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The Lesson of Jenin

By Jacob Dallal


A wave of journalists from around the world descended upon Israel to cover the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. The last time a media event of this scale took place in Israel was April 2002, when the IDF entered West Bank cites, including the city of Jenin, following 18 months of Palestinian terror attacks.

From a military standpoint, the operation in Jenin was a success, but from a public relations standpoint, it was a disaster. In the days after Israeli forces entered Jenin, a rumour took hold around the world: that the IDF had levelled the refugee camp and massacred its inhabitants. The rumor was utterly false; but by the time it was proven false and Israel was vindicated, it was too late: The myth of a massacre in Jenin had entered the popular consciousness, where it was to remain. The story looms so large today that if you do a Google search for ‘Jenin’, you come up with 950,000 entries.

I recently completed a four-year stint in the International Press Office of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. In 2002, I escorted the first group of journalists to Jenin following the conclusion of fighting. I saw how Israel mishandled the PR side of the operation, creating the conditions under which an enormous lie could enter international discourse as truth. The commander of the operation in Jenin insisted on keeping journalists out because he was afraid one of them would get killed. His decision was backed by the chain-of-command up to the Defence Minister.

Israel learned a valuable PR lesson from Jenin: During a low-intensity conflict, give the press maximal access. In the wake of the events in Jenin, the Army made media pool access during every major operation a standard practice.

In the months after the fighting in Jenin, the IDF started embedding reporters with troops in earnest, a practice that continues to this day. The army also gave priority to foreign reporters.

At a time when Israel faces the continued prospect of violence from Gaza, the lessons of Jenin are once again relevant. This is the firsthand story of how Israel tracked down its enemies in Jenin but allowed the truth to slip away.

"Where are the rest of the bodies?" I asked. "There are no more bodies," the officer replied. I asked again, but he was adamant: There were no more bodies. It was Sunday morning, 14 April 2002, and I was escorting a group of 20 journalists into Jenin in the aftermath of the intense fighting there. Debris was scattered everywhere. We hobbled over mounds of earth, repeatedly warned by soldiers not to stray from the path or touch anything in the piles of rubble as they were laden with live ordinance. The journalists — who had been pleading for access to the area for the last week — had come with one main aim: to check out Palestinian claims that there had been a massacre in the refugee camp, adjacent to the city of Jenin.

One of our tour guides was the liaison officer for the IDF brigade assigned to the Jenin area, Lieutenant Colonel Fuad Halhal, an Israeli Druze, who served as the army’s point of contact with the Palestinian civil officials in Jenin and coordinated humanitarian issues. He was also the man responsible for reporting the IDF assessment of Palestinian dead in the fighting. Asked by journalists how many Palestinians were killed, Halhal said that 25 Palestinian bodies had been recovered and were in local hospitals, with another 25 in the rubble.

Serge Schmemann of the New York Times took me aside and said "This doesn’t make any sense… you guys have been saying there are 150 dead, and this officer is saying there are only 25, possibly 50?"

Indeed, the Palestinians were saying that 500 people had been killed; the Israeli army had estimated the Palestinian casualties at between 150 and 200. When we finally got to the field, he could account for no more than 50 Palestinian bodies.

I gathered the press together and went over the Palestinian body count. According to the final UN Report on Jenin, 52 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, a figure Israel accepts as definitive.

The Israeli offensive in Jenin, and other cities in the West Bank, began on 3 April 2002. Jenin was the stronghold of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and the place that had generated the most suicide bombers in the years leading up to the offensive.

The IDF had actually anticipated encountering the heaviest resistance not in Jenin but in Nablus, and so decided to send two regular Infantry Brigades (the Paratroopers and Golani) to fight. Jenin, meanwhile, was assigned to a reserve brigade that had been part of the 20,000 strong reserve call-up for the operation. The reservists had very little time to train and prepare for the intricacies of urban warfare in advance of the operation.

Once the operation was under way, the extent of the resistance and the ferocity of the fight in Jenin surprised everyone. The intelligence indicated that the camp had been extensively booby-trapped in advance of the Israeli offensive. Soldiers were stunned to encounter whole streets and sewers rigged and booby traps in garbage bins, refrigerators and handbags.

