JENIN - THE PROPAGANDA WAR
April 21, 2002.
Appendix and some quotes added.
In Israel, Jenin is perceived mainly as a public relations problem (called
in Hebrew 'hasbara' -explaining). It appears even that the army and
the government believe that Israel is winning the propaganda battle.
After all, all relevant principles of this battle have been strictly
The first principle: No pictures or information in real time! The
IDF (Israeli army) managed to fully prevent the media from entering
Jenin during the events. Thus, all we were left with were 'conflicting
reports' - a stream of horrible accounts coming from Palestinian witnesses
who escaped the refugee camp - and the IDF's utter denial. In the
meanwhile, the work of destruction could continue undisturbed for ten days.
On the seventh day of Israel's 'operation' in Jenin, (April 9), it
was reported in the Israeli media that the army was nevertheless
worried. "Officers of the IDF expressed their shock" about what
happened in Jenin: "When the world will see the pictures of what we
have done there, it will cause us enormous damage." (Ha'aretz Hebrew
edition, Amos Har'el and Amira Hass, April 9, 2002). Peres even slipped
and mentioned the taboo word "massacre" (which he immediately denied of
Israel's counter attack was immediately launched. "The Foreign Ministry
is mobilizing forces to counter Palestinian allegations that IDF forces
conducted 'a massacre' in the Jenin refugee camp" (Ha'aretz, April
10, 2002). A special PR center of the IDF and the Foreign Ministry
was formed in Jerusalem, and its representative, Gideon Meir, passed
to the press the major principles of the Israeli version: a. "What
happened in Jenin was a fierce battle and not a massacre." ("The main
diplomatic ammunition" in the campaign's "arsenal is that 22 Israeli
soldiers have been killed in the fighting"). b. "The battle was fierce
because the IDF sought to minimize civilian suffering." c. The PR
campaign should direct attention to the Israeli casualties in terror
attacks. (Ha'aretz Hebrew edition, Anat Cigelman and Aluf Ben, April
The second principle of the propaganda battle: If you have full control
over the local media, you can pass anything. These messages have been
repeated since, again and again, not only by all politicians and Israeli
spokesmen, but also by almost every reporter, weaved into the news
reports, and by the analysts and columnists, disguised as spontaneous
acts of expressing an educated opinion. Here is Ha'aretz editorial version
of the propaganda line: "There is evidence of intense combat, but,
with appropriate caution, it can already be said what did not happen
in the Jenin refugee camp. There was no massacre. No order from above
was given, nor was a local initiative executed, to deliberately and
systematically kill unarmed people" (Ha'aretz, April 19, 2002,
This line is pretty sophisticated. The word 'massacre' may bring
to mind soldiers moving from house to house, shooting everyone they
find -men, women and children (as in Sabra and Shatila). Such massacre
clearly did not take place in Jenin. No Palestinian source ever
described the facts this way (see (1) in the appendix). Still, Ha'aretz
and everyone else insist on falsifying just this specific interpretation
of the word. What did clearly happen in Jenin is that the army simply
ignored the fact that there were an unknown number of individuals and
families in the areas which were bombarded day and night by missiles from
'Cobra' helicopters, or even in some of the houses erased by bulldozers to
pave ways for the tanks. No one came to shoot them individually; they were
just buried under their bombarded or bulldozed homes. Others died of their
wounds in the alleys, or cried for days under the ruins,
until their voices faded away.
Bit by bit, testimonies of reserve soldiers are filtering through
the back pages of the Israeli media: "After the first moments of the
fighting, when a commander was killed... the instructions were clear:
shoot every window, sew every house - whether someone shoots from
there or not." To the question whether he saw civilians get hurt,
the reservist answered: "Personally - not. But the point is that they
were inside the houses. The last days, the majority of those who came
out of the houses were old people, women and children, who were there
the whole time and absorbed our fire. These people were not given
any chance to leave the camp, and we are talking about many people"
(Ofer Shelah, Yediot Aharonot's weekend supplement, April 19, 2002).
For many, such descriptions are sufficient to make them shiver, and
they don't really care whether the right word for this is 'massacre'. For
the success of the PR campaign, it is therefore necessary to stress that we
are not talking here about shelling and killing civilians, but about a
fierce battle, in which civilians may also get occasionally killed.
