What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians - in places like Gaza Concentration Camp and Jenin Ghetto - is all too reminiscent of the pogroms of yesteryear and the Nazi-surrounded Warsaw Ghetto of old.
Friday, July 19, 2002
The living dead
Abu Ali Awis, like many others in the Jenin refugee camp, gazed at the ruins
and smelled the stench of the corpses all around and believed that all his
family had died. This is how his story became the prime example of the
massacre that never happened.
By Ada Ushpiz
In the middle of the day, about two hours before the re-imposition of the
curfew, the Jenin refugee camp looked somnolent, almost empty. Only children
played among the dusty piles of rubble, colorless in the light of the dry
heat wave. Here and there, patches of color peeked through: orange, red,
green, shreds of clothing, a wrinkled flowery dress, a ragged doll, bits of
furniture, mattresses, blankets - the only signs of a life that had gone on
there on the ground beneath the ruins. A choking stench of sewage dribbling
from broken pipes filled the air. On one pile of rubble flew the black flag
of the Islamic Jihad.
"The Courtyard" - that huge area of densely crowded houses that spread over
about three dunams - has been razed entirely. Once, before Operation
Defensive Shield, this was the heart of the camp. To these narrow alleys
about one meter wide, through which no military vehicle and certainly no tank
could make its way, the Palestinians retreated, the "armed" and the "wanted,"
in the jargon of the Israel Defense Forces, when the IDF entered Jenin in
After the 13 Israeli soldiers were killed there, Apache helicopters and
bulldozers appeared and destroyed the place, they related in the camp. Some
of the houses blew up upon contact with the bulldozers, because they were
booby-trapped, the IDF has claimed.
Rumors in the rubble
"The soldiers fell in a battle with the shabab [`the boys'] in these alleys -
they were killed by gunfire and explosive charges. I can show you exactly
where. The whole story about a building that collapsed on them because of an
explosive charge is a total lie," said Jamal Zebeidi proudly.
Zebeidi, 46, is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
and of the emergency committee of the camp. During the past year, he has lost
five members of his family, among them his brother's 52-year-old wife - the
mother of eight, whose head was hit by an Israeli soldier's bullet as she sat
in a neighbor's house - and his sister's son, who carried out the terror
attack at the train station in Binyamina, in which two people were killed and
11 wounded. Throughout, Zebeidi takes care to include the suicide terrorists
in the count of those killed in Jenin.
After this fierce battle, he related, shouted negotiations were conducted
from house to house between IDF soldiers and the young men of the camp, who
had taken the bodies of several of the dead soldiers. The army proposed a
truce if the bodies were returned. After a quarter of an hour of silence, the
firing was renewed in full force. The helicopters didn't stop shooting.
Zebeidi does not know whether the soldiers' bodies were ultimately found or
not (in fact, the bodies were abandoned and collected by IDF soldiers), but
anyone who had been outside the camp and heard the noises from there and saw
what was going on could not have believed that anyone had remained alive in
the heart of the camp.
"We were convinced that anyone who lived in the Courtyard was dead. There was
no communication with the camp, the telephones were cut off and even
ambulances didn't go in," related a young man who lives in the camp and
worked as a volunteer in the hospital during the invasion. "From time to
time, we got calls for help over mobile phones: `My hand has been ripped off,
my leg has gone, help me.' Things like that. No one knew what was happening
right under our nose. We lived from guesses, from fears."
Even after the encirclement around the camp was lifted about 10 days later,
there was a great deal of confusion, shock and disinformation.
"We wandered like sleepwalkers among the ruins, not knowing what to think.
There was a terrible stench of death and corpses everywhere. I myself
gathered 15 corpses from this place," said the young man, pointing at a pile
of rubble that looked no different from any other. "Because of that, in the
beginning, we were talking about hundreds of dead. Even the IDF did not know
how to estimate the number of losses correctly. It reported approximately 200
dead, more than three times the real number."
