Israel insists no massacre in Jenin West Bank turns into battleground for world opinion

JERUSALEM — As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues to rage, the perception of what happened in the Jenin refugee camp could prove to be a turning point in the battle for world opinion.

So what, as far as we know, did happen in Jenin?

Israel says it can prove that:

*There was no massacre.

*There was no deliberate targeting of civilians.

*The Jenin refugee camp was a major center of Palestinian terror, used especially by Islamic Jihad to send suicide bombers into Israel on a regular basis.

The Palestinians have released information on every suicide bomber since the intifada began in the fall of 2000. About a quarter of them set out from the Jenin refugee camp.

Despite Israel's contentions, however, the Palestinians have bested them in the all-important media war.

European hyperbole delivered in the immediate aftermath of the fighting in Jenin was strongly anti-Israel. A London Times headline read: "The Camp of Death," conjuring up a clear association with Nazi death camps like Auschwitz.

And U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, as he walked through the rubble in the Jenin refugee camp last week, just three days after the fighting had died down, virtually accused Israel of war crimes and spoke of "a shameful chapter in Israel's history."

Such salvos against Israel appeared to have come easily. Historians say the reasons for it are many and complex.

But it is a phenomenon of more than passing academic interest, for it feeds into a consistent Palestinian narrative aimed at delegitimizing Israel in the most fundamental way.

Political observers now contend that Jenin was a human tragedy waiting to happen from the moment Israel launched its military operation.

They said that from day one of the intifada, Yasser Arafat's strategy has been to provoke Israel into overreacting, to get the international community to step in and to force concessions he could not otherwise get.

Arafat had strategically characterized the military operation of the past month, and especially the events in the Jenin refugee camp, as indiscriminate and a criminal use of overwhelming military force. Observers say this strategy has given the Palestinians the image of the underdog.

Israel initially lent its support to a United Nations-sponsored fact-finding team that planned to investigate events in Jenin. Israeli leaders were confident the team would find there was no massacre there.

But late Tuesday, Israel raised objections to the composition of the team and the scope of its mandate, arguing that the United Nations seemed to be stacking the team and defining its goals in a way that would prejudice it against Israel.

The team should include military and counter-terrorism experts, Israel said, should be limited to Jenin, and should examine not just Israel's actions but the terror network that had flourished in Jenin and prompted the Israeli invasion.

Attempts continued Wednesday to address the impasse, and both Israeli and U.N. sources seemed to feel that the dispute would be resolved before the team arrived this weekend.

"Israel has nothing to hide regarding the operation in Jenin," Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last Friday, according to officials at Israel's Mission to the United Nations. "Our hands are clean."

The beginning of Israel's 12-day action in Jenin started April 3. According to Israeli soldiers who took part in the battle, armed Palestinian gunmen had taken up positions inside the buildings. Explosive charges were strewn all over the camp. Some of the buildings were booby-trapped.

In some cases, Palestinian gunmen forced civilians to remain holed up with them. Israeli soldiers entered the camp from four directions, forcing the Palestinian fighters away from civilians into a small central area.

Israeli soldiers, using loudspeakers, called on all Palestinians who did not want to fight to leave the camp peacefully. Some did and were not harmed.

Israeli reservists, fighting from house to house, encountered fierce resistance and had to regroup.

Israeli military experts said they could easily have solved the military problem, as most other Western armies probably would have done, by sending in fighter planes or using heavy artillery.

In both cases, resistance would have been broken in hours. But civilian casualties would have been heavy. Israel chose instead the much more hazardous house-to-house ground combat, precisely to avoid causing civilian casualties.

It now appears fewer than 100 Palestinians, mostly armed fighters, were killed, Israel claims. In support of that, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Wednesday he has no evidence of an Israeli massacre of Palestinians at the Jenin camp.

"Clearly, innocent lives may well have been lost,'' Powell testified. But, he said, "I have no evidence of mass graves. I see no evidence that would support a massacre took place."

When helicopters were called in to Jenin, it was to silence heavy fire from precise locations, Israel's military leaders say. All the houses in the camp had code numbers and the pilots were able to make precise hits.

But seven days after it started, the fighting was still fierce.

On April 9, 13 reserve paratroopers were killed when a booby-trapped building exploded and collapsed on them.

It was then the Israelis decided to bring in the bulldozers to destroy potentially booby-trapped buildings as Israel Defense Force soldiers closed in on the gunmen.

The soldiers say they did all they could to make sure houses were empty before bulldozing them.

During the fighting, Israel supplied truckloads of food to the camp, and a generator and oxygen to the Jenin hospital. Israel also offered blood, which was rejected. Israeli army doctors and medics say they treated injured Palestinians.

Every stage of the Jenin operation was filmed and this material, Israeli officials say, will help prove the Israeli case.

The officials are confident the U.N. mission will corroborate their account and lay to rest the Palestinian claims of a massacre.

As for the question of humanitarian aid after the battle, the Israelis say it was the Palestinians who objected to the IDF burying the dead and refused Israeli offers of assistance.

International aid and relief agencies were not allowed into the camp for three days after the fighting, the Israelis say, because of fear for their safety. And they point out that several people were wounded by explosive devices and booby-trapped bodies after the IDF left.

The Israelis also intend to raise with the fact-finding team the fact that the refugee camp was administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Yet a culture of terror and death was allowed to thrive in the camp. Posters of suicide bombers adorned the walls everywhere. And the camps' young children were taught to emulate them.

Armed elements, who by international law should not have been allowed in the camp, actually controlled it.

Israeli officials are asking how the United Nations, so quick to point fingers at Israel, had not only tolerated this situation, but had never lodged a single complaint about it.

For the Palestinians, Jenin has spawned two new national myths, regardless of what the fact-finding commission reports: the myth of heroic resistance against a superior Israeli force, and the myth of an Israeli massacre.