| Jenin Refugee Camp Eyewitness|
With Peter Holland
Oxfam-Québec relief worker
Friday, April 19, 2002; 2 p.m. EDT
"Palestinians displaced by the fighting in Jenin continued to trickle back to their neighborhoods. Some sat numbly on ruins where their homes once stood. Others used buckets, shovels and their bare hands to dig through concrete that had been pulverized, searching for prized possessions and sometimes the remains of relatives.
A spokesman for the Israeli army, Capt. Samuel Benalal, said soldiers have "not in any cases disturbed the distribution of humanitarian aid" and have only barred rescue crews from working in the camp out of concern about booby traps, some of which the Israeli military said have been found wired to corpses." U.N. Envoy Calls Camp 'Horrifying', (Jenin - Post, April 19).
Peter Holland, an Oxfam-Québec relief worker, gave an eyewitness account of the current conditions of the Jenin refugee camp on Friday, April 19 at 2 p.m. EDT.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Peter ~ Are we looking at war crimes material in Jenin? And, do you believe there will be another cover-up to avoid getting to the facts on this mess by Israel? Is there any interest in the international community to pursue this line of inquiry?
Thanks for your thoughts.
Peter Holland: I can't answer to war crimes or no war crimes or to any political issues as to the testimonies that I'm hearing.
But I can speak to the humanitarian relief.
What the convoy has seen today is people wandering around in shock wondering how to track down their family members whether they are still in the camp or in the surrounding villages. This was their priority, not to feed themselves or to find shelter but to find their family members.
Arlington, Va.: Have you seen any evidence of deliberate mass executions in Jenin, akin to what was seen in Kosovo? Or do the recovered dead appear to be have been caught in the middle of fierce fighting between Palestinian militants and Israelis (who lost 23 soldiers in Jenin)? If deliberate massacre was the aim of the Israelis (as is claimed by the Palestinians), why didn't other Palestinian areas face a similar fate?
Peter Holland: Some of the reports that we've been hearing from people who we deliver humanitarian assistance is that about 15 men have been lined up and had been executed. This is an eyewitness testimony but I can't attest to if they were armed fighters. People have told us about family members being trapped in their homes. The bulldozers would have come and bulldozed the homes while the family members were trapped inside and mothers would have scrambled to get as many of their children out and would have left some behind.
We know that there was resistance to the Israeli soldiers as they were invading the area. One of the reasons that might lead to families hesitant to leave their homes is that Jenin is a refugee camp for 50 years and they know what had happened the first time they left their homes during the occupation and they were hesitant to leave their home this time under the circumstances of the Israeli military aggression.
Toronto, Ontario: Do you believe, from what you saw and your discussions with any witnesses, that it is possible, or probable, that the Israeli Army intentionally hid any signs of a massacre?
Peter Holland: What is a massacre and what isn't a massacre. Let's not focus on the semantics. What is evident is that scores of civilians have been killed by the Israeli army in this latest invasion. We have eyewitness reports of arbitrary attacks by Apache helicopters on the refugee camp that has led to civilian deaths.
Bethesda, Md.: Peter: What do you think should be done about the damage/destruction Israel has done in Jenin and elsewhere. I know you are not a politician, but what is your personal opinion?
Peter Holland: I think that Israel should be held accountable by the international community for its actions. The European Union has put a price tag to damages caused to European funded development projects. The Canadian government is conducting a similar assessment of how Canadian tax money has been damaged by the Israeli army.
Will international tax payers have to foot this bill as well?
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Holland,
What is the situation in the Jenin Refugee Camp? Are all humanitarian relief workers being kept out at all times or are there certain times of the day that they are being allowed in?
It appears as though the Israeli government has something to hide by keeping out relief agencies as well as news reporters.
Peter Holland: Some of the areas of the camp have been accessible by the U.N. and the international committee of the red cross since Tuesday. After having tried to gain access to the camp for 9 days running, still today some areas of the camp remain inaccessible. Access is granted under Israeli army escort --this includes press.
