- 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
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
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,"
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
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
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.