."

But the Israeli offensive in Jenin became a focus of international attention because there was such protracted and fierce resistance that the siege lasted for ten days. The IDF shut off water and electricity, prevented access to hospitals, fired on ambulances, and denied access to journalists and aid agencies. Desperate residents pleaded over cell phones for water, food, or help in moving the injured.

Pressure on the UN to act escalated quickly because Israeli forces were shelling refugee camps that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency had administered for 54 years. UNRWA, a UN agency, was issuing almost daily press releases describing the horror in the refugee camps as the IDF assault destroyed its schools and health clinics and fired on its ambulances and food trucks, turning them away from West Bank camps. Even members of its staff were rounded up.

By April 7, UNRWA Commissioner General Peter Hansen said the IDF had made the Jenin and Balata refugee camps

... a hellish battleground... we are getting reports of pure horror-helicopters are strafing civilian residential areas, systematic shelling by tanks has wounded hundreds, bulldozers are razing refugee homes... food and medicine are running out, ambulances don't have passage... a humanitarian disaster is in the making.

By April 10, UNRWA described "catastrophic conditions" in Jenin. Its April 16 report to the UN used the term "monumental destruction."

The major media reported casualty figures on Jenin from Israeli military figures. CBS Evening News reported April 12: "The Israeli army estimates that it killed 100 to 200 people in eight days of fighting. ABC Nightline reported April 11 that the IDF "estimates 100 Palestinian fighters were killed there but refused to say where the bodies are, and they continue to bar news people from the camp." By Israel's own admission, thousands of Palestinian men had been rounded up throughout the West Bank. UN Special Envoy Roed-Larsen in an interview at Jenin Camp described the situation as, "horrific beyond belief."[5] Some of the most damning reports came from the UN's own agencies and from Israeli military forces.

Distract, delay, derail

Arab members of the UN Security Council, pressed to act by the exploding mass movements in their own streets, as a bloc proposed a resolution that called for sending a multinational force to defend the Palestinians from the Israeli onslaught throughout the occupied West Bank. They also proposed organizing an inquiry into Israeli occupation crimes in the West Bank. Clearly the resolution would be a major embarrassment unacceptable to the United States.

The U.S. government financially, militarily, politically and diplomatically supports Israel and its continuing attacks on the Palestinian people. That's because Washington considers Israel one of the best defenders of U.S. corporate interests in the region.

On April 4, the U.S. pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 1403, "welcoming the mission of the U.S. Secretary of State to the region as well as efforts by others... to bring about a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

Washington claimed it was brokering a deal to end the Israeli siege. U.S. Special Envoy General Anthony Zinni was in Israel during the entire Israeli offensive. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Israel supposedly to discuss 'peace' as news coverage of Jenin reached world attention. Although both U.S. officials attended commemorations of Israeli casualties, neither made any attempt to go to Jenin. Israel could hardly have denied either of them the access it denied the UN.

Arab countries called on the Bush administration to intervene to restrain Israel. Washington did not want to be in the position of publicly vetoing an Arab resolution in the UN Security Council that called for strong UN action at a time of international outrage. So a backroom deal was made to avoid a U.S. veto, give the appearance of some movement and yet ensure that no significant action was authorized. The stronger Security Council resolution of the Arab Group was withdrawn and the U.S. crafted the watered-down Resolution 1405 that passed with unanimous support on April 19.

Israeli leaders initially claimed they welcomed the U.S.-worded resolution because their hands were "clean," they had acted in "self-defense." While Israel stalled, Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly backed up the Israeli claim that no massacre had taken place. On April 24, speaking before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Powell said, "clearly people died in Jenin... I've seen no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place."[6]

This became the official position. No investigation was needed because no massacre had taken place. While the outside world, even relief agencies, were barred from the camp the Israelis began a series of demands. They demanded further changes in the composition of the delegation for "balance," the addition of military personnel, and insisted that no interviews or interrogation of any Israeli troops could take place. Finally they decreed that the fact-finding team could reach no conclusions, nor call for any specific action. While these issues were debated, all members of the expanded fact-finding team were put on hold.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acquiesced to each new Israeli demand. Yet Israel still denied the UN team entry into the refugee camp. Israel could not have taken any of these actions without the full support of Washington.

Even UN members who had initially made very strong reports, such as UN Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen began to backtrack under heavy pressure.

I have been totally misrepresented in parts of the Israeli media, evidently quoting me wrongly, saying that I stated that there was a massacre in Jenin. I said nothing of the sort... There was a stench of decaying bodies there which was absolutely awful. But that does not imply that I said that there was a massacre there. These are horrors of war, and I cannot judge if there was a massacre or not. And this is why everybody should now be relieved that there will be a fact-finding mission which will find out what happened there. And after that we will all judge.[7]

Finally, on May 3, two weeks after the unanimous passage of the U.S.-drafted resolution, Kofi Annan officially disbanded the "fact-finding" team because Israel would not allow entry even after every Israeli demand had been accepted.

