The U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, stood on a pile of rubble and surveyed a landscape of wretchedness and destruction. Just a few feet away, two middle-aged brothers used plastic buckets to excavate the ruins of their former home and unearthed a partial human torso. It was all that remained of their father.
"What we are seeing here is horrifying -- horrifying scenes of human suffering," said Roed-Larsen, who helped shepherd Palestinians and Israelis toward the 1993 Oslo peace accords. "Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict."
After trying for 11 days, Roed-Larsen got permission from the Israeli army today to enter the Jenin refugee camp, where a two-week battle killed 23 Israeli soldiers and an unknown number of Palestinian fighters and civilians. Palestinians have said they incurred significantly higher casualties.
Once inside the camp, where 13,000 Palestinians lived until recently, Roed-Larsen accused Israel of compounding human suffering by refusing to allow in search-and-rescue teams with heavy equipment and dogs, suggesting that some people could still be alive beneath the rubble.
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. He repeated army denials that noncombatants had been deliberately buried in their homes by army bulldozers, saying that soldiers "several times a day" offered residents a chance to leave and that many of them chose to do so.
"Most of the people left the refugee camp, and once we were sure that the people who stayed in were fighters and not civilians, we decided to fight against them," Benalal said. "In some cases, the booby-trapping and the kind of operations they planned to do with those buildings forced us to destroy those buildings."
Israel said the area remained a closed military zone, and tried to keep out journalists and human rights investigators. But many eluded army checkpoints by driving or walking through surrounding villages and vegetable fields.
The army withdrew the last of its tanks from the camp this morning, apparently having achieved its mission of driving out armed Palestinians accused of using Jenin as a launching pad for suicide bombing missions against Israeli citizens. The tanks have been repositioned on surrounding hills.
[The Associated Press, citing Israeli radio, reported early Friday that Israeli forces had completed their pullback from Jenin. Also Friday, Israeli troops moved briefly into Palestinian-controlled territory in Gaza near the border with Egypt. Palestinian doctors said two people were killed by Israeli gunfire.
[In addition, Army Radio reported that Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Qalqilyah, describing the operation as a pinpoint mission, not a reoccupation of the town.]
The partial pullout today followed pledges by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would withdraw not only from Jenin but also from Nablus and parts of Ramallah in the next few days.
All are major West Bank cities that have been occupied by Israeli forces in the course of their three-week-old offensive in the West Bank, the latest and most violent chapter in the Palestinian uprising that erupted in September 2000. Although the shooting has ebbed in recent days, and almost a week has passed since the last suicide bombing in Israel, there was no sign of an end to the offensive.
Israeli troops maintained their siege of the Ramallah compound of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, as well as around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where about 200 Palestinian gunmen and other officials have taken refuge along with dozens of clergy members. And Israeli television reported tonight that the army, despite its pullback from Jenin, will keep the northern West Bank city and adjacent refugee camp under a tight military cordon.
The Jenin camp, a ragged, semi-permanent city, dates to Israel's war of independence in 1948, when many Palestinians were displaced from their homes in what is now Israel. It is set amid the stony hills and olive groves of the West Bank, about 45 miles north of Jerusalem.
Many residents of the hillside camp have been too frightened to return since fleeing when the fighting broke out. But some began doing so Wednesday. This morning, with a brief break in the military curfew, the camp was teeming with activity, as residents picked their way through an avalanche of broken concrete, splintered furniture and shredded bedding and clothing. Some held scarves to their mouths to keep from gagging on the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting flesh.
Among the residents to return recently was Samih Abu Sibaa, 43, who lived at the base of the camp with his parents and other relatives in a three-story building. Ten days ago, Sibaa said, his father walked onto a veranda and was hit in the neck and abdomen by bullets fired by an Israeli sniper.
"Had the ambulance been allowed to retrieve him, he would have stayed alive," said Sibaa, who estimated his father's age as between 65 and 75.
As it was, Mohammed Sibaa died several hours later. His sons wrapped his body in a rug and covered it with a blanket, intending to bury him when the shooting stopped. But then Israeli forces began knocking down houses with bulldozers -- a technique it began using more aggressively after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed here April 9 in a single attack -- and the family was forced to flee without him.
"We left our father because we could not carry anything with us," Sibaa said. "They would have thought that anything was an explosive device."
He and his brother began digging for the corpse Wednesday. Today they found part of it, a partial torso with rib cage exposed, at the bottom of a hole.
"We kept digging until we saw the rug and the blanket that we covered him with," Sibaa said. They placed it on the edge of the hole, where a rescue worker wrapped it in white plastic and took it away.
Roed-Larsen, who witnessed the scene, said he was shocked by what he had seen this morning, including the charred body of a 12-year-old boy. "They are not only fighters," he said. "We've seen kids. There was a 60-year-old woman who was found. . . . What is really shocking beyond belief is that the Israelis have not conducted a search-and-rescue operation in 11 days."
Palestinian officials have backed away from earlier charges of a massacre in Jenin. But much about the battle remains a mystery. The director of the hospital run by the Palestinian Authority in Jenin, Mohammed Abu Ghali, said he knows of 37 bodies recovered from the camp. Twenty-three of them have not yet been claimed by relatives from shallow temporary graves in a dirt lot next to the hospital.
But Abu Ghali said he believes many other bodies are hidden beneath collapsed apartment buildings in the camp.
"It's very hard to determine" the number of combatants and civilians killed in the fighting, said Tim Keenan, an orthopedic surgeon from Perth, Australia, who is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross at the hospital. "A lot of it's sort of anecdotal."
There is not even agreement on the number of people who were in the camp of 13,000 at the time of the worst fighting. Some estimates are as high as 8,000.
"It's been incredibly difficult to tell the difference between fighters and civilians," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, who evaded Israeli checkpoints to sneak into the camp. "I think it's clear that in the end what actually happened in Jenin will fall somewhere in between what the Palestinians are alleging and what the [Israeli army] claims. But only an independent authority can establish what actually happened."