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What Happened in Jenin?

May 10, 2002

As violence continues in Israel and Palestine, so does debate over what exactly happened during Israel's invasion of the Jenin refugee camp. Israel barred journalists and aid workers alike from the camp during the invasions, but as access restrictions have eased, human rights groups have issued graphic reports detailing evidence of human rights violations by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and possible war crimes.

Some media accounts, too, have vividly described the damage across the West Bank: One New York Times story (4/11/02) reported that "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." Lately, however, much U.S. coverage and commentary has passed over investigations of whether the IDF committed widespread rights abuses in favor of narrower-- and less meaningful-- wrangling over whether or not the IDF committed a "massacre."

Amnesty International has emphasized that "there is no legal definition in international law of the word 'massacre'," and that using the term in reference to Jenin "is not helpful" for determining whether the IDF violated human rights there (AI press release, 4/29/02). Nevertheless, the "massacre" question has become central to many journalists' approach to the story-- even when they don't have a working definition of the word.

One illustration of how poorly media have thought through the concept came when CNBC's Chris Matthews (Hardball, 4/16/02) asked chief PLO representative to the U.S. Hasan Abdel Rahman whether he had evidence of a massacre in Jenin. Rahman turned the tables, asking, "Well, first of all, what's a massacre?" With disquieting vagueness, Matthews replied, "Oh, a couple hundred people or civilians or ten or 20 civilians."

Most early estimates in the U.S. press of the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin ranged from 100 to 200. Media were caught up in the implications for Israel's image, declaring Jenin a "diplomatic and public relations minefield" (CBS Evening News, 4/24/02). As initial excavation work got underway, however, those original figures were downgraded, and the question for many news outlets became whether Palestinians had manufactured "massacre" claims. In fact, many of those early casualty figures had been provided by Israeli officials. "The Israeli army estimates that it killed 100 to 200 people in eight days of fighting," reported CBS Evening News on April 12. On ABC's Nightline (4/11/02), Dave Marash reported that Israeli defense forces "estimate 100 Palestinian fighters were killed there, but refused to say where the bodies are, and they continue to bar news people from the camp."

Once Human Rights Watch (HRW) gained access to the camp, the group was able to document 52 people killed by the IDF, including 22 civilians, many of whom "were killed willfully or unlawfully" (press release, 5/3/02). HRW's report on Jenin didn't focus on the sheer numbers of dead, however. Instead, the bulk of the report catalogued a pattern of serious human rights violations in Jenin, some of which the group says may be war crimes. The abuses include attacking and killing medical personnel, using civilians as human shields, failing to distinguish between military targets and civilian homes, and causing "extensive and disproportionate destruction of the civilian infrastructure"-- so much so that more than a quarter of Jenin's population is now homeless.

Amnesty International announced similar findings in a May 4 report, "The Heavy Price of Israeli Incursions," which condemned the IDF invasions of the Occupied Territories as collective punishment of Palestinians. The report documents "unlawful killings, destruction of property and arbitrary detention [and] torture and ill-treatment" by the IDF, and states that many of these actions violated human rights and international law.

The HRW and Amnesty reports were very direct in their conclusions, but some journalists nonetheless managed to miss the point. On NPR's May 4 "Weekend Edition," anchor Scott Simon asked NPR analyst Daniel Schorr to explain what the newly released reports said about Jenin. Schorr said:

"Human Rights Watch has found that there was no massacre as such. Yes, there were a couple of things that were not very nice. They found Israelis destroyed more buildings than they absolutely had to. The Israelis say they had to 'cause they thought they were booby trapped, but Human Rights Watch says sometimes human beings were used as human shields. Maybe. Some things happened which were not terribly, terribly nice, and I'm sure they happened a lot. But if the question is raised that 'Was there a deliberate massacre of civilians in Jenin?' the answer seems to come out no. "

It's hard to imagine a mainstream U.S. commentator characterizing civilians being "killed willfully or unlawfully" as "a couple of things that were not very nice"-- if the perpetrators were an official U.S. enemy, like Serbia or Iraq. And, of course, in large part it's up to Schorr and his media colleagues to decide which questions are raised about Jenin.

Some of those colleagues gave up even on the narrow question of a massacre, taking the troubling stance that the facts may never be known, or might not even matter. As CBS Evening News correspondent Mark Phillips put it on April 18, "Did a wholesale massacre take place here? In terms of the hostility between Palestinians and Israelis, it almost doesn't matter. Perceptions are what count, and Jenin has already become another reason for mistrust, hatred and revenge."

The following night, CNN's Christiane Amanpour reached a similar conclusion: "Jenin will remain for the Palestinians a place of myth and legend and perhaps even a place of revenge." The same day, NPR's Julie McCarthy commented that "The story of Jenin is set to live on in memory and myth." On April 20, CBS's Phillips still didn't know who to trust: "What happened in Jenin depends on who you believe."

Of course, the job of a journalist is to separate myth from fact, and to investigate conflicting claims to see which are true. Even when journalists did try to report what happened at Jenin, however, that reporting was sometimes sanitized beyond recognition. Consider this description from the New York Times on April 21: "As Israeli forces pursued militants, civilians continued getting in the way and dying as a result."

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