Jenin - 'Israeli Soldiers Dug
The Hole Four Days Ago'
By David Blair
The Daily Telegraph - London With Files From AP

JENIN, West Bank - With Israeli tanks roaring through the streets around him yesterday and gunfire echoing from the refugee camps nearby, a Palestinian said a bulldozer had entombed a row of bodies in a mass grave.

Israeli soldiers dug the hole four days ago, Daud said, and filled it yesterday morning with "hundreds" of corpses of Palestinians killed during the battle for the West Bank town of Jenin.

This operation has become the costliest of Israel's onslaught against areas controlled by the Palestinian authority: 23 soldiers have been lost, including 13 killed during one ambush. Yet the number of Palestinian dead has aroused the fiercest controversy.

People in the towns around Jenin say more than 500 were killed, while in the neighbouring village of Burqin, 384 child refugees are being cared for. By contrast, Israeli military sources put the Palestinian death toll at 100.

Jenin has been declared a closed military zone, from which the Israelis have sought to exclude journalists and aid workers alike. The ring of steel around the town, and particularly the refugee camp where the fighting was fiercest, has prompted accusations that Israeli soldiers are covering up the human toll of their operation.

By following a goat path over a rocky hilltop, it was possible to reach Jenin yesterday. Clouds of dust rose into the air as two tanks and six armoured personnel carriers roared along the main highway.

Watching from the hills above were another six tanks, while the grating whine of the engines of those moving among the ramshackle streets was constantly audible.

Inside the town, Daud (not his real name) said he had fled the refugee camp half an hour earlier.

"All the houses have been hit by missiles; 400 houses have been destroyed," he said.

Supported by Apache Attack Helicopters, Israeli troops fought for control of the Jenin refugee camp, house by house.

Daud, who is in his 40s, accused the troops of killing civilians who crossed their path. He described how the body of a 10-year-old boy, whose arm had been blown off, lay unburied in the street for three days.

But according to Daud, Israeli soldiers had just completed a major effort to hide the corpses.

On Monday, he said, they brought bulldozers to dig a large hole in the Harat al-Harashin area of the Jenin refugee camp, where the destruction was greatest.

He claimed to have seen bodies being thrown into this hole. He claimed to recognize two of the dead and named them as Mohamed Kamal and Nidal Mubani.

By yesterday the grave was full, he said: "A huge bulldozer came and covered the bodies with earth. They are all buried."

Asked how many bodies the grave contained, Daud said "hundreds."

But he only saw two corpses being placed inside it himself.

His story is impossible to verify, for Israeli soldiers have succeeded in sealing off the Jenin camp. Nonetheless, the wisdom of digging a mass grave in a Palestinian refugee camp is questionable, as it would surely to be dug up as soon as calm returned.

An Israeli army spokesman dismissed the mass grave story.

"It's just a story. It's science fiction. We deal with this sort of fiction whenever we have operations," he said.

Brig.-Gen. Ron Kitrey said Israel began collecting bodies yesterday. Several witnesses claimed they saw dozens of bodies being carried away early in the morning in military trucks, but the army would not confirm whether any bodies had been removed and whether burials had taken place.

Gen. Kitrey said the bodies of gunmen would be buried at a special cemetery in the Jordan Valley -- a forlorn field where Lebanese fighters killed in cross-border clashes have been buried in graves marked only by numbers. During the Lebanon conflict, some of those bodies were dug up and repatriated in body swaps with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

"The terrorists we found with guns we are going to bury in what we call the enemy cemetery site," Gen. Kitrey said. "The civilians we will try to give back to the Palestinians."

Word that Israel was going to remove some of the bodies immediately prompted Palestinian accusations of a cover-up, but Gen. Kitrey denied Israel was trying to keep secret what had gone on inside the camp.

While it may be impossible to confirm any of the claims, people in Jenin offer numerous accounts of Israeli soldiers killing civilians.

Barakhat Jaba'i said he saw his house being destroyed by a missile fired from an Apache helicopter. A neighbouring house, he added, was hit and all four people inside were killed.

International aid agencies have criticized Israel for sealing off areas and harassing relief workers. The International Red Cross said its Palestinian staff had been shot at and "humiliated" by Israeli soldiers.

Saeb Erakat, the senior Palestinian official who led his side's delegations when peace talks were still being held with Israel, called on Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, to visit the Jenin camp himself and asked the United Nations to take action.

"We call on the United Nations to immediately create an international commission of inquiry on the Israeli massacres at Jenin because it is a UN-administered refugee camp," he said.

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