JENIN, West Bank Palestinian officials yesterday put the death toll at 56 in the two-week Israeli assault on Jenin, dropping claims of a massacre of 500 that had sparked demands for a U.N. investigation.
The official Palestinian body count, which is not disproportionate to the 33 Israeli soldiers killed in the incursion, was disclosed by Kadoura Mousa Kadoura, the director of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement for the northern West Bank, after a team of four Palestinian-appointed investigators reported to him in his Jenin office.
[Two weeks ago, when European and particularly London newspapers were reporting estimates of “hundreds” massacred, Israeli sources in Washington said they expected the Palestinian toll to reach “45 to 55.”]
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested yesterday, in the wake of the Palestinian body count, that he may disband a U.N. fact-finding team that was to visit the camp to determine whether a massacre had taken place.
Mr. Annan was responding to a decision by the Israeli security Cabinet earlier in the day not to cooperate with the U.N. team.
The U.N.-Israeli dispute appeared unrelated to the Palestinian admission there had been no massacre.
The Palestinians had suggested that most of the bodies were buried beneath the rubble of houses bulldozed by Israeli troops. No digging for bodies was taking place here, and there was no stench that could have come from decaying human flesh.
The earlier Palestinian claims had sparked international outrage and prompted the Bush administration to press Israel to accept a fact-finding mission by the United Nations, an organization that the Jewish state regards as having a pro-Palestinian bias.
Mr. Kadoura yesterday showed a reporter for The Washington Times the official Palestinian list of those who died. It contained 50 names. Six additional bodies, he said, had not been identified.
He no longer used the ubiquitous Palestinian charge of “massacre” and instead portrayed the battle as a “victory” for Palestinians in resisting Israeli forces. “Here the Israelis, who tried to break the Palestinian willpower, have been taught a lesson,” Mr. Kadoura said.
He insisted that Israel had tried but failed, thanks to the heavy fighting, to destroy the entire warren of homes in the camp that had housed 11,000 people.
The destruction, pictured graphically on television, appeared linked to Israeli bulldozing of the houses from which the remnant of the resistance forces were firing.
In fact, it covers the size of a large football field and constitutes only about 10 percent of the housing in the camp, and a far smaller proportion of the housing in the city, which was largely left untouched by the Israeli incursion.
The figures shown to The Times included 233 injured persons, mainly men. The figures revealed that 18 persons had been injured and one had died after the fighting had ended, the result of accidentally detonating either shells left after the fighting, or booby traps that were set by Palestinian gunmen throughout the camp.
A British expert attached to the International Red Cross said these booby traps were almost identical to those used by the Irish Republican Army.
The British claim suggested to analysts that IRA guerrillas were schooled in terrorist weaponry and irregular warfare, as were many radical guerrilla movements, in Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian training camps in Lebanon.
From behind a desk bedecked by portraits of Mr. Arafat, a string of past “martyrs” and of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Palestinian chief official in the city, who is also the Fatah leader, portrayed in an interview the events as another chapter in a long saga of resistance to foreign invaders from Crusader times onward that, he said, had made Jenin “the heart of Palestine” for centuries.
The propaganda war continues, meanwhile, in the refugee camp itself. Families whose homes had been destroyed were ordered to sit and lie inside tents pitched near the destruction, to be available for interviews and filming with foreign reporters and photographers. At dusk, with the press opportunities concluded, they returned to houses offered to them in the undamaged city or in the rest of the refugee camp.
Other young men, members of various factions, have been on duty in the camp’s narrow streets, eager to conduct foreign correspondents to places where they say Israelis killed militants after they surrendered or had been captured.
Others in the city say the resistance to the Israeli incursion had been carried out by only about 10 percent of the militants who had originally been in the area. Most had retreated into the hills or into city back streets as the Israelis entered the area, they said.
Families living in houses directly opposite the destroyed area have told The Washington Times that Israeli soldiers, who temporarily occupied their houses just before the final battle began, treated them without violence and assured them: “You will not be harmed.”
They confined the 36 members of the Abu Khalil family to two rooms, allowing them out one by one, and set up a snipers’ point upstairs through two holes in the wall under a family framed message in Arabic: “There is No God but Allah and Mohammed is His Messenger.”
They confiscated identity cards but left them on the table before slipping out during the night.
At the United Nations in New York, Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast said “a thorough, credible and balanced report on recent events in Jenin refugee camp would not be possible without the cooperation of the government of Israel.”
“Since it appears from today’s Cabinet statement by Israel that the difficulties in the way of deployment of the fact-finding team will not be resolved anytime soon, the secretary-general is minded to disband the team,” he told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council.
Diplomats said Mr. Prendergast told council members that Mr. Annan was leaning toward disbanding the three-member team, which has been joined by numerous advisers. The team, which was to have arrived in Jenin on Saturday, remained in Geneva yesterday.
The Security Council is to take up the issue of whether or not to disband the mission at a meeting today.
The United States put forward the resolution adopted by the Security Council welcoming the dispatch of a U.N. team to find out what happened in Jenin during the Israeli military’s attacks.
Israel initially agreed to the idea, but subsequently raised questions over the composition of the team, its scope of inquiry, who could be called as a witness and what documents would be presented to the panel.
Mr. Prendergast said that “with every passing day, it becomes more difficult to determine what happened” in Jenin. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said Mr. Annan was considering whether to let the fact-finding team begin its work in Geneva or “simply abandoning the mission on the assumption that satisfactory terms of reference could not be worked out.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.