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Jenin: Anniversary of a Battle By: Natan Sharansky
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Today, March 29, 2005 marks the three year anniversary of the battle of Jenin. If there is one incident that summarizes the war in the Middle East, and the way the terror war is fought in the media, this is it. On this three year anniversary, we have received permission from Natan Sharansky to run the section of his indispensable book The Case for Democracy, in which he relates what happened in Jenin, how it was reported, and why this is crucial to understanding  the war we face. -- The Editors

Jenin: The Big Lie

Two years before the ICJ's decision on the fence, the moral confusion of the international community reached a nadir during the battle of Jenin.

On the evening of March 29, 2002, in the dining hall of the Park Hotel in Israel's coastal city of Netanya, scores of Israelis were celebrating the tradi­tional Passover Seder with their families, recounting the Jews' exodus from ancient Egypt that marked their journey from slavery to freedom. A suicide bomber walked into the middle of the dining hall and blew himself up, killing 29 Israelis and wounding dozens more. The attack brought the Israeli death toll during that month to 130, by far the most lethal month of terror since the violence began.

The next day, I was called to an urgent government meet­ing that started at 9 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. the following day. Members of Prime Minister Sharon's national unity gov­ernment, then in power for little more than a year, agreed that a change of policy was needed. Instead of merely trying to use checkpoints and roadblocks to intercept suicide bombers heading toward our cities, we would have to enter the Palestinian-controlled population centers from where the bombers were being dispatched. We authorized Operation Defensive Shield, sending our forces into Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and other cities and towns in the West Bank in order to destroy as much of the terrorist infrastructure as possible.

Jenin would be the most dangerous military operation of all. Fully 25 percent of the bombing and shooting attacks against Israel had been carried out by terrorists from Jenin. In the center of the city of 45,000 people is a refugee camp. More suicide bombers had been dispatched from this rela­tively small refugee camp in the previous two years than from any other place in the world. Even Palestinian Author­ity forces, who themselves were no strangers to terrorism, were afraid to enter the camp during the eight years in which it was under their control. The camp was considered a stronghold of Hamas, one of the world's most ruthless ter­rorist organizations. Our troops knew that a bomb could be hidden underneath any car and that a terrorist could be waiting behind any door. We also realized that just as the terrorists deliberately target civilians, they also intentionally use them as human shields. This exacted a heavy price on much of the Palestinian population who lived in fear of Israeli reprisals for terror attacks, because not even Israel's precision strikes were perfect. In the Jenin refugee camp, the terrorists had holed up in an area where nearly 1,000 Pales­tinian civilians were living.

Israel's government had to decide what action to take. There were many precedents of other countries conducting military operations in densely populated areas to which we could turn for guidance. Syria's regime, facing resistance from Muslim fundamentalists in 1982, leveled the town of Hama, killing 20,000 people. Russia, confronting a similar situation in Chechnya, flattened Grozny with heavy arma­ments and killed hundreds of civilians.

For Israel, such indiscriminate action was unacceptable. Still, recent history showed that democratic governments had gone to great lengths to minimize risk to their own sol­diers, even if it meant greatly increasing the chances of civil­ians being harmed. For example, after Serbian forces expelled Kosovars in 1999, NATO pilots bombed Serbia's infrastructure while safely flying at very high altitudes, an operation that lowered the risk to themselves but resulted in over 500 Serbian civilian deaths. Only a few months before the operation in Jenin, American and British pilots in Afghanistan were doing much the same and achieved similar results at a high cost in civilian life.

In Jenin, Israel's government decided to pursue a course that placed much greater risks on Israel's soldiers but that greatly reduced the dangers to Palestinian civilians. We announced over loudspeakers our intention to clear out the terrorist infrastructure in the camp and warned everyone to leave. Then, instead of bombing from the air or using tanks or heavy artillery, our soldiers were sent on a harrowing mis­sion. They painstakingly went from house to house, moving through a hornet's nest of booby traps, bombs, and armed terrorists. After thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed during one mission, we still refused to use our air force or heavy artillery. We pressed on, making tactical changes, such as using armored bulldozers to flatten houses that were being used by the terrorists for cover, that decreased the risks to our troops without increasing the dangers to innocent Palestinians.

But in an environment that lacked moral clarity, one of the finest examples in history of a democracy protecting human rights in wartime became infamous as a horrific assault on human rights. Relying on phony information produced by Palestinian sources and claiming that Israel had killed over 500 civilians,(1) leveled a hospital, deliberately shot children, and executed prisoners, almost all the foreign press harshly criticized the Israeli action. The vilification rang out across the world, but the British press was in a class all by itself. The Independent called the Israeli opera­tion "a monstrous war crime."(2) A. N. Wilson, writing for the Evening Standard, called it a "massacre, and a cover-up of genocide."(3) The Guardian, not to be outdone, ran a lead editorial opining that "Jenin was every bit as repellent in its particulars, no less distressing, and every bit as man made, as the attack on New York on September 11."(4)

The truth was very different: At the end of the operation, fifty-two Palestinians lay dead, almost all of whom were armed.(5) On the Israeli side, twenty-three soldiers had been killed by Palestinian terrorists. This extremely high casualty ratio was a function of Israel's willingness to endanger the lives of its own soldiers in order to save the lives of hun­dreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian civilians. Indeed, Israeli soldiers died to save innocent Palestinian lives.

Working its way through the Israeli court system today is a lawsuit against the Israeli Defense Forces and the Israeli government brought by some of the families of the soldiers who died in Jenin. The petitioners contend that the govern­ment's primary obligation should have been to defend its own troops, even at the cost of more Palestinian civilian casualties. Whether Israel, unlike every other country facing similar threats, should have imposed such risks on its own citizens in order to save innocent Palestinians is certainly a matter of legitimate debate. One thing, however, is certain: The operation in Jenin was an expression of an unprece­dented commitment to the human rights of a foreign civilian population during wartime. It is actions like this that allow the noted legal expert Alan Dershowitz to state confidently that "no country in history ever complied with a higher standard of human rights."

To far too many people, such a statement may seem shocking. In the last few years, Israel has been portrayed, and therefore perceived, as a brutal occupying power that represses Palestinians. The fact that this perception, often fueled by graphic television images with little context, is not true does not make it less real to the people who hold it. Nor are the realities of checkpoints, searches, and clo­sures pleasant ones. The suffering of Palestinians is real and therefore the sympathy for suffering is also real. But moral clarity demands more than sympathy. It demands an under­standing of context, of cause and effect. It demands a sense of proportion. Only then will the painful choices that Israel makes, which are nonetheless moral choices, be under­stood.



[1] A charge made most prominently by Saeb Erekat on CNN, June 20, 2002.


[2] Independent, April 16, 2002.


[3] A.N. Wilson, Evening Standard, April 15, 2002.


[4] Guardian, April 17, 2002.


[5] The casualty figures are from the U.N. investigative report into what happened at Jenin. In the U.N. report, the number of armed combatants was twenty-six. Israel’s own investigation concluded that only three of the casualties were unarmed.


[The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror by Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer. Copyright© 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group]

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who spent eight years in a gulag, is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel.

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