Only when the picture became clear later on did the two sides correct the
The panicked rumors spread quickly. Although during the first two days of the
invasion, the IDF did not prevent people from escaping, especially to the
area of Rumana, outside Jenin, no one knew how many had run away and who they
The facts become clear
The large number of people missing added to the anxieties. In retrospect,
they say in the camp that about 2,000 women and children had been taken out
of the camp in trucks and tanks and forcibly brought to the Kfar Salem
junction - which created hysteria about transfer. According to the IDF, only
men who had been arrested were taken out in trucks, while women and children
were "allowed" to depart on foot.
The Arab and Palestinian press hastened to adopt the unexamined estimates and
cried "massacre." Israel, for its part, made good use of the injustice that
had been done to it. Western intellectuals and press reeled between the
extremes, each according to its own proclivities, often holding spurious
disputes among themselves.
Now, they are saying in the camp, which numbers 13,000 souls and is
considered a focal point of Fatah power, the figures are clear: Fifty-six
inhabitants of the camp were killed in the first invasion in April, among
them three disfigured bodies that have not yet been identified and have not
been buried. Eleven were killed in and around the town of Jenin. According to
the Palestinians, 23 of those killed were fighters; the rest were civilians.
Six were killed in the second invasion, which began on June 21. Four of them
were children, the youngest of whom was six and the oldest 12. Since April,
477 people have been wounded in the area of Jenin, and about 160 are still
under arrest. According to the IDF, there were 58 Palestinians killed in
Jenin, only three of whom were civilians, as compared to 23 Israeli soldiers.
The anger, the insult and the bereavement were very evident in the dense
scrawls of graffiti and the pictures of shaheeds (martyrs), armed and
unarmed, hanging on the walls of demolished houses, some of them with only a
single wall left standing. "We will not forgive and not forget," cry the
slogans in English and Arabic; "Arab and international betrayal of the 1948
and 1967 refugees in 2002," "No to the Arab leaders who are traitors," "Osama
bin Laden is in our hearts," and "Hamas represents national unity."
The expression of profound depression did not leave the dark, unshaven face
of Jamal Zebeidi. His eyes were red and his black hair was streaked with
white. He sat in the living room of his home, where, during the first
invasion, two large holes were torn and during the second invasion, one of
the supporting pillars was cracked. It is surrounded by rubble, all the walls
of his home are riddled with holes and the ceiling of the first floor is
cracked and broken. It was important to him to talk about the high morale in
"There is hope. A people that has suffered so much and has not broken must
win. Look at the Vietnamese, look at the Algerians, and yes, also at the
Jews," he agreed.
With him sat some of the women of his family and chatted over a cup of coffee
about the summer camps for the children that UNWRA is organizing. Through the
gaping hole in the living room wall, it was possible to see people from the
Palestinian Communications Ministry repairing the telephone lines in the
house next door. In the morning they make repairs, and in the evening the
tanks and the helicopters come and destroy everything again, they joked.
For more than three months now, all the electricity and water infrastructures
in the camp have been in ruins and the IDF is not allowing UNWRA to bring in
the equipment necessary for taking away the rubble and repairing the damages.
The inhabitants draw water from a huge tank that has been set up in the
center of the camp, and improvised electric cables have been set up among
what is left of the houses, enabling them to get electricity from the
An allotment of NIS 1,000 that one of the women received from UNWRA to
renovate the ruins of her home aroused gales of bitter ridicule. "Mabrouk
[congratulations]," they kept giggling. The roar of the tank motors
approaching the camp did not put a damper on the atmosphere of false,
half-hysterical bonhomie. "Here come the tanks, they've begun to shoot, to
prove that they exist. Just like that, for no particular reason. Here, now
they've reached the Mukata [the Palestinian government building that was
completely destroyed]. Now they're getting closer" - the people in the house
tensely and fearfully followed every nuance in the racket.
Awis' house was here
At the edge of the Courtyard once stood the home of Abu Ali Awis, who, to his
misfortune, found himself in the middle of the media storm and the sparring
over the question of the massacre in Jenin. A negligent piece of reporting in
the French paper Le Nouvel Observateur (for the response of the paper click
here) made Abu Ali's case a prime example in the intellectual discourse in
France of the massacre that did not take place. There was, in fact, no
massacre there, but the false figures spread by the Palestinians during the
first days contributed a great deal to Israeli self-righteousness, and helped
Israel turn attention away from what had, in fact, happened there.
