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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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What Really Happened in Jenin?

Filed under: Hamas, International Law, Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, Radical Islam, Terrorism, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 22    May 2, 2002

The Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank was the scene of some of the harshest fighting during Israel’s “Defensive Shield” operation. It contained an extensive military infrastructure for terrorist operations against Israel that involved all of the main Palestinian terrorist groups: Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and Hamas. Since October 2000, Jenin-based terrorist networks were responsible for 28 attempted suicide attacks against Israel, of which 23 were actually executed. It is no wonder that in a captured Fatah document ( the Palestinians themselves call Jenin “the martyrs’ (meaning suicide bombers) capital” — as-simat al-istashidin.

Palestinian and International Charges of Massacre

Yet Palestinian spokesmen characterized Israel’s counter-terrorist operations in Jenin, right from the start, as a “massacre.” Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erakat charged during a CNN interview on April 10, 2002, that Israeli troops had killed “more than 500 people.” On April 12, he repeated the charge on CNN: “a real massacre was committed in the Jenin refugee camp.” He added that 300 Palestinians were being buried in mass graves. On April 15, Erakat continued his charges: “And I stand by the term ‘massacres’ were committed in the refugee camps.” He also began to refer to Israeli actions as “war crimes.”

Erakat was not alone in hurling the charge of an Israeli “massacre” of Palestinians in Jenin. Peter Hansen, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) told a Danish newspaper, the Internatavisen Jyllands-Posten, on April 19, that 300-400 Palestinians had been killed in Jenin. He told CNN: “I had, first of all, hoped the horror stories coming out were exaggerations as you often hear in this part of the world, but they were all too true” (CNN, April 19, 2002). CNN correspondent Rula Amin gave her own impressions of “a lot of destruction, a lot of devastation” (CNN, April 17, 2002).

Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN Secretary-General’s representative in the Middle East, was initially more careful: “I cannot say that there wasn’t a massacre, but I cannot say there was a massacre.” Yet he still insisted: “But I think that the question of an international investigation is a highly relevant question on the basis of what I saw” (CNN, April 18, 2002). He spoke of “clear violations of basic humanitarian principles.” Hansen’s impressions and Larsen’s reports undoubtedly affected the assessment of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

What Really Transpired

Now that the city of Jenin has been open for several weeks, a clearer picture of the reality on the ground has emerged:

  • No Massacre of Palestinians Occurred

    Contrary to the repeated televised charges of Saeb Erakat and other Palestinian spokesmen, “hundreds” of Palestinians were not killed. As of May 1, there were 54 bodies found in Jenin — not 500 — according to Israeli military sources. Palestinian officials, on the ground, now verify the Israeli numbers: Mousa Kadoura, director of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization for the northern West Bank, claims 56 Palestinians died in Jenin (Washington Times, May 1, 2002). Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has stated that only seven civilian casualties have been identified (Israel Foreign Ministry Press Release, April 20, 2002). These limited Palestinian casualties were due to the fact that Israel did not employ massive air strikes or artillery barrages in Jenin, but rather sent its vulnerable ground forces to engage in house-to-house combat. As a result, Israel lost 23 soldiers in the battle. Essentially, Israeli soldiers lost their lives in order to keep the collateral deaths of Palestinian civilians to a minimum.

  • The Role of Palestinian Explosives and the Limited Scale of Destruction

    Palestinians admit that they employed large amounts of explosive devices in Jenin. There were booby-trapped buildings and explosive devices configured as anti-personnel mines. Captured Islamic Jihad operative Tabeat Mardawi told CNN that 1,000-2,000 explosive devices had been prepared. An Islamic Jihad bomb-maker from Jenin told Al-Ahram Weekly: “We had more than 50 houses booby-trapped around the camp” (MEMRI, April 24, 2002).

    Still, the level of destruction was limited. Out of 1,896 buildings in the Jenin refugee camp, 130 buildings were destroyed — or less than 10 percent (Israel Defense Forces — Central Command). According to Fatah activist Mousa Kadoura, the area affected was the size of a large football field (Washington Times, May 1, 2002). Moreover, because of the large amounts of Palestinian explosives in the camp, it is difficult to discern what component of this destruction was caused by Israeli forces and what part was a result of Palestinian detonation.

The United Nations and the Jenin Issue

The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1405 on April 19, 2002, which welcomed “the initiative of the Secretary-General to develop accurate information regarding recent events in the Jenin refugee camp through a fact-finding team.” Israel initially announced that it would cooperate with this fact-finding effort, but then expressed serious reservations about the fact-finding team as Israeli contacts with the UN Secretariat got underway:

  • The Fact-Finding Team’s Mandate

    The UN fact-finding team for Jenin was not set to operate under the same mandate as other UN fact-finding missions. The standard rules for fact-finding teams are outlined in UN General Assembly Resolution 46/59 that was adopted in December 1991. Arguing that Jenin was not under Israeli sovereignty, the UN did not want to apply these generally-accepted standards and hence be restricted by Israeli law, that would have protected Israeli soldiers from being called to testify before the team. While Israel has nothing to hide, this sort of intrusive investigation of Israeli soldiers would have undermined the morale of an army still engaged in a war against terrorism. Israel was not seeking to dictate special rules for itself, but only asking that it be dealt with by the same standards used in other fact-finding missions.

  • The Composition of the Fact-Finding Team

    The team was composed of individuals with expertise largely in the area of humanitarian relief — not counter-terrorism. It is doubtful, given this professional background, that they would have the ability to judge the extent of the terrorist threat to Israel that emanated from Jenin. Equally, these humanitarian aid experts would not be able to establish that Israel employed a proportional level of military force by using ground forces in house-to-house combat. The fact that one team member, Cornelio Sommaruga, once compared the Star of David to the swastika when he was president of the International Red Cross, did not give Israelis a sense that the team members were chosen to make a fair and balanced judgment.

  • The UN Double-Standard

    The UN did not want to explicitly commit itself beforehand to investigate the scale of Palestinian terrorism in the Jenin refugee camp. It appeared to be more interested in the consequences of Israeli military action and not its causes. This was also evident from the team’s composition. The UN faced a difficult problem in Jenin. How did a refugee camp supported by UNRWA become the “capital of suicide bombers.” Israel found that a local UNRWA worker, in fact, had posters praising suicide bombers.


The UN Security Council undermined its own international credibility by adopting a resolution supporting the dispatch of a fact-finding team by the UN Secretary-General on the basis of groundless rumors about a massacre of Palestinians by Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp. For Israel, which sacrificed 23 Israeli soldiers because it employed ground forces in house-to-house combat instead of heavy firepower, the UN’s action was insulting. That the UN was so determined to dispatch its fact-finding team even after it became absolutely clear that there was no massacre in Jenin raises the question of whether the UN Secretariat had “a hidden agenda” in involving itself in this issue: i.e., deepening UN involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian question. Israeli-UN relations have been badly damaged by the Jenin episode and will require many years of hard diplomatic work to restore.