I sat quietly, gazing at a pale concrete wall. The imprint from an absent framed photograph was engraved in the thick, gray dust. The missing framed picture, I imagined, was Palestinian. Instead, a poster, covered with Hebrew writing replaced it, hanging tastelessly, strapped up with duct tape. It didn’t belong there, I thought to myself. Yet I didn’t dare share my thoughts with anyone, as I was extremely cautious of the Israeli intelligence officer, who was glaring at me, and two other Palestinians. My fellow Palestinians curled up in their chairs, trying to be invisible, and awaited their fate.
This wasn’t a trial in an Israeli military court, although it felt that way. It was the border between Amman, Jordan and the West Bank in April, 2002, less than a month after the major invasion of the West Bank, the Jenin atrocities and the mass graves in Nablus. How I wished for the friendly faces of the Palestinian workers to replace these Israeli soldiers, who retook the border point and hung an Israeli flag where a Palestinian flag once waved.
I wasn’t out of my mind, as many friends and relatives suggested once they learned that I was heading to the West Bank, which at the time was undergoing a curfew and a bloodbath. In fact, I was very clear about my objective. I was setting out to visit the refugee camp of Jenin.
It was not only the anguish of so many innocents that compelled me to travel to Jenin. It was my concern that Israel might end up re-writing history yet one more time.
When the Israeli army temporarily pulled out of the camp on April 16, 2002, I was busily working on a book dealing with the historic Sabra and Shatilla massacre. I was struck by the similarities of both accounts: the status of the victims, refugees, the Israeli army’s style of punishing civilians, the siege, the heavy aerial bombardment, the snipers, the killing, the bulldozing of homes, Sharon and the cover-up.
History repeating itself was no longer an exaggerated statement. It was real. In Lebanon, the Israelis claimed that if it hadn’t been for their intervention, more Palestinians would have been killed in the West Beirut refugee camps in 1982. Little did the world know that it was Israel, Sharon in particular, who ordered the Lebanese Phalangists to “mop up” the two camps, killing and raping thousands, as Israeli troops besieged the refugees inside the camps and heavily shelled their homes from the outside. Afterwards, Israeli army bulldozers dug a mass grave, buried the evidence. They rounded up over one thousand men and boys and took them to an unknown destination. They were never seen again.
In Jenin, much of the same happened. An atrocity was carried out, an atrocity whose disturbing details unfolded in following months, and again, cover-up attempts persisted. But concealing the atrocities in Jenin was much more complicated than the Beirut massacre. The UN commission that set out to investigate the incidents was blocked by Israel, who accused the mission of being anti-Semitic. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan caved in, issuing a lame report based on press releases and reports mainly generated by Israeli lobby groups in the US. The US’s pressure intensified in an attempt to bale out their Middle East ally, which proved successful. Annan ruled that both Israelis and Palestinians were responsible for the killings. His report disregarded the legitimate war crimes accusations issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
As I sat at the West Bank border point, three weeks after the Israeli invasion of Jenin, none of this had happened yet. But I detected every detail of the Jenin cover-up by recalling the details of Sabra and Shatilla. I was determined that this time, Palestinians would record this part of their own history, instead of expecting others to fairly narrate their agony. A team of journalists awaited my arrival, in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and in East Jerusalem. Consumed by my thoughts, hopes and fears, I didn’t feel the presence of an Israeli intelligence officer standing over me. With a tone that left no space for argument, he commanded. “Baroud, you are a liar. You are not here to see your family. Get out of here.”
But then there was Mahmoud. Mahmoud was 23, frail, and very shy. He was shot in the throat, and the bullet carved a road all the way down to his spine, leaving him hanging between life and death. Mahmoud Amr was one of those who defended Jenin. He was shot in the leg, and untreated, he returned to fight for his camp and family. Limping on one foot, an Israeli sniper shot him again, this time leaving him completely paralyzed, forever. I sat near Mahmoud in an Amman hospital, two days before I was scheduled to leave the country back to the states. I only had a few questions to ask. “So what do you plan to do once you leave the hospital Mahmoud?”
My question seemed inappropriate. No one knew whether Mahmoud would even make it out alive. Moreover, Mahmoud couldn’t talk. Nonetheless, the young man gestured, using a skinny finger, for a pencil and a piece of paper. After a few minutes of struggling to scratch down a few words, he tried to smile and handed me the paper:
“I want to go back to fight for Jenin,” the paper said.
I kissed Mahmoud’s forehead and left the hospital. I yearned to experience a fraction of the courage and determination that this stricken young man possessed. Thanks to him, I was ready to put up a good fight, for Jenin, and for the sake of truth.
Tomorrow, I intend to call Mahmoud. I will tell him that “Searching Jenin”, the “important book” I told him about during my visit, was published. I will tell him that the voices of the victims have finally escaped the Israeli censurer; that the faces, the images, the numbers and the stories will finally be told, that thanks to his inspiration, Palestinians are no longer standing on the periphery, praying that others will narrate their plight. Now, they will convey the stories themselves, the way they ought to.
Thank you Mahmoud, but also thanks to over sixty intellectuals, journalists and activists who took part in making this book a reality. Special thanks to Professor Noam Chomsky for his thoughtful forward to the book, and to professor Robert Jensen, Norman Finkelstein, Francis Boyle, Dr. James Zogby, Dr. Alfred Lilienthal, photojournalist Mahfouz Abu Turk, journalist Ali Samoudi, and the publisher who took a great leap of faith, Scott Davis. Thanks to all of you, the Jenin story will finally be told without political pressure, without censorship and without fear.
RAMZY BAROUD is the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com and the editor of the anthology “Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion 2002.” 50 percent of the editor’s royalties will go directly to assist in the relief efforts in Jenin. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org