Tunisian representative to the UN Noureddine Mejdoub stated in a special Security Council session on May 3,

Let us imagine that an Arab state had committed an act many times less grave than those perpetrated by Israel. Immediately a coalition force would have been formed, the rule of law would have been invoked, the binding nature of council resolutions would have been reaffirmed and sanctions would have been imposed.[8]

The Bush administration, which scripted and then dropped its mild resolution on Jenin after just two weeks, is nevertheless still demanding full enforcement of sanctions resolutions imposed on Iraq 12 years after Iraqi troops left Kuwait.

Yet even after the UN disbanded the fact-finding team and dropped any implementation of its resolution, the U.S. was faced with a political problem. It was beyond dispute that the Palestinian refugees in the densely populated cinder block housing in the center of Jenin had been attacked with tanks and missiles and their homes then bulldozed into rubble. And there was still the stench of the charge that Israeli troops had committed "massacres" in Jenin and in other camps. This is where another arm of U.S. policy comes in.

Enter Human Rights Watch

On the very day that the UN Secretary General moved to disband the fact-finding team, it was hardly treated as news. All the corporate media were conveniently running banner headlines stating that "no massacre" had taken place in Jenin. They gave as the objective authority for this finding the organization Human Rights Watch.

This let the IDF and the U.S. which was author of the Security Council resolution and primary supporter of Israel off the hook.

In fact, the Human Rights Watch report identifies 52 Palestinians killed during the Israeli operation and devotes 42 pages to describing a whole series of "possible" war crimes and violations of international law that the Israeli forces committed. But all this is buried in a report on their web site that few will ever see.

The story that CNN, BBC, AP, AFP, network TV, news magazines and all the other corporate media reported globally in bold headlines and sound bites was that a Human Rights Watch investigation had confirmed "No Jenin massacre." As CNN reported on May 3, "Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Israeli troops massacred Palestinian civilians in Jenin... said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for the group and a member of the investigative team." This was the news in a sound bite. It was reinforced in countless articles.

The news reports were based on an interview which Peter Bouckaert gave to the Washington Post on April 26, live from Jenin as he released the report. His words exactly echoed Colin Powell's statement the week before and Israel's position.

In the news coverage this sounded like it was the finding of an "official" inquiry, with no further investigation needed. This was not the first time HRW has stepped in to reinforce U.S. policy with a veneer of apparently unbiased non-governmental judgment.

Who is Human Rights Watch and how were they able to gain access to Jenin for an inquiry at the very time that Israel was denying entry to a delegation chosen by the UN Security Council?

Human Rights Watch was supposedly created to monitor "human rights abuses" worldwide. In reality, it is an institution that has acted at every turn to reinforce the policies of the United States and justify its "humanitarian interventions." It is composed almost entirely of U.S. citizens and its board includes multimillionaires, former U.S. government officials and mainstream academics.

Human Rights Watch began as Helsinki Watch in 1975. It was a powerful Cold War instrument against the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Its network became a web of support for pro-capitalist forces and political dissidents in every country.

Multibillionaire George Soros has played a major role in the development of Human Rights Watch and in linking it with his own personal NGO network, Open Society Institute. Aryeh Neier, the director first of Helsinki Watch and then Human Rights Watch moved on to head the Open Society Institute. Many other directors share positions and change titles within a small world of U.S.-based NGOs.

HRW's Middle East North Africa division has used its position to build support for the continuing U.S. war and sanctions against Iraq. According to the reports of four major UN agencies (WHO, FAO, UNICEF, WFP), UN Security Council sanctions, kept in place at U.S. insistence, have caused the deaths of over 1.5 million Iraqis. Withholding food and civilian supplies is a war crime. However, Human Rights Watch has proposed that to help weaken Saddam Hussein and "encourage Iraqi officials to overthrow him. Saddam Hussein be indicted by an international court for war crimes." (HRW press release, January 5, 2000). If the U.S. objective is an invasion of Iraq, Human Rights Watch is only too happy to oblige with reports and suggestions.

Human Rights Watch claims its reports are objective, balanced and evenhanded. When it comes to Palestine this has meant equating the violence of the illegal Israeli occupation with the resistance of Palestinians to overwhelming military force. Once Human Rights Watch declared that "no massacre" had occurred in Jenin, the demand for an inquiry and international action against Israeli crimes virtually disappeared. Media coverage shifted sharply. The Bush administration made a new round of demands on the Palestinians to condemn violence while calling Ariel Sharon "a man of peace" and expressing sympathy for Israeli "self-defense" measures. HRW statements echoed these shifts.

What is a massacre?

The word "massacre" cannot be trivialized into an argument over semantics. The decision to reject evidence of a massacre at Jenin was a political decision to immunize Sharon, the IDF, Israel, and their U.S. backers from responsibility. Webster's Unabridged (1998) defines massacre as:

"killing with indiscriminate violence, killing a number of people where much resistance can not be made and reckless murders."

This is an apt description of IDF actions at Jenin: precisely the truth that Human Rights Watch, Israel and the U.S. government are so anxious to dispel.