According to the Israeli army, in the Jenin refugee camp, where 15,000
residents are crowded densely, there were a few dozen wanted
terrorists, and several hundred armed men. What is considered
appropriate for such battle conditions? The PR center clarifies this
in its second principle above: It was possible to erase the whole
camp, with its residents, with a few precise hits of F-16 bomber jets,
and, thus, eliminate all the terrorists with no casualties to the
Israeli army. But the army took an enormous risk of actual fighting,
in order to save Palestinian life. If this is the range of options,
The Israeli army proved in Jenin that it is a truly humane army.
It may take a while before we (Israelis) start to digest what we did
in Jenin. I don't have the words yet to speak about my shame, my
horrible pain for the Palestinian people. Therefore I speak about
what we did to ourselves. A dear friend of mine was murdered three
days ago in a trip in Sinai - a painter and computer expert, in the
draft resistance circle. By informal reports, his murderer was an
Egyptian who sought revenge for the murder of the Palestinians. He
could not distinguish between my friend and the nice reserve fellows
from Jenin that we saw and heard so much about the last few days.
In fact, they do look similar, and many of these guys are also in
computer business. Itai Angel, the young journalist who interviewed
reservists on channel 2 TV news last Friday night, has possibly managed
to convince many in our little bubble that such nice guys, by their
very nature, cannot possibly, commit a massacre. Therefore, there
was no massacre - there was a fierce battle and we are OK. But outside
our bubble, nobody watches Itai Angel. They watch the ruins of Jenin.
We are turning the whole Muslim world against us.
APPENDIX: THE BATTLE OVER THE BODIES
(1) Reports on individual, purposeful, shooting of unarmed civilians by
soldiers (executions) regarded only shooting of men. Here is one such
testimony, reported in greater detail by the British 'Independent':
"Fathi Shalabi watched his son die. The two men were standing side
by side with their hands up when Israeli soldiers opened fire on them.
Mr Shalabi's son, Wadh, and another man who was with them died
instantly, but the 63-year-old Mr Shalabi survived. He lay on the
ground pretending to be dead for more than an hour while his son's
blood gathered around him... Mr Shalabi described what took place.
Soldiers ordered his family and Mr Al-Sadi down a narrow alley. 'In
cover behind the corner were four soldiers. The two young men with
me were carrying baby children, and the soldiers did not shoot at
them.' Wadh Shalabi was carrying his four-month-old son, Mahmoud.
The soldiers ordered the men to hand the children over to their mothers
and told the women and children to go into the next-door house. Then
they ordered the men to raise their shirts and show they were not
wearing suicide belts. 'The soldiers were about three metres away.
I heard the names of two of them; they were Gaby and David.' He said
that the soldier called Gaby appeared to be in command. 'They saw
Abdul Karim had a plaster on his back. Suddenly Gaby shouted 'Kill
them!'." (The Independent, Justin Huggler and Phil Reeves April 21,
These two dead men were civilians. However, even shooting surrendering
soldiers is a war crime. The Hague Tribunal found Bosnian Serb General
Radislav Krstic guilty of Genocide for his role in the killing of Muslim
soldiers and males in Srebrenica in 1995. Muslim women and children were
not killed, but expelled from the town. In the mass graves in Kosovo as
well, mostly male bodies were found.
(2) Though Jenin was sealed to the press, pictures of the battlefield,
shot with local amateur video cameras, were broadcasted, mainly on
Arab TV. They showed alleys lined up with male bodies (many armed).
This is to be expected, given that there was indeed a serious battle
in Jenin. In early reports of the Israeli army, the number of these
bodies was estimated as 200. The Palestinian figures were much higher.
As the time was reaching to open the camp to the press, the army
expressed, as we saw, serious concerns regarding the "PR" effects
of the scenes on the ground. It is appropriate to wonder what happened
with these bodies.
