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Trails of Destruction, Tales of Loss, (Jenin - Post, April 12)
For Palestinians Here, the Ring of Fear (Post, April 25)
Special Report: War and Peace in the Mideast
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Live from Jenin
With Peter Bouckaert
Human Rights Watch investigator

Friday, April 26, 2002; 2:30 p.m. EDT

"For many Palestinian Americans, and Palestinians worldwide, contacting family and friends in the reoccupied refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza has been difficult often impossible since the incursion by Israeli troops in March. Some report that they have gone more than a month without communicating with loved ones in heavily damaged towns such as Ramallah and Nablus, two major Palestinian cities on the West Bank, and in the Jenin refugee camp" For Palestinians Here, the Ring of Fear (Post, April 25).

Human Rights Watch investigator Peter Bouckaert is live from Jenin on Friday, April 26 at 2:30 p.m. EDT to discuss the current conditions for Palestinian refugees.

A 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.

Montreal, Canada: Hello
What is the condition of hospitals and schools in the Jenin camp? Did any of them survived the Israeli shelling? Thanks

Peter Bouckaert: Certainly one of the largest schools in Jenin itself was severely damaged. I had dinner with my translator tonight who told me that his son would not be able to go to school tomorrow because of the damage. The main hospital was shot at repeatedly during the Israeli offensive and suffered much damage. It is now operating but does not have very much supplies to deal with the difficult cases coming out of the camp.

Just a few days ago, I met a man who had a 10-year-old stepped on an unidentified unexploded bomb and he was begging us to take his son to an Israeli hospital for better treatment. We couldn't do that and his son died the next day.

We know of at least three hospitals in the immediate area of the camps that are currently treating people. During the military operation, medical workers were prevented from entering the camp by the Israeli soldiers and several people died of their wounds without receiving any medical treatment. One nurse was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during the military offensive when she was trying to help a wounded civilian.

Arlington, Va.: In an interview appearing in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly, a militant named Omar described the extensive use of booby traps and explosives deployed by the Palestinians of Jenin:
"We had more than 50 houses booby-trapped around the camp. We chose old and empty buildings and the houses of men who were wanted by Israel because we knew the soldiers would search for them." See www.memri.org for more.

Given that the Palestinians were destroying their own homes in an effort to kill Israelis, who should be held responsible for the resulting homelessness and humanitarian tragedy in Jenin?

Peter Bouckaert: We did find evidence that there were several booby-trapped homes in the camp and one bomb factory. The booby-traps that we did find were certainly made by Palestinians and Palestinian made pipe bombs were found as well. Many children were found with these pipe bombs that they had dug out of the rubble in the camp.

However, it must be remembered that the camp was home to 14,000 Palestinians and most of whom had nothing to do with terrorist activities. We documented 140 homes in the camp that were completely destroyed and more than 200 others were severely damaged when armored Israeli bulldozers flattened the homes. This left an estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the population of the camp, homeless.

Indianapolis, Ind.: Let me say up front that I'm very, very pro-Israel BUT I've heard reports of Isreali Soldiers and looting. The story features some sore of shopping-mall type area in Jenin. In particular the story told of a Palestinian computer store that was trashed was looted. The owner returned to the store and found some of his merchandise was missing (Nintendo Playstations) and some of it was destroyed. I was in the Army and I know soldiers will get out of hand--especially when there don't seem to be any consequences.

So my question is: who true might this story be?

Peter Bouckaert: We had heard reports from residents that some Israeli soldiers took money from them and told the Palestinians that they probably from Arab leaders who were supporting terrorist leaders -- which certainly was not the case. Israel is failing the discipline of its troops by not holding soldiers accountable for abuses that do occur. The hallmark of a professional army is the accountability for the violations of the loss of war. Israel is not abiding by that standard. In Ramallah, we found widespread evidence of wanton destruction of Palestinian property and Israeli soldiers did not only destroy the civilian infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority but also trashed the offices of banks, local Human Rights organizations, media organizations and many other important public institutions in Ramallah. Such destruction cannot serve any military purpose.

