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BTL Interviews HRW's Joe Stork On Jenin

From the radio newsmagazine Between The Lines

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in mainstream media for release May 6, 2002

Israel Blocks UN Team From Investigating Jenin Refugee Camp Human Rights Violations

Joe Stork, of Human Rights Watch, summarizes his group's report on the conduct of the Israeli military's conduct in Jenin.

Interview by Scott Harris

Weeks after President Bush demanded that Israel withdraw its forces from West Bank cities, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched several new attacks on Palestinian communities, including Hebron, inside the disputed territories. While negotiators made progress on ending the Israeli siege of Yasir Arafat's Ramallah headquarters (the stand-off at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity was unresolved when this interview was conducted), where more than 50 Palestinians were surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks.

Israel claims that 25 of those inside Christianity's most holy site are wanted on terrorism charges.

Another stalemate continued in the United Nations effort to investigate the conduct of Israeli troops during their 8-day attack on the Jenin refugee camp. Allegations by Palestinians that Israeli forces had committed a massacre there are still unsubstantiated; but Sharon has blocked a U.N. team from entering the camp to begin its Security Council-endorsed human rights investigation, and has also barred access to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Mary Robinson. Israel has complained about the composition and mission of the U.N. team.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Division. He assesses the conduct of Israeli troops in their assault of the Jenin refugee camp, and the precedents which could be set in this affair for future international human rights investigations.

(This interview was conducted several days before U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan disbanded the U.N. fact-finding mission in the face of Israeli intransigence, and just before Human Rights Watch released its own report on the conduct of Israeli military operations in Jenin.)

Joe Stork: I think our concern in this latest assault is basically the same as it has been ever since the outbreak of clashes a year and a half ago, and that's namely that civilians -- civilians on both sides -- have been paying the highest price. In the case of the attacks of the last couple of weeks, I think Jenin is in a sense only the tip of the iceberg. I think we're talking about basically a humanitarian catastrophe; destruction on a wide scale, a pattern of unlawful killings of unarmed civilians. We have a team that's been in Jenin for the last couple of weeks. We have not found evidence; we don't think there is evidence of any widespread killings numbering in the hundreds as some allegations have had it. But nevertheless we've found a pattern of very, very serious violations of humanitarian law in some cases requiring criminal investigation.

Between The Lines: Could you go into detail about some of what your team has found in Jenin?

Joe Stork: One thing we've found is a very disturbing pattern of willful killings, killings of civilians in circumstances where there doesn't appear to have been any military justification -- in cases where there was not ongoing armed conflict. So, that's one thing.

Another thing that's incontrovertible is that the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, basically prevented any humanitarian access, and medical access for the sick and wounded -- not only during the period when the clashes were going on, but also for several days afterwards, badly aggravating an already terrible situation.

Between The Lines: Have you been able to confirm some of the reports that we've seen in the press about houses bulldozed on top of Palestinian civilians -- killing or injuring them -- and other reports where the Israeli forces were using civilians as human shields as they made their way around the conflict zone?

Joe Stork: In brief, yes we did find that there was extensive destruction to civilian property, again on a scale that appears to be unrelated to any consideration of military necessity. In fact, the most severe destruction using the armored bulldozers came at a point after the fighting had essentially died down. This suggests that we're looking at a policy of what amounts to collective punishment rather than something designed to meet a military objective.

Between The Lines: Can you comment for us on the difficulties that the United Nations has had in getting their team of investigators into the Jenin refugee camp, specifically to look into allegations of human rights abuses there?

Joe Stork: My reading of what's going on -- and for the Israeli government's about-face on this after first agreeing to it -- is that as it has become pretty clear that the term massacre, as used to apply to say hundreds of civilians in the fighting in Jenin, that those allegations are not substantiated. What we're looking at instead are, certainly less numerous deaths of civilians, but still, as I've said in circumstances that warrant investigation and in some cases criminal investigation. It is at this point that the Israeli government has decided that they don't want anybody poking around. I'll let your listeners determine if this amounts to a cover up or not. But I think that it's a very serious matter and we certainly have urged the government of Israel to cooperate fully with the U.N. fact-finding team.

Between The Lines: The government of Israel has objected to one or more members of the United Nations investigative team. In the minds of the Human Rights Watch staff, what are the precedents for this in the past and what are some of the ramifications for future human rights delegations from the U.N. if countries that are being investigated can somehow screen or select their own investigators?

Joe Stork: Israel is not the first country that -- when it has come under this kind of international scrutiny and where there has been some form of international investigation mandated through the U.N. -- that has tried to, as you say "screen," determine who would actually come and carry out the investigation. (The country involved tries to) basically establish a veto over the persons delegated to that task.

We had that situation a couple of years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance. We had it in Burundi. You have it in Iraq with the efforts of the Iraqi government to determine who is acceptable to them to conduct arms inspections. So as I say it's a familiar pattern. In those cases the U.N. has held firm, in fact. So far the secretary general has held firm in this case as well.

The need for this kind of accountability lies not only on the Israeli side, it also lies on the Palestinian side. Some of these atrocities that have been carried out by Palestinian militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, these too involve targeting civilians -- absolutely crimes of war. So there's no question that the issue of accountability applies to the same to degree to those kinds of crimes.

Read the Human Rights Watch report on Israeli Military Operations in Jenin on their Web site
See related links and listen to an excerpt of this interview in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: for the week ending 5/10/02

Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending May 10, 2002.

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