Now the ruins of Awis' house have been cleared away. All that is left is one
wall on which someone has scrawled graffiti in red: "Here was the house of
Abu Ali Awis, food card number 16566830. The building had three floors. On
the first floor there were shops, on the second floor, there was a
residential apartment, and on the third floor there was another apartment."
"My entire life is buried here," mourned Awis, 51, who is of short stature,
has a limp in one of his legs, gray hair and a gray mustache, and a round
face that smiles often. Since his house was destroyed, he has been living
with his family in a rented room in the home of his partner in a butcher shop
outside the camp. He owns a supermarket and a butcher shop in Jenin; he
acquired his broken and picturesque Hebrew from his connections with Israeli
He was born in the refugee camp. His family fled from the village of Sindiani
near Zichron Yaakov in the war of 1948. Fled, not expelled, he stresses. The
truth must be told. He heard this personally from "Yaakov, the mukhtar" - a
veteran resident of Zichron who was his father's neighbor. He does not know
his full name, but once, when he went to visit him with his father after the
1967 war, Yaakov the mukhtar took him on his lap and addressed his father:
"Now tell your son the truth. Didn't I invite you and your family to come to
live with me until the war was over?" and his father confirmed this.
On April 2, when the invasion of Jenin began, Awis was at his supermarket
outside the camp. His sister from the village of Yamun phoned him in alarm
and warned him that tanks were approaching the camp. He decided to go to the
home of his partner in the management of the butcher's shop, and to try to
bring there his wife and his children who had remained in the camp. But
within half an hour, the tanks had already encircled the Jenin camp and all
approaches to it were blocked.
His wife, six of his children and his four grandchildren remained in their
home in the camp. His eldest son, Ali, had fled a day earlier to relatives in
the village of Kud, after he had been involved in an accident in his father's
car and was afraid of getting in trouble with him. Ali lost an eye in an army
shooting incident in Jenin on September 11. "Just as I was seeing the Twin
Towers falling on television, they phoned from the hospital that Ali was
wounded," related Awis in bemused wonder.
He enumerated his children by name, one by one. His daughter, Arij, was
missing from the first count. "Nine children remained at home, I think," he
said. In fact, there were 10.
For three days, Awis took care to keep in touch with his family by phone. "It
is hard to describe the fear," he related. "We saw the tanks and the
helicopters, we heard the bombs, bombs without end. It was a war, a fierce
war, and we didn't believe that anyone in the camp would remain alive."
On Friday evening, he spoke to his wife for the last time: "She said to me in
a trembling voice: `Listen, we can't hold out any more. The bombs are getting
closer to us, the house has already been hit and I don't know where to go. We
will surely die here,' and the call was cut off," he recalled. After that he
did not hear from her. The telephone lines were cut. His friends' mobile
telephones in the camp were not working either.
For a period of 10 days, maybe 12, he does not remember exactly how many, he
lived in indescribable fear. Rumor had it that everyone who lived in the
Courtyard was had been killed.
"What could I do? I thought I was going mad," he related. "I ran to the IDF
position near the Jenin hospital. The soldiers did not allow me to approach.
I screamed: `The commander, where's the commander? Just one question. I have
nine children in the camp and I heard that all of them died. May I go in and
find out their condition?' The soldier pulled out his rifle and yelled at me:
`Go back.' I pleaded: `Be humane, help me, give me an answer.' The soldier
got angry and fired into the air. `Get out of here. I'll shoot you.' I said
to him: `Kill me,' I didn't have anything to live for any more. I didn't want
to go. I was certain that all of them had been killed, but doctors and male
nurses from the hospital pulled me inside."