San Diego, CA: How many people have been left homeless because of the Israeli invasions? Where are they living right now?

Is Israel allowing full access to rescue workers trying to save people who may still be under the rubble?

Peter Bouckaert: We estimate about 4.000 have been rendered homeless in the Jenin refugee camp alone --more than quarter of the population in the camp. Many of them are staying with relatives and some tents have been set up in the camp. These people lost homes that they had spent years building. And with the current state of the Palestinian economy, it will be very difficult for them to find the resources to rebuild their homes. Israeli officials prevented humanitarian agencies access to the camp even after the offensive had ended. And access restrictions continue to complicate the recovery efforts in the camps. Just a few days ago, a Greek search and rescue team was turned back at Tel Aviv airport and were refused entry into the country. One of the greatest dangers in the camp is the large amount of explosives leftover by the Palestinians and dropped by the Israelis. We have seen on a daily basis incidents where civilians have been maimed by unidentified explosive ordinances. There's a real need for increased awareness programs, esp. for the children, and a stepped up effort to diffuse the remaining unexploded ordinances in the camp.

Bodies continue to be recovered from the rubble. Yesterday, the body of an unidentified woman was found and people continue to search for missing relatives believed to be buried under the rubble.

Arlington, VA: Did Human Rights Watch send anyone to investigate the Passover bombing?

Peter Bouckaert: We do cover the suicide bombings also and consider the suicide bombings as a crime against humanity. We think it is very important to understand that suicide bombings are not carried out by individuals on a whim but are planned by networks of people with the backing of some foreign countries. We think it is important that the backing stops and the suicide bombings are condemned without reservation and that the sponsors of these bombings are brought accountable for these crimes.

Alexandria, Va.: Israel says that about one quarter of the suicide attackers who have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians came from Jenin.

In your activities in Jenin have you ever come across evidence that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah are using Jenin as a base from which to send suicide attackers into Israel?

Would Human Rights Watch be willing to investigate whether these Israeli accusations are true?

Peter Bouckaert: We certainly found strong evidence by Hamas, Islamic and Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade in the Jenin refugee camp. But at the same time it is important to understand that a majority of the population in the camps were civilians who had nothing to do with terrorist activities. In its operations against terror, Israel should not be given a freehand to violate the laws of war and to gravely endanger civilian populations.

Elmira, West Virginia : While most of us have heard of what generally happened in Jenin, can you give us a more personal human perspective of what it was like there, and what happened, and what future and hope, if any, exists for these people.

Peter Bouckaert: The military operation in the Jenin refugee camp have severely traumatized the civilian population in Jenin. It is deeply disturbing to walk around in the middle of the camp where an area the size of several football fields have been completely leveled. The personal possessions strewn around the camp -- I vividly remember a teddy bear in a muddy pool -- constantly remind us that this place was once a home to many families. What's especially disturbing is the number of children who have been killed or wounded in this latest conflict. I think it is time for both sides, Israel and the Palestinians, to realize that abusive military tactics are getting us nowhere nearer to a solution to this conflict. Many people in the camp are very angry about what happened and feel that the possibility of peace has been pushed ever farther away. It is difficult to spend your days listening to the personal tragedies that have been suffered by the people of Jenin just as it is difficult to listen to the tragedies that have been caused by the suicide bombings. There is certainly more than enough pain to go around on both sides of the conflict. I desperately wish that each side could find the humanity to have a bit more empathy for each other's sufferings.