Speaking with aid workers that are here and were in Afghanistan -- they found it appalling in Afghanistan that it took an entire day to obtain access to one of the refugee camps for medical attention. For them, this was an outrageous delay in keeping people from accessing their basic rights for medical services. Before Tuesday, the international aid agencies spent 10 DAYS trying to gain access to the Jenin camp. The restrictions on access for the humanitarian aid agencies to the Jenin camp are unprecedented. The Israeli army offers that this is for the security of the Red Cross and the U.N. However, in the last few days, civilians have finally gained access to the camp and have been wandering the various alleys without signs to the threat of their security. If it is safe for the Palestinian civilians, wouldn't it be safe for the relief workers? If there are risks to be taken, that should be the decision of the Red Cross.
Peter Holland: The convoys that we have been coordinating are for the two northern cities of Jenin and Nablus. While Jenin has benefited from much of the media attention, the humanitarian needs in Nablus are perhaps more acute. As of yesterday, it is estimated that 40,000 in the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Nablus were entering their 15th day without water. Today, we sent convoys to both Jenin and Nablus. The convoy to Nablus consisted mostly of water and some baby food and medicines for chronic illnesses. The convoy to Jenin focused on baby food and medicine for chronic illnesses but blankets and mattresses for the displaced people there. The convoys left this morning at 6 a.m. from Jerusalem. The convoy arrived at 7 a.m. in Nablus but were not able to get in until 7 hours after 2 hours of negotiating and following procedures of the Israeli army indicative that access to these areas is arbitrary and that humanitarian assistance is not on the agenda of the Israeli army. It was a great ordeal and we had to turn around the first 3 vehicles of our 14 vehicle convoy. At that time, the Israeli army had finally told us that we could enter. Prior to that, the Israeli army had only offered us one choice in that you were allowed to have Palestinian trucks come from Nablus to meet the convoy about 6 miles from the city. This would have been an impossible alternative because the army knew that civilians would not risk their lives to break the army's curfew to send trucks to meet us -- because the Israeli snipers are in the city to enforce the curfew.
I think everyone here would like to know a definitive answer from you on what happened? What is your analysis of what occurred in Jenin?
Peter Holland: What the convoy witnessed in Jenin today were scores of people searching for their families. Since yesterday, we had received reports of voices being heard under the rubble. Speaking with a diplomat yesterday, the international committee of the Red Cross had requested land removal equipment (similar to use in earthquake situation). Colleagues of mine attest to knowing how to differentiate the smell of dead human corpses from animal corpses.
I spent more time with refugees and heard stories of those who have left their families in the outskirts of the Jenin camp. I have been delivering supplies to people who have left that zone. Because of the restrictions, we don't have definite numbers. We're estimating that there have been at least 3,000 people are re-refugees from the Jenin camp today. Throughout the whole week, I only had 3 hours of rest this week.
Peter Holland: I'm going to have Heather Guyton who works for the International solidarity movement talk about some of the current conditions.
Heather: The camp is devastated and only one square kilometer with about 15.000 people live there. Currently, the medical relief believes that half of that population is homeless due to the Israeli incursion. The piles of the 3-story houses are gigantic. Because the curfew was lifted today, the Palestinians were able to get under some of the rubble and removed dead bodies. The houses were bulldozed on top of people before they could get out. Today we found pieces of bodies and continued with other ISM to bring in aid for primarily infants. There are still no fresh fruits or vegetables and we had been bringing in powdered milk and water. They had not had water for 18 days. The situation is a humanitarian catastrophe.
As an Arab-American, I'm beyond understanding why this has happened. Despite the news that the Israeli army had pulled out, that is not the case. They had merely moved to the edge of the city and the camp. We expect them to move back into the camp tomorrow. Today I have found Israeli booby-traps in homes. The armorment are in English and some have inscriptions of "Made in USA" so it is not conjecture that the IDS is claiming that they had not left these traps anywhere. Yesterday, I was in a house next door to a 16 year-old Palestinian boy who picked up a trap not knowing what it was and it blew his hand off. It was just a bloody stump and I was the first person there to respond and saw another 10 year-old child who was not hurt but was in absolute shock.
Yesterday, the curfew was lifted for the specific purpose of retrieving corpses but the Israelis shot five men. We don't know why they were shot and we had heard the shots and received the corpses quickly. The corpses that we are bringing out of the rubble are as old as seven days.
The camp is in an extremely devastating state and is completely unbelievable.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company