by Ran HaCohen
Last week, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan released a report on Israel's attack on Jenin in April. A reminder of the highlights: After two weeks of heavy fighting in Jenin's refugee camp, journalists and human rights organisations (including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International), who visited Jenin, unearthed numerous accounts of atrocities. Some 150 houses demolished, sometimes with their inhabitants inside. Civilians used as human shields. Extrajudicial killings. A Palestinian nurse in full uniform shot through the heart while trying to tend a wounded man. A fourteen-year-old shot dead by an Israeli tank while shopping. A woman killed when Israeli soldiers blew open the door of her house as she tried to open it for them. A man shot dead in his wheelchair. And so on.
That's the controversial part. Uncontroversial is what followed: UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to send a fact-finding team to Jenin (April 19). Israel promised to co-operate. Annan established a fact-finding team and instructed it to proceed to the area. Now Israel expressed concerns related to the composition of the team, the scope of its mandate, how this mandate would be carried out, various procedural matters, etc. etc. Negotiations took place and Annan seemed to satisfy Israel's demands. Finally (April 30), the Israeli Cabinet issued a statement saying that as long as its terms have not been met, "it will not be possible for the clarification process to begin." It didn't bother to say what those terms were; but on the phone with Annan, Israeli officials broached additional issues to those raised before and indicated that this list might not be exhaustive. Following this, Annan disbanded the team (May 3), ordered a report without visiting the scene, and addressed letters to the Israel and to the Palestinians, requesting them to submit relevant information. Israel didn't respond even to this request. All along, then, Israel's very conduct clearly indicated it had a lot to hide.
Now the UN finally released its report, based entirely on evidence from secondary sources, written comfortably in Geneva. Human rights groups immediately blamed the report of being "seriously flawed"; Israel's government, naturally, welcomed it. The Independent noted that the report was "carefully worded not to give offence to Israel or its allies. It deliberately draws no conclusions, but only compiles evidence from various sources."
Whom Should We Trust?
Since we cannot deal here with all the issues at stake, let's examine just one: that of demolishing houses with their inhabitants inside. The UN report says:
"IDF also used armoured bulldozers, supported by tanks, to demolish portions of the camp. The Government of Israel maintains that 'IDF forces only destroyed structures after calling a number of times for inhabitants to leave buildings, and from which the shooting did not cease'. Witness testimonies and human rights investigations allege that the destruction was both disproportionate and indiscriminate, some houses coming under attack from the bulldozers before their inhabitants had the opportunity to evacuate."
So were innocent inhabitants given time to leave, or not? The UN gives both sides equal space (24 words), and takes no stand. Israel "maintains" they were, whereas witnesses (surely Palestinian) and human rights investigations "allege" they were not.
Perhaps We Cannot Know?
Yes we can. We know very well. And the UN knows, or could know, if it bothered to simply read Israel's most selling daily, Yedioth Achronot, on May 31. Not a very clandestine source. An Israeli D-9 bulldozer driver, one Moshe Nissim from Jerusalem, described there in detail what he himself had done in Jenin. Here:
"For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. The whole area. Any house that they fired from came down. And to knock it down, I tore down some more. They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I come, but I gave no one a chance. I didn't wait. I didn't give one blow, and wait for them to come out. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible.
"Many people where inside houses we started to demolish. They would come out of the houses we where working on. I didn't see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. And I didn't see house falling down on live people. But if there were any, I wouldn't care at all. I am sure people died inside these houses, but it was difficult to see, there was lots of dust everywhere, and we worked a lot at night. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down."
So an evidence of an Israeli soldier clearly affirms allegations of human rights organisations and refute the claims of the Israeli Government. The report presented by Kofi Annan is unreasonably biased in favour of Israel, at least on this crucial point. Why? To understand that, we'll have to go six years back in time. It's an obvious link; strange that nobody seems to remember it. Amazing how quickly things are forgotten when they contradict our mental set.
We're precisely six years before Jenin, on April 18, 1996. It is "Operation Grapes of Wrath", conducted by PM Shimon Peres and "Defence" Minister Ehud Barak. The headquarters compound of the Fijian battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) come under fire by Israeli artillery. At the time, more than 800 Lebanese have sought refuge inside the compound, which is located in the village of Qana. An estimated 100 persons are killed and a larger number wounded, including four UN soldiers.
Israel, obviously, claims that it was just an accident; that it was not aware of the large number of Lebanese civilians in the compound; that it had no aircraft flying above the area before or during the shelling. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali orders an investigation, headed by Dutch military advisor Major-General Franklin van Kappen.
Van Kappen's report dismisses Israel's outrageous claim about not being aware of civilians, reminding that a UN compound was not a legitimate target, whether or not civilians were in it. Moreover, the report stated clearly that "The distribution of point impact detonations and air bursts makes it improbable that impact fuses and proximity fuses were employed in random order, as stated by the Israeli forces" and that "Contrary to repeated denials, two Israeli helicopters and a remotely piloted vehicle were present in the Qana area at the time of the shelling."
How very different from the present report on Jenin! A clear-cut conclusion, stated in a diplomatic language, but in so many words saying that Israel shelled and killed on purpose the 100 Lebanese civilians seeking refuge in the UN compound.
And what happened then? Well, the US urged the Secretary General not to publish the incriminating report. SG Boutros-Ghali insisted. The Clinton administration put pressure on the UN to soften the language, hoping to turn it into a useless "Israel-maintains-this-and-others-allege-that" kind of paper like the one on Jenin. Boutros-Ghali refused, and published the embarrassing report as is. It was on the 7th of May, 1996.
A week later, on the 13th of May, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher met Secretary General Boutros-Ghali at his official residence in New York. He informed him of the definite US decision that it would veto his re-election. Boutros-Ghali later said this was the first time he had any direct indication from the US that it was unhappy with him. Boutros-Ghali told Christopher that he hoped the US would change its mind. It didn't. Though Boutros-Ghali was supported unanimously by the African countries as well as by France, China, Russia, Germany, Japan and many European countries, the US vetoed his re-election, threatening African countries that loyalty to Boutros-Ghali would destroy the chances of Africa to retain the Secretary General's post for a second term, and threatening the UN not to pay the US assessments if Boutros Ghali remained. Finally, the US imposed the election of Kofi Annan and did away with Boutros-Ghali, described as "too independent" and "difficult to control".
This is how SG Annan was elected, and this is the background against which his report on Jenin should be read. The US did a good bargain: Annan is not Boutros-Ghali. When Israel showed reluctance towards the fact-finding team, Annan quickly lent it a hand and disbanded the team. Then, without visiting the scene, Annan issued a shameful report, echoing Israeli propaganda, ignoring even "embarrassing" material published in the Israeli press. Considering the background of his own election, Annan can hardly be expected to have behaved differently. The issue here is not personal: it is how the US runs the world.
So whom should we trust on the Jenin events? Human rights organisations and journalists who visited the scene, and whose report of war crimes and atrocities are corroborated even by the evidence of an Israeli soldier – or rather a Geneva-based UN report of Kofi Annan, the man who replaced a predecessor "too independent" regarding the Israeli massacre in Qana? Decide for yourself.
Ran HaCohen teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at AntiWar.com, where this article first appeared.