Washington, D.C.: I was just curious if the Human Rights Watch has ever investigated Human Rights Violations carried out against Palestinian children who are urged to pick up stones and become martyrs? Is Human Rights Watch following in the steps of Amnesty International by ignoring every abuse of Palestinian civilians by their own leaders and focusing solely on Israel's "human rights violations?" If so, can you explain to me why is it that Israel is held to higher standards than any other nation in the world? Can you explain why Human Rights groups focus on Israel's violations -trivial in comparison to other nations', including their Arab neighbors- while ignoring the root and fundamental problems in the area? That is to say, educating young people to kill themselves, and while they're at it, take down Israeli civilians with them.

I appreciate your answer. Thank you very much.

Peter Bouckaert: I urge everyone to visit our website hrw.org and see for themselves to see if our work is balanced and objective. Certainly we do not ignore the very severe abuses carried out by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilians as well as their own people. I can say that the Israeli -Palestinian conflict is one of the most difficult to work on in the world because people hold such strong feelings on both sides. But we apply the same impartial and objective standards when we work here than we do in any other country. When people say that we pay an inordinate amount of attention to Israel, compared to let's say Kosovo, I don't think that's true at all. Certainly we should not be ignoring the serious abuses committed by Israeli forces simply because Israel exists in the neighbor where even more serious abuses are committed by such governments such as Iraq.

New York, NY: Have you seen any proof of a massacre of hundreds of people as the Palestinians are claiming?

Peter Bouckaert: No, we have not found any evidence to suggest that hundreds of people were "massacred" by Israeli forces in Jenin. We have found at least 51 people were killed in the offensive including 21 civilians -- many of whom were children, women and old men. Even though some of the worst allegations about Jenin have not been proven to have occurred we do think that the abuses which did take place are extremely serious and warrant the attention of the international community. The four categories of abuse that we are most concerned about are:
1. Significant number of civilians who were killed in circumstances directly related to the forceful methods used by Israel during its offensive.

2. The massive destruction of civilian homes and sometimes indiscriminate use of helicopter fire used in the camp.

3. The use of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army to carry out some of its most dangerous tasks in the camp.

and 4. The blanket denial of medical and humanitarian access to the camp during and after the military operation.

We think that the U.N. fact finding mission set up by the U.N. security council will play a crucial role in establishing what really happened inside the Jenin camp.

Washington DC : Do you think what happened in Jenin could be classified as WAR CRIMES?

Peter Bouckaert: Certainly very serious violations of the laws of war took place. I think at the moment there is insufficient evidence available to us to make the final determination whether those violations would have amounted to war crimes. We will have to wait until we finish our investigation to make that determination.

Fairfax, Va.: I'm sure that we'll never know what happened in Jenin, although I'm also sure that people will be shouting about it on both sides for a long time.

My question is a military vs. human rights one. Of course, every military wants to avoid the "collateral damage" of the death of non-combatants. But when combatants, i.e. gunmen who can not be easily identified by a uniform, fire at a military from an area where non-combatants are, what should the military being fired upon do? Should they fire back, at the combatants and non-combatants surrounding him, or let themselves be fired upon?


Peter Bouckaert: First I think it is important to understand that Palestinian militants who use civilian populations to shield themselves against attacks are violating the laws of war. At the same time, Israel has the obligation to distinguish military targets and civilian populations who cannot be targeted for attack. In a situation like the Jenin refugee camp, home to 14,000 Palestinian civilians, Israel had the obligation to ensure that the Palestinian civilians did not have to unduly suffer during the military operation. They clearly failed in that important obligation by causing the significant loss of civilian life and massive damage to civilian property. I disagree that the truth about Jenin will probably never be told. The evidence of what happened in Jenin is available in the camp and in the hands of the IDF and if all parties would cooperate with the U.N. fact finding mission as well as with the work of international human rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch, it will not be difficult to reconstruct what happened in the camp. Israel refusal to cooperate with the U.N. fact finding mission will only ensure that its side of the story will not fully be told.

