Israeli authorities have repeatedly stressed the military significance of the IDF operation inside Jenin refugee camp, stating that it was imperative to stop attacks against Israeli civilians, both by halting the individuals involved and by destroying the infrastructure they used. Israeli officials claim that many of the suicide bombers that had carried out attacks against Israeli civilians came from the camp.1 A number of ranking Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade groups also lived in the refugee camp.
Armed Palestinians had prepared for the attack by setting up positions at the perimeter of and within the camp, and by laying booby-traps in many areas. Located on hills southwest of Jenin's city center, the camp's dense housing and narrow, twisting alleys made for a very difficult environment in which to conduct close-range urban combat. When Human Rights Watch investigators visited the camp, residents spoke openly about the preparations made by the militants, who have been estimated in media reports as having numbered between eighty and one hundred. Children could be seen walking around with unexploded Palestinian pipe bombs they had dug out of the rubble. A de-mining worker told Human Rights Watch that he had defused forty Palestinian-made bombs in a single day.
But the presence of armed Palestinian militants inside the camp, and the preparations made by those armed Palestinian militants in anticipation of the IDF incursion does not detract from an essential fact: Jenin refugee camp was also home to more than 14,000 Palestinian civilians. The IDF had an obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to prevent a disproportionate impact of its military incursion on those civilians.
Most witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the first two days of the incursion as consisting of tank, helicopter, and gunfire. IDF tanks and troops took up positions around the camp's perimeter during the night of April 2 to April 3. While accounts differ according to location, witnesses in the area of the camp immediately above the hospital reported seeing small numbers of IDF soldiers enter the camp on the morning and late afternoon of April 3. Armed Palestinians took up positions at the camp entrance, and also reportedly at other edges of the camp. As the days passed, the armed Palestinians were increasingly forced back into the camp center, fighting in small groups that became increasingly isolated.
To enable tanks and heavy armor to penetrate to the camp, the IDF sent in armored bulldozers to widen the narrow alleys by shearing off the fronts of buildings, in places several meters deep. In the initial days, Palestinian fighters held off the IDF to the west of the camp, while to the east bulldozers penetrated the hilltop district of al-Damaj, overlooking the center of the camp. The IDF infantry managed to enter the northern entrance to the camp, throwing smoke grenades to provide cover as they went from house to house. Although helicopters were present, at that stage they primarily provided air-to-ground support. IDF soldiers "mouseholed" from house to house, knocking large holes in the walls between houses to provide routes of safe passage from to the outer perimeters of the camp to the center. In numerous cases, they used Palestinian civilians and detainees as human shields as they moved from house to house, and, as Human Rights Watch has documented in previous incursions elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, forced civilians to perform the most dangerous tasks of entering and checking buildings during house-to-house searches.
The third day of the incursion, in the early morning hours of April 6, U.S.-supplied helicopters started firing missiles into the camp, often striking civilian homes where no Palestinian fighters were present. The missile fire, which began in the early morning hours, caught many sleeping civilians by surprise. The chaos and destruction caused by the bombardment allowed the IDF to move closer to the center of the camp. On April 9, thirteen Israeli soldiers died in a major ambush in Hawashin district.
After the April 9 ambush, the IDF relied heavily on missile strikes from helicopters. It also extensively used armored bulldozers, which allowed the IDF to penetrate districts where previously they had not been able to consolidate control. The change in military strategy arguably helped to defeat the armed Palestinians in the camp, but as described below, the new tactics had an unacceptable impact on the civilian population and infrastructure of the camp.
The IDF continued to use armored bulldozers throughout the operation. On April 10, armored bulldozers were sent to widen an alley in Abu Nasr district, to the west of Hawashin. At this time, the bulldozers were still primarily being used to widen streets. On April 12, civilians in the Matahin area of the camp, located above the main UNRWA school, were likewise warned to leave their homes in advance of their being destroyed by bulldozers. Many heeded the call. Armored bulldozers soon arrived to clear a broad path for the IDF's armored vehicles, leveling many of the homes in their path.
Towards the end of the IDF operation, the fighting and destruction was mostly focused on the central Hawashin district of the camp. The majority of the fighting appears to have subsided by April 10, but isolated pockets of Palestinian militants continued to hold out for some days. The bulldozers appear to have continued razing homes even after most of the fighting had ended. At the end, the bulldozers had done much more than creating paths for the IDF tanks and armored cars in Hawashin district: the entire area, down to the last house, had been leveled.
1 The dates, locations, and casualties in this period are as follows, according to an April 12 BBC listing: March 2: Jerusalem, nine killed and fifty-seven injured; March 5: Afula, one killed and several injured; March 9: Jerusalem, eleven killed and fifty injured; March 20, near Umm al-Fahm: seven killed; March 21: Jerusalem, two killed and twenty injured; March 26: Jerusalem, three injured; March 27: Netanya, twenty-eight killed; March 29: Jerusalem, two killed; March 30: Tel Aviv, thirty injured; March 31: Haifa, fourteen killed; March 31: Efrat, four injured; April 1: one injured.