When the curfew was lifted for two hours, Awis entered the camp. His house
had become a heap of rubble and he saw signs of fire. Of the nearby houses,
too, nothing remained and his neighbors had disappeared. When he found no one
in the camp who had seen his wife and his children, he sat down on the ruins
of his house and wept. For four days, he slept in his car next to the remains
of his house and did not move from there, hoping that his wife and children
"I wandered around the camp. People were going around as if deranged. It
stank. There was blood, corpses, an amputated leg, an amputated arm. I lost
hope," he said.
To the journalists who surrounded him, he related his distress, if the
quotation from Le Nouvel Observateur can be relied on: "It stinks of death
here. I am sure that my children are under the ruins. Come back in a week and
you will see the corpses."
The reporter from Le Nouvel Observateur did not bother to come back, to
discover that Awis had finally found an acquaintance who told him that he had
seen his wife and children in one of the villages in the area. The story of
the death of his children, which was published 15 days after Awis had found
his family, gained momentum in the foreign press. The IDF has not contented
itself with denying it. Even now, it is accusing Awis of lying deliberately,
as part of the comprehensive Palestinian effort "to create false evidence of
a brutal massacre carried out by Israel."
On the same terrible Wednesday, April 2, when Awis was on his way to his
partner, his wife, Imali Awis, 51, sat with her children and grandchildren on
the second floor of their house. "The camp was lit up by illumination
flares," she related. "This was usual and we didn't get excited. We're used
to Israeli soldiers occupying the camp for a day or two and then leaving."
However, not much time elapsed before it became obvious that the invasion was
not like its predecessors. For four days and four nights, Apache and Cobra
helicopters did not stop strafing the camp, said the mother and her
daughters, and even afterward, there were only brief lulls in the fighting.
"We saw missiles flying past us and we were terribly scared," recalled her
daughter Amani, 20, who wore a long back dress and whose pretty round face
peeped through her black head scarf. "My little boy, he's two, would leap up
and plug his ears even before the missile would explode. The nights were
especially hard. It was impossible to get the children to sleep. They would
cry all night and scream and wet their beds. This little one was throwing up
all the time, and we didn't shut an eye."
For nine days the Palestinian resistance held out against the Israeli
aggression, continued Amani. From one direction shells flew, from another
missiles. Her mother tried to distract her, but she put her off gently. She
remembers well the day the soldiers broke into their home, she said. It was
right in the middle of a phone conversation with her husband who is detained
in Ashkelon prison. He had been arrested the first day of the camp's
"Some 50 soldiers came into our home," related the mother. "They yelled at
us: `Get out of the house.' I said to them: `Where will I go? Outside the
helicopters and the tanks are firing. What will I do with the children?'" At
first the soldiers were willing to let them live in one of the shops on the
ground floor and they took over the other two floors. "We had nowhere to
move; we had to go to the toilet inside the room," she said. The next day,
the soldiers threatened them with rifles and ordered them to leave the house.
"I refused, I yelled that I wasn't leaving," said Imali Awis, replicating her
trilling cries. From the fate of her neighbors, she knew that the moment she
left the house, it would be demolished. "I didn't care about dying, I was
only afraid for the children," she said.
The Awis family, with its 10 children, went out into the street. "I was in
shock," continued the mother. "I didn't know which way to go. The war was
raging. In front of me stood a tank and the biggest bulldozer I have ever
seen. They didn't even let us take milk for the children, only two bottles of
Materna [powdered milk formula] that were in my two eldest daughters' bags.
We fled in house slippers. Amira, who was six months pregnant, went out
barefoot. Now she is in the hospital, apparently, with a premature birth
because of the fear and the pain over the arrest of her brother, Ali, in the
They began to walk aimlessly until they found an empty house and broke into
it. The next day other neighbors whose home had been hit by a shell came in,
as well as nine young men aged 20 to 35, some of whom were armed.
"The crowding was terrible, the water stank and was full of worms. In fact,
we were drinking sewage water," fumed Imali Awis. All of her children fell
ill and had to be hospitalized after the IDF withdrew. "After all we went
through, who wouldn't lose his health? Who didn't lose his sanity? They made
crazed beasts of us."