Washington, DC: Earlier this week, three Palestinian men were shot by Palestinian gunmen on the street, probably killing all three. The Post reported, "Masked gunmen yelled to the crowd that the victims were collaborators with Israeli occupation forces. A mob formed and blocked ambulances. At least one of the victims was finally spirited off to a hospital on the rooftop of a taxi that careened down the street. No one in the crowd objected to the violence. Many were smiling. Men whistled their approval on the street and women yelled from rooftops. Young children wandered past the sticky pool of blood on the ground and stared. Local reports later said one of the men died."

Can you confirm if this story is true, and, if so, what is HRW doing to oversee such human rights abuses committed by Palestinians? Has HRW investigated this story?

Peter Bouckaert: We have not investigated this particular case because we have been pre-occupied by the investigation in Jenin. But we have documented many similar cases in the past. The killing of collaborators this week alone happened not only in Ramallah but also happened in Hebron. Just a few months ago, we issued a detailed report on the failings of the Palestinian justice system -- available on our website. The massive damage done to the Palestinian Authority infrastructure in the latest Israeli offensive will make it more difficult for Palestinian police and court structures to function and we are concerned that this could lead to a rise in street justice.

Washington DC: Is it true that only a small portion of Jenin was damaged in the Israeli operation?

Peter Bouckaert: The IDF posted a very misleading map of the damage in Jenin in which they claimed only a small area in the camp was destroyed. This map does not accurately reflect the damage done in the camp. As I said before, at least 140 homes were completely destroyed by Israeli offenses and more than 200 homes were severely damaged.

Washington DC: Do you have any evidence to contradict the Israeli position that persons associated with terror attacks on Israel were staying in Jenin prior to the IDF operation?

Peter Bouckaert: No, certainly a significant number of wanted persons by Israel who had been associated by past terrorist attacks were present in the Jenin refugee camp. Some of them were killed, captured and some of them escaped.

California: I have family in the West Bank, and it has been impossible to call them to find out about their wellbeing. Phones are not working, and not everyone can afford cell phones.

How can we help them over there? They must need supplies, medicine, food.

Peter Bouckaert: Certainly the situation in the West Bank today is quite desperate. Many people have been confined in their homes for the past few weeks because of the offensive. And large parts of the West Bank have been completely cut off by the rest of the world. It is of great importance that Israel stops impeding the flow of humanitarian and medical aid to the needy populations.

We have the same difficulties of getting to and reaching the people we want to talk about human rights abuses. The destruction of the phone networks are one small part of the damage of the civilian infrastructure here in the West Bank.

Wheaton Maryland: You keep citing that you "heard reports," but never indicate how you assess the credibility of the reports. How do you know that money was actually taken? And you also claim that there was no military purpose to the destruction of what you accept as civilian infrastructure. Are you in a position to know that computers in what was claimed as the educational ministry did not support terrorist activities?

Peter Bouckaert: Our organization works by carrying out detailed investigations into particular events or patterns of abuse. We interview many people independently from each other and cross confirm information provided before we go public with it. I can confirm that civilian deaths in Jenin based on the interviews that we have carried when I qualify by saying "we have received reports," I mean to imply that people have told us about this particular abuse but we have not spoken to enough people to independently confirm this practice. The destruction in Ramallah affected many of the Palestinian human rights organizations that we have worked closely with for years. I can certainly testify that those organizations were not involved in any with terrorist activities and I think the destruction and ransacking of offices in Ramallah have affected any service institutions such as banks. We can hardly say or assume that the entire Palestinian population are involved in terrorist activities. That would be a preposterous thought.

Peter Bouckaert: Human Rights Watch takes its investigative role in Jenin very seriously. We know that many allegations have been made about what happened in Jenin. And we think it is of great importance to establish a credible, impartial and detailed account to separate facts from fiction. The world deserves to know what exactly happened in Jenin and we will remain on the ground in Jenin until we feel we have obtained a full picture of the events here. We aim to be fair to both the Palestinian and Israeli side and will listen to the evidence and arguments provided to us by both sides before reaching our final conclusions.

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