Jenin, the Propaganda Battle

In Israel, Jenin is perceived mainly as a public relations problem (called in Hebrew “hasbara” — explaining). It appears even that the army and the government believe that Israel is winning the propaganda battle. After all, all relevant principles of this battle have been strictly adhered to:

The first principle: No pictures or information in real time! The IDF (Israeli army) managed to fully prevent the media from entering Jenin during the events. Thus, all we were left with were “conflicting reports” — a stream of horrible accounts coming from Palestinian witnesses who escaped the refugee camp — and the IDF’s utter denial. In the meanwhile, the work of destruction could continue undisturbed for ten days.

On the seventh day of Israel’s “operation” in Jenin (April 9), it was reported in the Israeli media that the army was nevertheless worried. “Officers of the IDF expressed their shock” about what happened in Jenin: “When the world will see the pictures of what we have done there, it will cause us enormous damage.” (Amos Har’el and Amira Hass, Ha’aretz, Hebrew edition, April 9, 2002). Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres even slipped and mentioned the taboo word “massacre” (which he immediately denied of course).

Israel’s counter attack was immediately launched. “The Foreign Ministry is mobilizing forces to counter Palestinian allegations that IDF forces conducted ‘a massacre’ in the Jenin refugee camp” (Ha’aretz, April 10, 2002). A special PR center of the IDF and the Foreign Ministry was formed in Jerusalem, and its representative, Gideon Meir, passed to the press the major principles of the Israeli version: a) “What happened in Jenin was a fierce battle and not a massacre.” (“The main diplomatic ammunition” in the campaign’s “arsenal is that 22 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting”). b) “The battle was fierce because the IDF sought to minimize civilian suffering.” c) The PR campaign should direct attention to the Israeli casualties in terror attacks. (Anat Cigelman and Aluf Ben, Ha’aretz, Hebrew edition, April 9, 2002.)

The second principle of the propaganda battle: If you have full control over the local media, you can pass anything. These messages have been repeated since, again and again, not only by all politicians and Israeli spokesmen, but also by almost every reporter, weaved into the news reports, and by the analysts and columnists, disguised as spontaneous acts of expressing an educated opinion. Here is Ha’aretz’s editorial version of the propaganda line: “There is evidence of intense combat, but, with appropriate caution, it can already be said what did not happen in the Jenin refugee camp. There was no massacre. No order from above was given, nor was a local initiative executed, to deliberately and systematically kill unarmed people” (Ha’aretz, April 19, 2002, editorial column).

This line is pretty sophisticated. The word “massacre” may bring to mind soldiers moving from house to house, shooting everyone they find — men, women and children (as in Sabra and Shatila). Such massacre clearly did not take place in Jenin. No Palestinian source ever described the facts this way. Still, Ha’aretz and everyone else insist on falsifying just this specific interpretation of the word. What did clearly happen in Jenin is that the army simply ignored the fact that there were an unknown number of individuals and families in the areas which were bombarded day and night by missiles from “Cobra” helicopters, or even in some of the houses erased by bulldozers to pave way for the tanks. No one came to shoot them individually; they were just buried under their bombarded or bulldozed homes. Others died of their wounds in the alleys, or cried for days under the ruins, until their voices faded away.

Bit by bit, testimonies of reserve soldiers are filtering through the back pages of the Israeli media: “After the first moments of the fighting, when a commander was killed . . . the instructions were clear: shoot every window, sow every house — whether someone shoots from there or not.” To the question whether he saw civilians get hurt, the reservist answered: “Personally — not. But the point is that they were inside the houses. The last days, the majority of those who came out of the houses were old people, women and children, who were there the whole time and absorbed our fire. These people were not given any chance to leave the camp, and we are talking about many people” (Ofer Shelah, Yediot Aharonot’s weekend supplement, April 19, 2002).

For many, such descriptions are sufficient to make them shiver, and they don’t really care whether the right word for this is “massacre.” For the success of the PR campaign, it is therefore necessary to stress that we are not talking here about shelling and killing civilians, but about a fierce battle, in which civilians may also get occasionally killed.