On Friday, April 12, it was reported that "the IDF intends to bury
today Palestinians killed in the West Bank camp. Around 200
Palestinians are believed to have been killed in clashes with Israeli
soldiers since the start of the operation last week... Military sources
said until now the IDF has not buried any of the bodies. The sources
said that two infantry companies, along with members of the military
rabbinate, will enter the camp today to collect the bodies. Those
who can be identified as civilians will be moved to a hospital in
Jenin, and then on to burial, while those identified as terrorists
will be buried at a special cemetery in the Jordan Valley. One Israeli
source said that the decision to bury the bodies was taken to prevent
the Palestinians from using the bodies for propaganda purposes...The
Palestinian Authority has expressed concerns that Israel is trying
to hide the large number of dead, since it has blocked Palestinian
medical teams from evacuating the dead and wounded from the camp
during the past week. " (Ha'aretz, April 12, Anat Cigelman, Amos Harel
and Amira Hass).
Apparently, no one in Israel was particularly concerned then about
issues of international law, mass graves, etc. So ample further
information was provided on TV news the evening before about the
preparations: Special refrigerating trucks were shown waiting to
transfer the bodies to "terrorist cemeteries" in the Jordan valley.
However, a petition to the high court interfered. "The High Court
of Justice issued an interim order Friday blocking the IDF from moving
out the bodies of dead Palestinians from the Jenin refugee camp in
the West Bank. A panel of three justices will hold a full discussion
on the matter [Sunday] morning, following a petition by Adalah, the
Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and LAW - The
Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the
Environment. MKs Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and MK Ahmed Tibi
(Ta'al-Arab Movement for Renewal) also filed similar petitions...The
petitioners claim the army's decision violates international law as
the Jordan Valley cemetery will, they claim, be basically a mass grave,
thus damaging the honor of the dead" (Ha'aretz, April 14, 2002, Amos
Harel, Gideon Alon and Jalal Bana).
"MK Avigdor Lieberman (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu) has called
for Justice Barak to be removed from his post following the IDF
decision. 'Barak's decision is a vulgar and clear interference by
the judiciary in the decision of the executive..'" (there). His worry
may have been premature. When the full discussion was held on Sunday
(April 14), the high court turned down the petitions, while
recommending that "the army make use of the services of the Red
Crescent and local officials in Jenin to help locate and identify
bodies, subject to the considerations of the military commanders."
(Ha'aretz Hebrew edition, April 15 Moshe Reinfeld and Anat Zigelman).
It was reported that following the temporary Supreme Court decision
of Friday, the IDF stopped "clearing the bodies" from the camp, waiting
for the final decision on Sunday. However, on Sunday, the media was
already allowed to the camp, and they found a scene of mass
destruction, but with roads clean of bodies: That's how Amos Har'el
described it in Ha'aretz: "The visit, which the army allowed after
a critical three-day delay, did not provide an unequivocal answer
to the question that everyone continues to fight over - the Israeli
leaders and their spokesmen, and the Palestinians - how many
Palestinians died during the fighting? We talked with soldiers in
Jenin, officers and rank-and-file troopers, and all vehemently denied
the accusations of a massacre of civilians. The Palestinian residents
who escaped gave reporters a completely different version. But on
the ground, yesterday, only one Palestinian body was to be found in
the open, in an area where most of the fighting took place" (Ha'aretz,
April 15, 2002).
Harel asks: "So what happened to the rest of the bodies? The
Palestinians say there were 500 killed. IDF Spokesman Brigadier
General Ron Kitri said on Friday there were some 200, but then
corrected himself with a much lower figure." The formal IDF answer
was given that same day: "Israel Defense Forces officers now estimate
that dozens - not hundreds - of Palestinians were killed as a result of
the army's activities in the Jenin refugee camp. As of last night, 46
Palestinian corpses have been located in the camp. Updated estimates
concerning the total number of Palestinian fatalities in the camp now
range between 70 and a little over 100. Officials believe that some
of the corpses are still buried under the rubble of houses demolished
by IDF bulldozers" (Ha'aretz, April 5).
Not too many further questions were asked In Israel regarding how
the IDF's initial estimate of 200 dead in battle turned out so over
exaggerated. Here is how the Ha'aretz editorial of April 19 (cited
above) sums the matter up: "In Israel, too, suspicions were raised
that there was truth to the Palestinian claims. Many feared that Jenin
would be added to the black list of massacres that have shocked the
world. The IDF contributed to those fears when it issued a preliminary
estimate of hundreds of dead in the camp (it turned out that several
score were killed, with the exact number still unknown)".