Some undisputed massacres

  • Boston Massacre, 1770: British troops shoot into a crowd of protesters, killing five.
  • Sand Creek Massacre, 1864: 700 Colorado volunteers attack an unarmed camp of 500 Arapaho and Cheyenne elders, women and children with small arms and howitzers, killing over 150.
  • Ludlow Massacre, 1914: Colorado National Guard machinegun a tent camp of striking miners and their families, killing 20.
  • Qibya Massacre, 1953: IDF soldiers commanded by Ariel Sharon killed 67, mainly women and children.
  • Sharpeville Massacre, I960: At a demonstration opposing racist pass laws like those imposed by Israel on Palestine, apartheid troops opened fire, killing 69.
  • Tlatelolco Massacre, 1968: At a demonstration against rent increases resulting from plans to host the Olympic Games, Mexican police and federal troops surround Tlatelolco Square, trap the crowd and open fire, killing over 300.
  • My Lai Massacre, 1968: US Army soldiers commanded by Lieutenant William Calley kill 504 Vietnamese women, elders and children. No return shots fired.
  • Sabra and Shatila Massacre, 1982: Ariel Sharon was found guilty by an Israeli government commission for his involvement in this massacre in Lebanon, in which up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed.


In Colombia Human Rights Certification III, HRW quotes without comment the definition used by the office of Public Advocate (Defensoria del Pueblo) of Colombia: "the killing of three or more people at the same place and at the same time."

When Israeli tanks rolled back into the cities of the West Bank after a two-week pullback from the siege of President Yassir Arafat in his compound in Ramallah, HRW was silent. Twenty-four hour curfews lasted for days; targeted assassinations took place with increasing frequency. Human Rights Watch was silent.

After the shift by the Bush administration to more open support of Israel, HRW's condemnation of violence on the part of Palestinians became far stronger and more prominent than its mild rebuke of Israel.

No statement was made condemning the concrete wall under construction dividing the entire West Bank. New walls and trenches filled with barbed wire surround whole towns, Palestinians cannot move in or out. New Israeli regulations deny Palestinians the right to leave their village or town of residence for any reason. Visits to an aged parent, work or a medical emergency are rejected. The accelerating land expropriations, house demolitions, the continuing mass arrests, and the hundreds in detention received no investigation or condemnation from Human Rights Watch.

HRW's statement released June 19 makes no criticism or even any mention of Israeli violence or occupation. The entire statement is a condemnation of Palestinian actions. It opens: "Yesterday's suicide bombing attack on a bus in Jerusalem is an atrocity for which there is no justification, Human Rights Watch said today... Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on Palestinian leaders to stop the attacks and bring those responsible to justice."

For all its many declarations of support for democracy and democratically elected governments, HRW had not a word of criticism for Bush's demand that democratically elected President Yassir Arafat be replaced with a politician more to the U.S. and Israel's liking. In 1996 President Arafat was elected by 87% of the popular vote in an election that international observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, declared to be free and fair. Needless to say, HRW made no statements concerning voting irregularities in George W. Bush's election.

HRW had not a word of criticism for Bush's demand that democratically elected President Yassir Arafat be replaced with a politician more to the U.S. and Israel's liking.

After having played a pivotal role in U.S.-lsraeli damage-control operations by declaring "No Massacre" at exactly the moment that the UN Security Council fact-finding delegation was disbanded because of Israeli intransigence, HRW swung back into action for some late mop-up work in early August by publicly attacking what it called weaknesses in the UN General Assembly Report on Jenin.

United States policymakers have many instruments at their disposal. The most effective are those organizations that seem to have an independent voice. However, these organizations have on their boards the directors of major corporations, policy think tanks, media outlets and academic institutions. Such organizations are thoroughly committed not to human rights but to U.S. corporate rule of the world.

Those corporations have a big stake in total U.S. domination of the Middle East. The oil of the Gulf region and the military contracts that subsidize the largest U.S. corporations are the largest source of profit. The consumer and labor markets are huge and growing.

The abandoned UN resolution and hundreds more passed and then ignored together with the Human Rights Watch whitewash, confirm once again that the future of Palestine depends heavily on the commitment of solidarity activists around the world. Palestinians are paying the ultimate price for their basic human rights. History will record whether they paid in vain, or whether we stood with them in their struggle.


  1. CNN, April 18, 2002.
  2. Guardian (London), April 17, 2002.
  3. New York Times, April 21, 2002.
  4. Ha'aretz(Tel Aviv), January 25, 2002.
  5. CNN, April 18, 2002.
  6. Arutz Sheva, Israel National News, April 25, 2002.
  7. CNN, April 22, 2002.
  8. United Nations Press Release.

About the author

Sara Flounders took part in the International ANSWER delegation to Gaza, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jenin, May 17-24. Flounders has edited and co-authored several books on international affairs, and is presently organizing an inquiry into U.S.-backed Israeli occupation crimes. She is Co-director of the International Action Center.

Further reading

For an insightful look at how Amnesty International failed to deal with Jenin, see: Dennis Bernstein and Francis Boyle, Massacre at Jenin, CovertAction Quarterly, no. 73, Summer 2002.