Although fierce, the fighting in Jenin did not attract particular media notice during the first few days, as there was fighting in all the West Bank cities, and the IDF spokesperson’s office did not believe the situation in Jenin warranted particular attention. In fact, we were far more preoccupied with Bethlehem and the standoff that was taking place with Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity.

The real problem with Jenin lay in the unfortunate fact that it was the only area of the West Bank to be hermetically sealed from the press. At the start of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF declared all Palestinian cities closed military zones, barring all civilians, including journalists, from entering out of concern for their safety. But that was de jure; de facto journalists could get essentially everywhere in the West Bank, except for the refugee camp of Jenin. In part due to topography, in part due to the small area of the camp, the closed military zone in Jenin was uniquely easy to enforce, which meant journalists stayed out.

It is instructive to compare Jenin to the situation in Nablus, where the fighting was also fierce and the Palestinian casualties were higher: around 75 dead. But because the press was able to make its way through Nablus and witness the fighting, the situation there never really made news. It was clear to the media that there were firefights between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen, and that was the extent of the story.

In Jenin, however, there was no media, and an information vacuum prevailed when, on the fourth day of fighting, Saturday, April 6, Palestinians began using the word "massacre." At the time, however, we were not concerned: This was not the first time the Palestinians had used that term during the conflict; moreover, by the next day, indications from the field were that the IDF was wrapping the battle up. Chief IDF spokesman Brigadier General Ron Kitrey declared, "We are on the verge of ending the fighting."

But the fighting did not end Sunday; and as hostilities continued into Monday, they began to look more serious. Not only were press barred from entering Jenin but so were aid agencies and UN personnel. And the military operation had stepped up to include helicopter missile fire and armoured bulldozers to deal with those pockets too dangerous for the soldiers on the ground to enter.

Then came the event that would divert the army’s attention and essentially doom any attempt to get the truth about what was happening in Jenin out to the world. Before dawn on Tuesday morning, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in an elaborate Palestinian ambush. This was the highest IDF casualty figure in a single attack in the whole of the conflict. The deaths hardened the army’s viewpoint that the situation was still extremely dangerous and that no one would enter the camp until it was safe. If we in the spokesperson’s office were realising by Monday the urgency of bringing journalists into the field, by Tuesday such a request had become unrealistic. What’s more, the death of the 13 soldiers, at close range and in very intense fighting, made it incomprehensible to IDF leaders that anyone — let alone journalists — could believe Palestinian claims of a massacre.

But in retrospect, it was during the fateful four days that followed — from the morning of Wednesday, April 10 to the morning of Sunday, April 14, when reporters finally entered the camp — that the myth of the massacre in Jenin came to life. The fighting continued all day Wednesday and until late Thursday, when the IDF declared it had taken control of the Jenin refugee camp. Still, entry remained extremely dangerous because of sporadic gunfire and the unexploded ordinances laid by gunmen in the rubble. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that we would receive a call instructing us to arrange a media pool for the next morning.

The story of the Israeli soldiers being ambushed dominated the news on Tuesday, but by Wednesday the media began to refocus on the question of casualties in Jenin. This was partly due to the fact that much of the bulldozing occurred immediately following the ambush in a particular pocket of the camp that was too heavily booby-trapped for soldiers to enter the houses on foot. And the Palestinians began to spread the story that the army was bulldozing the whole camp.

Worse still, the IDF was releasing highly inflated estimates of Palestinian casualties. With Palestinian leaders clamouring "massacre" on all the news networks, pressure mounted on the IDF to give its own assessment of Palestinian casualties. The result was a ‘guess-timate’ offered by field commanders based on the intensity of the fighting. While our office was saying around 150 Palestinians were killed, I heard very senior generals say up to 200, and the press quoted Defence officials with numbers ranging as high as 250. These figures made the Palestinian claims of 500 dead seem within the bounds of plausibility.

But here, again, you had the problem of independent verification: Ben Wederman of CNN said the following in a report on Friday, April 12:

    "I’ve been watching the Arabic television stations, the satellite stations, basically it is now taken as a fact, as the truth by millions of Arabs that a massacre did take place within that camp. But we, ourselves have no way of confirming that. And until we get inside, the stories will mount."