When the formula ran out, the mother went out of the house to find a
replacement. She held the empty box of Materna in her hand and waved it at
the soldiers. A soldier yelled at her from one of the roofs to stop, and she
yelled back: "Milk, milk," and kept walking, gripped with fear. Some soldiers
shoved her with their rifle butts back to the house.
The next day she went out again, she related, this time holding a baby who
was screaming with hunger, and was again forced to go back to the house. That
night most of the houses in the camp were demolished. Imali Awis left the
baby in his mother's arms and slipped through back alleys and through gaps
the soldiers had broken between houses. She broke into a shop and through a
crack in the door, she watched the killing of Hazam Kabha (Abu Jandal) of the
Tanzim, the leader of the resistance in the camp.
According to the IDF: "Unlike his men who were fighting together with him in
the same house and turned themselves in, Abu Jandal refused to surrender,
continued fighting and therefore met his death."
Three days later, Abu Jandal's body was still lying at that same place, she
stressed. "I would go out from time to time, despite the danger," she said.
"I like to know what's going on." Her daughters saw smoke rising from their
burned house when they went to bring water from a container in the stairwell.
The nine young men were caught by the IDF, bound with handcuffs, stripped of
their clothing and shut into one of the rooms. Tracking dogs that went from
room to room to locate explosive materials frightened the children.
"At that time they also demolished our house," sighed Imali. "May God burn
the hearts of those who burned down my house. For 30 years, I'd been living
in that house and the whole time I enlarged it and added things to it. We
have become homeless."
The moment the curfew was lifted, Imali Awis fled with her children to the
village of Qabatiyah. At the same time, her husband came into the camp to
look for his family. People told her that they thought Abu Ali had died.
Several days later, she returned to the camp to look for him, she related,
and someone told her that Abu Ali had lost his mind, was slapping himself and
screaming: "My children are dead, my children are dead."
About their meeting again there was little to tell. "Normal. I was pleased
and very angry at everything we'd been through. I don't want to imagine how
the Israelis would have reacted if they had experienced only five minutes of
what we went through. What has Sharon gained from this war? He's a crazy
person, sending an army against civilians."
Response of Rene Backman, foreign news editor of Le Nouvel Observateur
"I tried to get into Jenin before Benjamin Barthe's article was published in
our weekly. I did not succeed. Several days later we tried to get in, but we
did not succeed because the army blocked entry to foreign journalists. I went
back to Jerusalem, and our correspondent stayed behind at Salameh to wait.
"Finally, the army opened the refugee camp and Barthe went in with the other
journalists. I asked him to interview the people who had been affected and to
photograph them - I have always believed that photographing adds reliability
to the testimony of interviewees. I had not worked with Barthe before then.
He writes as a freelancer and is a serious fellow. The interviewees told him
about the destruction of the camp and about their homes that had been
demolished. At that time, I interviewed refugees who had been stuck outside
the camp or had fled from it. Abu Ali's testimony was absolutely congruent
with the other testimonies we collected.
"At that time, the ruins of the houses had not yet been cleared away. The
inhabitants stood next to them and did not know whether members of their
families were buried among them or not. Some time later, I read the main
points of the speech by the editor of Ha'aretz, Hanoch Marmari, at a
convention of newspaper publishers and editors in Bruges, Belgium, and it
turned out that Abu Ali's children were alive. I was glad to hear of this and
that the father's fears, as he had related them to the reporter for our
newspaper, had been proved false. Journalists are only human and they can
err. The same is true of interviewees. Abu Ali had related that his children
were dead, because he really believed that.
"It is our task to publish. There is no call to publish a correction or a
denial. Now perhaps we will send our reporter to interview the father again,
as well as people whose children have disappeared and have not been found.
"All this would not have happened had the army allowed journalists access to
the camp so that we could carry out our duties properly. When there is
nothing to hide, a camp is not closed. Apparently there was and there still
is something to hide.
"Israeli commentators came out against the foreign journalists who used the
expression `massacre' to describe what had happened at the refugee camp in
Jenin. In our paper, we never used that expression, but rather more delicate
expressions, such as 'carnage.'" (Daniel Ben Simon)