JERUSALEM – U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says Israeli troops who battled their way through a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin last month may have committed war crimes, but there was no evidence to support Palestinian claims of a massacre.
In a report to be published Friday, the organization, the largest human rights group in the United States, said three of its investigators spent a week gathering testimony in the Jenin camp and documented the deaths of 52 Palestinians, of which it said 22 were civilians.
"Many of the civilians were killed willfully or unlawfully," a summary of the 48-page report said. "The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious and in some cases appear to be war crimes."
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz dismissed the report's findings, charging that the Palestinian gunmen used their own people as shields in a refugee camp from which 28 suicide bombers were sent into Israel.
"It bears asking, when a country is fighting a war against terror, how is it that those who are engaged in fighting terrorists come under criticism, while the perpetrators of the terror are not subject to scrutiny," he said in a statement.
Danny Ayalon, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said, "I flatly reject the war crimes charge. It was a war zone. It was full of booby traps and explosives," adding that the Israeli army "did everything to be reasonable."
He also disputed the group's figures. "Of the 51 bodies found, 44 were of armed terrorists and seven of civilians, which we very much regret," he said.
The Jenin Hospital said Wednesday that 52 bodies had been recovered so far.
The eight days of fierce fighting in the camp ended April 11 and left 23 Israeli soldiers dead and dozens more wounded.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Thursday called Jenin "the new Stalingrad," referring to the Russian city now known as Volgograd where about 1 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died during a 200-day offensive by the German army, in the bloodiest battle of World War ll.
Other Palestinian officials have alleged that hundreds of Palestinians were killed during the Israeli invasion of the Jenin camp. Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told CNN that 500 Palestinians had been killed in the fighting, although he later told The Associated Press he could not document the figure.
Human Rights Watch said its experts had found nothing to back such allegations.
"Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support claims that the [Israeli military] massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the camp," the report said.
Fakhri Turkman, a Palestinian Legislative Council member and the head of an emergency committee set up to help camp residents, criticized Human Rights Watch and other groups who did not use the term "massacre" to describe the Israeli operation.
"Sometimes we call it a massacre when you kill one innocent person," he told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Citing specific cases detailed by Palestinians, Human Rights Watch said troops killed a wounded Palestinian gunman hours after he had been disarmed. The group also alleged that fire from an Israeli armored vehicle killed a 14-year-old boy on his way to buy groceries after the army lifted its curfew in the camp.
It said a 57-year-old man, Kamal Zghair, was shot and then run over by tanks as he was moving along a main road in a wheelchair, displaying a white flag. The report said a paralyzed man was crushed in the rubble of his home after soldiers refused to give his family sufficient time to carry him away before the army bulldozed the house.
The Israeli military on Thursday released film of what appears to be a fake funeral in Jenin. The film, taken by a pilotless plane, shows a man being wrapped in a blanket, put on a stretcher and carried in a funeral procession. Col. Miri Eisin of army intelligence said it was one of several similar incidents.
None of the instances cited could be independently verified.