What: The Israeli military’s siege and invasion of the Palestinian Jenin refugee camp during the Second Intifada, resulting in at least 52 Palestinians being indiscriminately massacred and over 13,000 made refugees again.
When: 3 April – 11 April, 2002
Where: Jenin, northern West Bank
As the Second Intifada raged on throughout Palestine in 2002, Israel planned to launch the largest mobilisation of its military in the occupied West Bank since the 1967 war. The target was the Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Jenin. Reportedly in response to a series of suicide bombings in Israel during the weeks prior to the attack, the attack – named Operation Defensive Shield – was claimed as a defensive measure by the Israeli military, to root out and eliminate Palestinian militants and resistance fighters who lived within the camp.
Housing around 14,000 people within a square mile, the Jenin camp – administered by the United Nations – was put under siege by the Israelis, who prevented anyone from leaving or entering, and cut off electricity, water, food and medical supplies to the residents. On 3 April, the invasion of the camp formally began, resulting in armed clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters in scenes of fierce urban warfare.
The Israeli military’s mass of reinforcements and siege of the camp were apparently not enough, however, as over the following days it deployed overwhelming and disproportionate force in the form of 150 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and 12 armoured bulldozers to clear the area of any obstacle. The attack was even conducted aerially, with Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets battering the camp from above.
By the end of the battle on 11 April, at least 52 Palestinians were found to have been killed, with some sources putting the number even higher due to the Israelis’ efforts to conceal the atrocities. Dozens of those killed were also civilians, who died by brutal and horrific causes during the indiscriminate attacks.
Examples of such deaths included that of 14-year-old Muhammad Hawashin, who was shot twice in the face as he walked with a group of women and children towards the local hospital, as well as the 57-year-old wheelchair-bound Kamal Zghair, who was shot and run over by Israeli tanks as he wheeled himself down the road to his home while carrying a white flag.
A woman named Afaf Disuqi was killed by a bomb thrown by Israeli soldiers after she responded to a knock on her door, after which eyewitnesses revealed that the soldiers laughed as she was taken out by the blast. There was also evidence of summary executions by Israeli forces, such as that of Jamal Al-Sabbagh, who was shot while obeying orders to remove his clothes.
Aside from the killings, over 13,000 Palestinian residents of the Jenin refugee camp were forced to flee, becoming refugees upon refugees – the camp was set up in 1953 to host the initial refugees driven out of their land and homes during Israel’s early years.
All the while, Israeli forces in their tanks and bulldozers continued to destroy what remained of the camp, recklessly desecrating the homes where families once lived.
What happened after?
Following the lifting of the siege, there was much debate over whether the killing of the Palestinians was a massacre or not, with those on the Israeli side denying that it was and claiming that no war crimes were committed. Figuring out if the killings fitted the dictionary definition of an “act or instance of killing a large number of humans indiscriminately and cruelly” was apparently difficult, though, as journalists and media were forbidden access to the camp and site of the attacks during the operation.
As the human rights group, Amnesty International, said in its report on the operation: “Palestinian residents and Palestinian and foreign journalists and others outside the camp saw hundreds of missiles being fired into the houses of the camp from Apache helicopters flying sortie after sortie.” Despite suspicions that a massacre was taking place, the “tight cordon round the refugee camp and the main hospital from 4-17 April meant that the outside world had no means of knowing what was going on inside the camp.”
A 48-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) then shed further light on the issue, acknowledging that “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie [on first impression] to war crimes.”
It also stated that the presence of Palestinian resistance fighters “does not detract from the IDF’s obligation, under international humanitarian law, to take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians. Israel also has a legal duty to ensure that its attacks on legitimate military targets did not cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Unfortunately, these obligations were not met.”
HRW ruled in its report, however, that it “found no evidence to sustain claims of massacres or large-scale extrajudicial executions by the IDF in Jenin refugee camp”, even though many of the deaths “amounted to unlawful or wilful killings”. It was that particular section which the Israeli military and media pinpointed as apparent evidence that no massacre was committed.
That also raises the fact that, following the siege and attack, there was notable solidarity with Israel by much of Western media, with representatives of many media outlets reportedly landing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to swing the attention towards the alleged heroism of the Israeli military and praising it for its fight against Palestinian “terror”.
Such preferential treatment towards an occupying force would be unthinkable now, 20 years later, when there is massive media condemnation against the likes of the Russian military in its invasion of Ukraine.
Instead of drawing attention to the plight of new Palestinian refugees, the cries of family members at the mutilation of their loved ones, and the atrocities committed in the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians – something many now realise Israel and Russia share in common – Western media, at the time, had a very different approach.
As outrage is rightfully being sparked by the recent Bucha massacre committed by Russian forces in Ukraine last month, it is essential that the massacre of Palestinian civilians during the siege and attack on Jenin is also remembered as the tragedy and war crime that it was, in 2002.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.