Israel/Occupied Territories: Jenin War Crimes Investigation Needed
May 3, 2002
The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious, and in some cases appear to be war crimes. Criminal investigations are needed to ascertain individual responsibility for the most serious violations. Such investigations are first and foremost the duty of the Israeli government, but the international community needs to ensure that meaningful accountability occurs
Peter Bouckaert Senior Researcher

Evidence suggests that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) committed war crimes in the military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, Human Rights Watch charged in a report issued today after a week-long investigation. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support claims that the IDF massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the camp.

In its forty-eight page report, "Israel, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority Territories: Jenin: IDF Military Operations," Human Rights Watch identified fifty-two Palestinians who were killed during the operation, of whom twenty-two were civilians. Many of the civilians were killed willfully or unlawfully. Human Rights Watch also found that the IDF used Palestinian civilians as "human shields" and used indiscriminate and excessive force during the operation.

"The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious, and in some cases appear to be war crimes," said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and a member of the investigative team. "Criminal investigations are needed to ascertain individual responsibility for the most serious violations. Such investigations are first and foremost the duty of the Israeli government, but the international community needs to ensure that meaningful accountability occurs."

A Human Rights Watch team of three experienced investigators spent seven days in the Jenin refugee camp, gathering detailed accounts from victims and witnesses and carefully corroborating and independently crosschecking their accounts with those of others to reconstruct a detailed picture of events in the camp in April 2002. The IDF has not agreed to Human Rights Watch's repeated requests for information regarding its military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza.

Bouckaert, who headed up earlier Human Rights Watch investigations into wartime abuses in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, said that the Jenin events clearly warrant further investigation. He noted that the hallmark of a professional army is to take seriously the need to establish accountability for serious violations of the laws of war.

"There have been widely divergent accounts of what happened in Jenin. A U.N. fact-finding mission could contribute significantly to the search for the truth in Jenin," Bouckaert said. "Israel should cooperate fully with whatever new U.N. fact-finding mission might be established, and there should be no immunity for persons implicated in the most serious violations of the laws of war."

On April 3, 2002, the IDF launched a major military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, home to some fourteen thousand Palestinian refugees. An estimated eighty to one hundred armed Palestinians took part in the fighting. Israel claims the camp had been the launching ground for many of the suicide bombings that have killed and maimed over one hundred Israeli civilians in recent months. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned this deliberate killing of civilians. Palestinian armed militants had also planted many explosive devices in the camp prior to and during the IDF incursion.

Among the twenty-two civilian deaths documented during this investigation were the following:

Fifty-seven-year-old Kamal Zghair, a wheelchair-bound man who was shot and then run over by IDF tanks on April 10 as he was moving in his wheelchair equipped with a white flag down a major road in Jenin;

Thirty-seven-year-old Jamal Fayid, a paralyzed man, who was crushed in the rubble of his home on April 7 after IDF soldiers refused to allow his family the time to remove him from their home before a bulldozer destroyed it;

Fourteen-year-old Faris Zaiben, who was killed by fire from an IDF armored car as he went to buy groceries when the IDF-imposed curfew was finally lifted on April 11; and

Fifty-two-year-old 'Afaf Disuqi, who was killed on April 5 by an explosive charge that IDF soldiers had placed at her front door as she went to open it for the soldiers;

In one case involving a wounded Palestinian militant, IDF soldiers for several hours prevented medical help from reaching him. The soldiers then killed the man, who had been left close to a hospital near the camp and was no longer armed or taking active part in the fighting.

Human Rights Watch also found evidence of indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the IDF. U.S.-supplied helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and other ordinance into the camp, in some cases making insufficient efforts to identify legitimate military targets and avoid hitting civilian houses. The helicopters struck many houses in Jenin refugee camp that were inhabited only by civilians, and where no Palestinian fighters were present. In one of many such cases, a tank shell and two helicopter-fired TOW anti-tank missiles hit the house of Kamal Tawalba, a father of fourteen children, on April 6. No fighters were present in the home. When Tawalba and his family tried to leave their burning home, IDF soldiers in the vicinity shot at them.

In another case, a sixty-year-old woman was killed when a helicopter fired a missile directly into her top-floor apartment although there were no armed Palestinians in the building or the immediate vicinity.

The IDF's campaign caused extensive and disproportionate destruction of the civilian infrastructure of the camp, particularly in the Hawashin district following an April 9 ambush of Israeli soldiers there. In contrast to other parts of the camp where armored bulldozers were used mainly to widen streets, in Hawashin they razed the entire district. Throughout the camp, at least 140 buildings were completely leveled, many of them multi-family dwellings, and more than 200 others were severely damaged, leaving an estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the population, homeless. More than one hundred of those buildings were in Hawashin district.

The extensive, systematic, and deliberate leveling of the entire district was clearly disproportionate to any military objective that Israel aimed to achieve. Establishing whether this devastation so exceeded military necessity as to constitute wanton destruction-a war crime-should be one of the highest priorities for any future U.N. fact-finding team, said Bouckaert.

Human Rights Watch also documented cases in which Israeli troops used Palestinian civilians as human shields, a practice prohibited under international humanitarian law. In one case, IDF soldiers forced eight civilians to shield them by making them stand on a balcony while the soldiers fired at Palestinian gunmen. Kamal Tawalba and his fourteen-year-old son were among them. Tawalba described how the soldiers kept them for three hours in the line of fire, and used his and his son's shoulders to rest their rifles as they fired.

"Even accepting the Israeli charge that Palestinian groups who used the refugee camp as a base were responsible for attacking Israeli civilians," said Bouckaert, "this does not excuse the IDF violations documented in this report." Bouckaert added that Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Palestinian gunmen forced civilians to serve as human shields during the battles in the camp, and no indication that Palestinian gunmen had prevented Palestinian civilians from leaving the camp.

"As in our prior investigations of IDF operations, we also found numerous cases where the IDF coerced Palestinian civilians to take part in military operations," Bouckaert said. "Palestinian civilians were forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to accompany IDF troops during their searches of homes and to carry out some of the most dangerous tasks during these searches."

During most of "Operation Defensive Shield," the IDF blocked emergency medical access to Jenin camp. Soldiers repeatedly fired on Red Crescent ambulances, and in one case shot to death a uniformed nurse, twenty-seven-year-old Farwa Jammal, who had come to the assistance of a wounded man. In another case, fifty-eight-year-old Mariam Wishahi died in her home thirty-six hours after she was injured by shrapnel; IDF soldiers repeatedly prevented ambulances from reaching her home, located just a few hundred meters from Jenin's main hospital.

During the period the IDF had control of the camp, the Israeli authorities had responsibility under international humanitarian law for the welfare of the civilian population. Yet Israeli authorities denied humanitarian organizations access to the camp during their offensive, and continued to prevent humanitarian access to the refugee camp for days after military operations had ceased, despite great need.

Human Rights Watch has investigated and reported on violations of international humanitarian law by governments and armed groups in conflict situations around the globe, including most recently in Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, eastern Congo, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Colombia.

Human Rights Watch is preparing a separate report on those responsible for suicide bombings directed against Israeli civilians.