- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

JENIN, West Bank The U.N. agency that administers Palestinian refugee camps and a leading human rights group said yesterday they did not find evidence of a massacre in Jenin.

But the reports, by organizations historically critical of Israel, are unlikely to sway Palestinians and others who remain convinced that hundreds died during an eight-day battle in the Jenin refugee camp last month.

Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which has cared for Palestinian refugees for 54 years, said their research does not point to a massacre of civilians in the West Bank refugee camp.

But the New York-based human rights group said it found that war crimes might have been committed during the battle.

"Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support claims that the [Israeli Defense Forces] massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the camp," said the report, which was researched over five days last month without Israeli cooperation.

"The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious and in some cases appear to be war crimes," it said, citing stopped ambulances, delayed humanitarian aid and Palestinians used as human shields.

The findings were disclosed yesterday as Israeli troops converged on a Hamas hide-out at the center of Nablus, the most populous city in the West Bank.

One Israeli soldier and three Palestinians were killed in a five-hour shootout.

In Bethlehem, the standoff at the Church of the Nativity continued yesterday with little immediate prospect for an end to the month-long siege. People inside the church compound were said to be weak from hunger because the Israelis have halted food deliveries.

The biblical town remained under curfew yesterday, preventing Orthodox Christians from observing their Good Friday at the compound built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Jenin also was quiet yesterday, with only a few water trucks and taxis navigating the edges of the refugee camp. Bulldozers had not begun the massive job of excavating the ruins from last month's battle.

Human Rights Watch said it has accounted for 52 bodies from the incursion, including 22 it characterized as civilians.

That figure is consistent with findings from the Israelis, Jenin Hospital and the U.N. refugee agency.

An official with the agency, which cares for more than 3 million Palestinians in the Middle East, said the agency's records would make it easy to track how many people were in the camp at the time and how many are missing.

Roughly half the families in the camp have been interviewed, the U.N. agency said.

"We have a nice little book of the number of people registered in Jenin, including births and deaths," spokesman Sami Mshasha said in an article published in the Jerusalem Post yesterday.

He said residents must update the information to receive U.N. services and benefits.

Representatives of the U.N. agency and Human Rights Watch have publicly criticized the Israeli army's actions in Jenin, provoking angry responses.

The Israelis have long maintained they have nothing to hide, although they have blocked a U.N. team assembled by U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan from entering the camp.

Yesterday, the U.N. team was disbanded.

Team member Cornelio Sommaruga, who used to run the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters in Geneva yesterday that he thought Israel blocked the team because of concerns over potential war crimes tribunals.

"I am disappointed that we weren't able to respond to the expectations perhaps exaggerated of international public opinion and local opinion because we were convinced we would have been able to contribute to a certain easing of tensions in the region," Mr. Sommaruga said.

A Palestinian official showed The Washington Times last week a list of 50 Palestinians killed in the battle and said six bodies remained unidentified.

The official did not use the term "massacre," instead describing it as an epic battle in which Palestinians held their own in a head-to-head fight against Israeli forces. Twenty-three Israelis died in the battle.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has since referred to it as the battle of Jeningrad, a reference to the World War II battle of Stalingrad in which Soviet troops first gained the upper hand against invading Nazis.

International efforts to determine what happened in Jenin won't make any difference to Abu Ali, who has spent his entire life in the refugee camp.

"I know that 500 people died here, and [soldiers] took the bodies away before they left," he said while sitting in a tent in the center of a field of rubble that used to be home to 4,000 Palestinians.

He said no report would change his mind, as the half-dozen men lounging around him nodded yesterday.

According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 140 buildings were destroyed, and as many as 200 were severely damaged, leaving one-quarter of the Jenin camp's population homeless.

Jenin's anger and misery have been broadcast around the world, fanning hatred of Israel and support for the Palestinian Authority. But reports that a massacre did not occur have received scant attention in the Western news media.

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