And so they did. "When it turned out the rumours of executions were baseless, Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat continued lying, though he lowered the number of dead from three thousand to five hundred," wrote Ze’ev Schiff, the senior military analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz. Without independent media access, these numbers continued to enjoy credibility.

If the exaggerated figures weren’t bad enough, talk at the IDF general staff meeting on Friday of removing the bodies of Palestinian gunmen and burying them elsewhere proved to be the nail in the coffin of Israel’s PR effort. The idea came up after the generals were presented with intelligence indicating that Palestinians intended to stage a mass funeral when the IDF withdrew from the Jenin camp to support their claim of a massacre, bringing bodies from other areas to the site to ensure a high body count. The generals were adamant about preventing this ploy, and the suggestion was made to bury the bodies recovered in an army burial site for enemy dead in the Jordan Valley.

Although no steps were taken to implement the plan, the idea of carrying out a mass burial quickly leaked out of the meeting, prompting an outcry. Human rights groups immediately petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, which issued an injunction barring moving the bodies. Most critically, though, news of this plan convinced the Palestinians, and others, that there indeed was a massacre and here was proof that the IDF was trying to cover it up. The weekend papers and newscasts all over the world led with the claims and counterclaims of a massacre, coupled with the Supreme Court injunction.

The confusion within the Israeli establishment finally came to an end on Sunday morning when then-Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer reported to the cabinet that "dozens not hundreds" were killed. Sunday was also the day I led the first tour of the camp.

After Sunday, the whole of the following week was spent by Israeli spokespersons doing damage control. We had two other tours of Jenin that week for reporters. We even arranged for photographers to shoot pictures from the air, in order to prove that the razing of homes was limited to a small area of the refugee camp, and that the whole of the camp had not been destroyed, as many media reports had implied.

While it soon became clear that there was no massacre, and while the UN and major human rights organisations put the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin at around 52, the impression of a massacre persists, and the association of "Jenin" and "massacre" cannot be fully erased from international consciousness. This teaches us something fundamental about shaping world opinion in a low-intensity conflict: It is not always the reality that matters, but rather the perception of the reality; and that perception is formed by the media, and the perception in the media is formed by the initial rendition of the event. An untruth cannot be allowed to linger — it has to be disproved, to a reasonable journalistic standard, immediately. Otherwise you can do all the damage control you want, but the initial impression will never be fully erased.

The IDF has learned this lesson the hard way. Had we sent a single representative of the foreign press into Jenin for half an hour every day of the week during the fighting, I can say with almost full certainty that the claims of a massacre would not have taken root.

Specifically, the journalists on the ground would have been able to sort out the issue of estimated Palestinian casualties; and they would almost certainly have arrived at more accurate numbers than those relayed through the chain of command to the general staff.

In the months that followed the fighting in Jenin, the IDF insisted on bringing journalists, serving as pool reporters, on almost every large operation, even to the point where it wasn’t useful for the journalists themselves. I remember a military operation that summer in Bethlehem in which we took a senior print journalist who ended up spending ten hours in an armoured personnel carrier (APC); and although he was exposed to everything that went on within and in the proximity of the APC, he had little sense of the whole operation, nearly missing his deadline as he tried to call in fragments of the story by cell phone. Eventually we found a way to strike the right balance with the pools, taking into consideration the needs of journalists.

But even the pools in which journalists sometimes get stuck and don’t have much to report on are nevertheless useful. During an operation in Gaza last year we sent a number of journalists to the edge of the Palestinian town of Rafah to see the fighting from the IDF perspective. The APC brought them in, then parked, and the soldiers were promised that another APC would be there momentarily to pick them up.

Momentarily, as sometimes happens due to lack of communication within the army, took about three hours. In the meantime, there were continuous exchanges of gunfire between IDF and Palestinian gunmen, and the journalists were ducking for cover in the parked APC. They, understandably, began to make panicked calls to their bureaus, and even contacted the US Embassy for help.

The downside of this press pool was that we ended up with a group of justifiably angry journalists. But there was an upside: The reporters witnessed the heavy fighting, got a good sense of the intensity of combat, and perhaps came to better understand the situation of the Israeli soldier. In other words, unlike in the spring of 2002, reporters saw just about everything there was to see. IDF commanders provided the same access during the tense weeks in Gaza. By doing so, they ensured that Gaza will not be portrayed as the next Jenin.

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