The battle for the UNRWA Jenin refugee camp ended yesterday morning. Seven days of fighting — among the hardest the IDF has known in recent years — ended with 36 wanted men who laid down their arms, came out of their bullet-ridden houses, and marched with hands raised towards the troops outside. The most senior of the wanted men who surrendered was Sheikh Ali Sfori, the “suicide bomber sender.
Sfori is responsible for terror attacks in which nine Israelis were murdered and more than 150 wounded.
The 36 wanted men, who at first declared they would fight to the last bullet, surrendered at the end of lengthy negotiations and after they were promised they would not be hurt when they came out. The Palestinians claimed that the IDF threatened that if they did not turn themselves in, the buildings would be demolished on top of them. Another seven armed men turned themselves in last night.
Only after the surrender did it become known that under the compound where the armed were holing up was a network of underground tunnels. It was by means of these tunnels that the armed men could move about the refugee camp and keep fighting the IDF. Brig. Gen. Eyal Shlein, the commander of the reserve division that waged the battle in the Jenin area, said last night that there may still be more attempts to shoot at soldiers. However, Shlein stressed: “The goals of the operation in the camp were reached in their entirety. All the armed men were either caught or killed. A great deal of weapons and explosive material were seized. Suicide bombers who had already prepared farewell tapes and were about to leave to commit terror attacks in Israel were also caught”.
The price of this victory was heavy for the IDF: 23 soldiers killed, 15 of them reservists.
The extent of the destruction in the refugee camp was enormous: all of the infrastructure in the camp no longer exists, and there is almost no house that was not damaged. The IDF broke through the narrow alleyways and blazed roads wide enough for tanks to pass. By means of these roads it could reach everywhere in the camp, which was redivided into three areas. “Children are looking for their parents among the ruins. There are entire families who cannot find their homes, which were blown up by the terrorists or which were destroyed by the army,” soldiers said.
Yesterday morning the IDF allowed the residents of the camp to bury their dead. Around 100 bodies were brought to be buried in the camp area, but there still may be many bodies buried under the ruins of the houses and their recovery will continue today. OC Central Command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan ordered that the bodies be buried so that the harsh sight not be photographed and broadcast all over the world, and so that disease not spread. Jenin has become a myth in the last few days in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Dozens of women in Gaza who recently gave birth gave their children the name “Jenin”, in solidarity with the besieged refugee camp.
Television stations last night broadcast harsh testimony of the camp residents. “They swept up the shahids in bulldozers and dumped them into the sewage, so that the journalists would not see them” a Palestinian woman said. In contrast, Israeli sources said that “there was no massacre, but a very hard battle because the terrorists refused to surrender”.
Brig. Gen. Shlein accused the Palestinians of wreaking the destruction: “They rigged the camp completely. Civilians were also hurt because they sent their children and wives to be used as human shields. Children placed the bombs and held weapons”.
A senior army source said yesterday that of the 4,185 people arrested in Operation Protective Wall, there were 60 senior wanted men. 30 of them have “blood on their hands”, i.e. were personally involved in terror attacks. Approximately 15 additional wanted men were killed in battle.
The IDF also continued to operate yesterday in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and some towns and villages in the West Bank. In Dahariya in the Hebron area, soldiers searched the prison, but did not find any wanted men. Searches were also made in Bir Zeit in the Ramallah area and in the Ein Bit Ilma refugee camp near Nablus. 400 Palestinians were arrested there, some of them armed.
Itzik Saban adds: An IDF force last night killed a terrorist who tried to infiltrate the settlement of Elei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip. Searches continued in the area until last night due to concern of more terrorists.
Yossi Bar in Rome adds: The Vatican yesterday asked Israel to promise not to kill the Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when they leave. The Vatican has asked that the Palestinians there be allowed to go to Gaza. This article ran in Yediot Ahronot on April 12th, 2002