According to the Israeli army, in the Jenin refugee camp, where 15,000 residents are crowded densely, there were a few dozen wanted terrorists, and several hundred armed men. What is considered appropriate for such battle conditions? The PR center clarifies this in its second principle above: It was possible to erase the whole camp, with its residents, with a few precise hits of F-16 bomber jets, and, thus, eliminate all the terrorists with no casualties to the Israeli army. But the army took an enormous risk of actual fighting, in order to save Palestinian life. If this is the range of options, the Israeli army proved in Jenin that it is a truly humane army.

It may take a while before we (Israelis) start to digest what we did in Jenin. I don’t have the words yet to speak about my shame, my horrible pain for the Palestinian people. Therefore I speak about what we did to ourselves. A dear friend of mine was murdered three days ago in a trip in Sinai — a painter and computer expert, in the draft resistance circle. By informal reports, his murderer was an Egyptian who sought revenge for the murder of the Palestinians. He could not distinguish between my friend and the nice reserve fellows from Jenin that we saw and heard so much about the last few days. In fact, they do look similar, and many of these guys are also in the computer business. Itai Angel, the young journalist who interviewed reservists on channel 2 TV news last Friday night, has possibly managed to convince many in our little bubble that such nice guys, by their very nature, cannot possibly commit a massacre. Therefore, there was no massacre — there was a fierce battle and we are OK. But outside our bubble, nobody watches Itai Angel. They watch the ruins of Jenin. We are turning the whole Muslim world against us.


(1) Reports on individual, purposeful, shooting of unarmed civilians by soldiers (executions) regarded only shooting of men. Here is one such testimony, reported in greater detail by the Independent (UK):

Fathi Shalabi watched his son die. The two men were standing side by side with their hands up when Israeli soldiers opened fire on them. Mr. Shalabi’s son, Wadh, and another man who was with them died instantly, but the 63-year-old Mr Shalabi survived. He lay on the ground pretending to be dead for more than an hour while his son’s blood gathered around him . . . Mr Shalabi described what took place. Soldiers ordered his family and Mr Al-Sadi down a narrow alley. “In cover behind the corner were four soldiers. The two young men with me were carrying baby children, and the soldiers did not shoot at them.” Wadh Shalabi was carrying his four-month-old son, Mahmoud. The soldiers ordered the men to hand the children over to their mothers and told the women and children to go into the next-door house. Then they ordered the men to raise their shirts and show they were not wearing suicide belts. “The soldiers were about three meters away. I heard the names of two of them; they were Gaby and David.” He said that the soldier called Gaby appeared to be in command. “They saw Abdul Karim had a plaster on his back. Suddenly Gaby shouted ‘Kill them!’.” (Justin Huggler and Phil Reeves, The Independent, April 21, 2002).

These two dead men were civilians. However, even shooting surrendering soldiers is a war crime. The Hague Tribunal found Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic guilty of Genocide for his role in the killing of Muslim soldiers and males in Srebrenica in 1995. Muslim women and children were not killed, but expelled from the town. In the mass graves in Kosovo as well, mostly male bodies were found.

(2) Though Jenin was sealed to the press, pictures of the battlefield, shot with local amateur video cameras, were broadcasted, mainly on Arab TV. They showed alleys lined up with male bodies (many armed). This is to be expected, given that there was indeed a serious battle in Jenin. In early reports of the Israeli army, the number of these bodies was estimated as 200. The Palestinian figures were much higher. As the time was reaching to open the camp to the press, the army expressed, as we saw, serious concerns regarding the “PR” effects of the scenes on the ground. It is appropriate to wonder what happened with these bodies.

On Friday, April 12, it was reported that “the IDF intends to bury today Palestinians killed in the West Bank camp. Around 200 Palestinians are believed to have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers since the start of the operation last week . . . Military sources said until now the IDF has not buried any of the bodies. The sources said that two infantry companies, along with members of the military rabbinate, will enter the camp today to collect the bodies. Those who can be identified as civilians will be moved to a hospital in Jenin, and then on to burial, while those identified as terrorists will be buried at a special cemetery in the Jordan Valley. One Israeli source said that the decision to bury the bodies was taken to prevent the Palestinians from using the bodies for propaganda purposes . . . The Palestinian Authority has expressed concerns that Israel is trying to hide the large number of dead, since it has blocked Palestinian medical teams from evacuating the dead and wounded from the camp during the past week.” (Anat Cigelman, Amos Harel and Amira Hass, Ha’aretz, April 12, 2002).

