Lockdowns come in many shapes and sizes, and the one that millions of us around the world are enduring today is in place for our own protection from the coronavirus Covid-19. However, there are other forms of isolation which are also imposed upon communities by force, and which serve to protect the powerful while hiding evidence of their murderous activities.
I’m drawing this parallel today because every year at this time I relive a memory so awful that it may well be among the last things I ever remember.
In mid-April 2002, the “Israel Defence Forces” (IDF) scrambled to hide one of its biggest war crimes of this century in the occupied West Bank: Israeli soldiers killed at least 52 Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp. Having completed their killing spree between 1 and 11 April at the height of the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada, IDF troops would have left but for one thing: how could they cover up the killing of 52 people and hide the evidence of a massacre?
Those in charge of so-called Operation Defensive Shield decided to enforce a siege so tight that no one, despite global protests, could get past Israel’s ring of steel; it was a total lockdown. It lasted for weeks while the Israeli government did its best to keep journalists and human rights observers away from the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.
The atmosphere was tense and the UN announced that it was planning to launch an investigation into compelling allegations of Israeli war crimes said to have been committed in the refugee camp. The Israelis did what they do well, and mobilised malleable politicians and government advisers to mislead a gullible media and public.
The then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, moved quickly. Speaking from — ironically — the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where Zionist terrorists had planted a bomb and killed 91 people in 1946, he said that he saw “no evidence” of a massacre. By 23 April Powell was back in Washington briefing senators: “Right now, I’ve seen no evidence of mass graves and I’ve seen no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place.” He wasn’t lying, of course, because he never went to Jenin, so could not have “seen” the evidence even if he had wanted to. I was one of the first journalists on the scene, though, and was in the refugee camp in Jenin on the day that the former general presented his briefing.
Powell, the man who lied at the UN about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during the build up to the 2003 invasion, went on to criticise the “coarse speculation that was out there as to what happened, with terms being tossed around like massacre and mass graves, none of which so far seems to be the case.” I don’t know how many people have to die before it can be called a massacre, but 52 should be more than enough if previous mass murders thus described are anything to go by.
The Prime Minister of Israel at the time was Ariel Sharon who, as Minister of Defence, had “personal responsibility” for the IDF’s complicity in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982. He told the world that “only” terrorists had died in Jenin, but I saw the bodies of the dead being pulled from the rubble, including children, women and a man in a wheelchair; they were no reasonable person’s idea of “terrorists”. In their bid to cover up the massacre, the Israelis buried many of the bodies under buildings demolished by a bulldozer; some were still alive when the bulldozer moved in.
By 19 April 2002, Human Rights Watch gained access to Jenin and spent a week gathering evidence for a 48-page report which left no doubt that war crimes had been committed inside the refugee camp. Around 100 eyewitness accounts were taken by an experienced team of investigators. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli military refused to cooperate.
Sadly, HRW was quick to dismiss allegations of a massacre by Israeli forces in such a way that pre-empted the planned UN investigation into events in Jenin refugee camp. In any case, Sharon’s government blocked the UN move.
The HRW claim that there was no evidence of a massacre was seized on by Israel’s propaganda machine. However, the Israelis chose to ignore the report’s conclusion that, based on the evidence and research undertaken, “During their incursion into the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes.”
Those crimes included:
* Fourteen-year-old Muhammad Hawashin was shot twice in the face and killed on 3 April as he walked with a group of women and children towards the local hospital.
* Wheelchair-bound Kamal Zghair, 57-years-old, was shot and run over by IDF tanks on 10 April as he wheeled himself down the road to his home, carrying a white flag.
* Afaf Disuqi, an unarmed civilian, responded to a knock on her door on 5 April and was killed by a bomb thrown by IDF soldiers. Eyewitnesses reported that the soldiers were laughing as Disuqi was mutilated horribly by the blast.
* Evidence of summary executions, including that of Jamal Al-Sabbagh who was shot and killed on 6 April, whilst obeying orders to remove his clothes.
* Resistance fighter Munthir al-Haj, aged 22, was brutally killed on 3 April, as he lay severely wounded. For almost two hours, Al-Haj attempted to drag himself into a nearby hospital, before an Israeli soldier opened fire from a tank, killing him instantly.
My few hours in Jenin marks one of the darkest days in my career as a journalist. Every time I recall it, the unmistakable odour of rotting flesh from corpses hidden under mounds of rubble by the Israelis fills my nostrils. Moreover, I will never forget that my personal account of Jenin post-massacre was spiked by the Sunday Express and replaced by a shocking tissue of lies written by the late Labour peer and former MP Greville Janner, one of Britain’s leading Zionists of his day.
Janner, like Powell, never visited Jenin. I did and I had told the story of Jenin with tears in my eyes, as they are right now, as a tribute to the heroic resistance of the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation. If I can still remember the massacre of Jenin so vividly, God alone knows what the Palestinians who lived through it are feeling today.
As I walked around the town in April 2002 not one home left standing was without battle scars after the onslaught by F16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters on Jenin’s residential areas. I can still hear the cries of a man called Marwan who told me how his wife had bled to death in his arms after shrapnel ripped through her jugular vein while she was in her kitchen. She might have been saved but Israeli soldiers laughed and taunted him, and refused to let him take her to the hospital.
If you are finding this coronavirus lockdown a bit tough at the moment, therefore, just thank your lucky stars that you are not doing it under a brutal Israeli siege, with snipers placed strategically to kill you should you dare to step outside your home. There are no hellfire missiles being fired at you by one of the best-equipped armies in the world; no attack helicopters and fighter jets overhead; and no tanks rumbling down your street, with bulldozers flattening homes as they advance towards you. Be grateful.
The anniversary of the Jenin massacre comes just days after the anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre on 9 April 1948. More than 200 men, women and children were killed on that day by the Zionist militias that went on to form the core of the nascent Israel Defence Forces. Terrorism, death and destruction has been the modus operandi of Israel since its earliest days, and it continues to be so today. As the number of its war crimes and crimes against humanity continues to grow, we cannot let the world forget what happened in Jenin and Deir Yassin. For the sake of the future of everyone in the region, we cannot allow anyone to forget the past and airbrush the victims of Israel’s occupation from history, not least those who were killed in Jenin, 1-11 April 2002.