Apparently, no one in Israel was particularly concerned then about issues of international law, mass graves, etc. So ample further information was provided on TV news the evening before about the preparations: Special refrigerating trucks were shown waiting to transfer the bodies to “terrorist cemeteries” in the Jordan valley.

However, a petition to the high court interfered. “The High Court of Justice issued an interim order Friday blocking the IDF from moving out the bodies of dead Palestinians from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. A panel of three justices will hold a full discussion on the matter [Sunday] morning, following a petition by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and LAW — The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. MKs Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al-Arab Movement for Renewal) also filed similar petitions . . . The petitioners claim the army’s decision violates international law as the Jordan Valley cemetery will, they claim, be basically a mass grave, thus damaging the honor of the dead.” (Amos Harel, Gideon Alon and Jalal Bana, Ha’aretz, April 14, 2002)

“MK Avigdor Lieberman (National Union –Yisrael Beiteinu) has called for Justice Barak to be removed from his post following the IDF decision. “Barak’s decision is a vulgar and clear interference by the judiciary in the decision of the executive . . .'” His worry may have been premature. When the full discussion was held on Sunday (April 14), the high court turned down the petitions, while recommending that “the army make use of the services of the Red Crescent and local officials in Jenin to help locate and identify bodies, subject to the considerations of the military commanders.” (Moshe Reinfeld and Anat Zigelman, Ha’aretz, Hebrew edition, April 15, 2002).

It was reported that following the temporary Supreme Court decision of Friday, the IDF stopped “clearing the bodies” from the camp, waiting for the final decision on Sunday. However, on Sunday, the media was already allowed to the camp, and they found a scene of mass destruction, but with roads clean of bodies: That’s how Amos Harel described it in Ha’aretz: “The visit, which the army allowed after a critical three-day delay, did not provide an unequivocal answer to the question that everyone continues to fight over — the Israeli leaders and their spokesmen, and the Palestinians — how many Palestinians died during the fighting? We talked with soldiers in Jenin, officers and rank-and-file troopers, and all vehemently denied the accusations of a massacre of civilians. The Palestinian residents who escaped gave reporters a completely different version. But on the ground, yesterday, only one Palestinian body was to be found in the open, in an area where most of the fighting took place.” (Ha’aretz, April 15, 2002).

Harel asks: “So what happened to the rest of the bodies? The Palestinians say there were 500 killed. IDF Spokesman Brigadier General Ron Kitri said on Friday there were some 200, but then corrected himself with a much lower figure.” The formal IDF answer was given that same day: “Israel Defense Forces officers now estimate that dozens — not hundreds — of Palestinians were killed as a result of the army’s activities in the Jenin refugee camp. As of last night, 46 Palestinian corpses have been located in the camp. Updated estimates concerning the total number of Palestinian fatalities in the camp now range between 70 and a little over 100. Officials believe that some of the corpses are still buried under the rubble of houses demolished by IDF bulldozers.” (Amos Harel and Gideon Alon, Ha’aretz, April 15)

Not too many further questions were asked In Israel regarding how the IDF’s initial estimate of 200 dead in battle turned out so over exaggerated. Here is how the Ha’aretz editorial of April 19 (cited above) sums the matter up: “In Israel, too, suspicions were raised that there was truth to the Palestinian claims. Many feared that Jenin would be added to the black list of massacres that have shocked the world. The IDF contributed to those fears when it issued a preliminary estimate of hundreds of dead in the camp (it turned out that several score were killed, with the exact number still unknown).” DV

Tanya Reinhart is a Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University This article appeared in Dissident Voice, a semi-regular newsletter dedicated to challenging the lies of the corporate press and the privileged classes it serves.


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