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Jenin: Hills of Rubble, Tales of Loss

Nearly a month after the ferocious battle in this camp, Palestinian residents still conduct daily digs, rummaging through mounds of shattered concrete to salvage pieces of their former lives — a dented cooking pot here, a tattered coat there.

But camp residents, human rights groups and aid groups have found only a few bodies in recent weeks and no evidence to support Palestinian claims that up to 500 Palestinians were massacred by Israeli troops.

While some corpses may still rest beneath the rubble, it now appears the Palestinian death toll was higher in the nearby West Bank city of Nablus, during a simultaneous battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants in early April.

In Jenin, the confirmed death toll is 52 Palestinians, including 22 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based group that has conducted the most thorough study of the camp so far; In Nablus, at least 70 Palestinians were killed, and about 30 were civilians, according to hospital doctors.

Yet the battle in the cramped, narrow streets of Jenin's camp has drawn far greater attention largely because of the Palestinian allegations.

As the Israeli military swept through West Bank cities in a crackdown against militants, Jenin was the last holdout. Israel lost 23 soldiers in the camp, by far its largest toll in any one battle in many years. But what really set Jenin apart was Israel's extensive use of armored bulldozers to flatten houses and apartments it says were strongholds of Palestinian fighters who refused to surrender.

This gave the camp its leveled-by-a-tornado look that raised questions about how many Palestinians were underneath. The issue was complicated by Israel's roundup of all young men in the camp, making it impossible to determine who was missing in battle and who had been detained.

Before anyone could make even a cursory survey of the camp, senior Palestinian figures, including chief negotiator and Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, claimed 500 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians.

But the continued presence of Israeli soldiers made it impossible for rescue workers and Palestinian officials to enter the camp for days, fueling rumors and speculation about what happened.

Israeli officials said outsiders were kept away for fear that many of the remaining buildings were booby-trapped, and explosions did injure several returning residents.

The day the fighting ended, April 11, Palestinian residents told journalists they believed Israel troops buried bodies in mass graves in the center of the camp — and also that Israel put bodies in refrigerated trucks and drove them away. No evidence has emerged to support either allegation.

Hassan Abu Iyad now spends his days sitting under a small tent in the middle of the most devastated part of the camp — the spot that was his home for all his 45 years. He offers an account that illustrates the chaos during the fighting and as well as one possible explanation for the inflated death toll claims.

"Early in the fighting, three Israeli missiles hit our area, and we fled our home in the middle of the night," said Abu Iyad, lounging on pillows amid the sea of destruction. "As we ran away, I was separated from my entire family. I had no idea what happened to them."

Abu Iyad stayed with a relative a few blocks away until the fighting ended, then went home to find not a single house on his block standing.

As he pulled away slabs of concrete in a frantic search, his wife and three of their six kids arrived at the site, all unharmed. But three sons, ages 16 to 20, remained missing.

For two weeks, Abu Iyad dug every day until his hands bled. He shouted at anyone who dared suggest his effort was futile. On the 15th day, he was still digging when Yasser, his 16-year-old son, walked up, freshly released from Israeli military custody.

Abu Iyad was stunned to see his son alive — and Yasser was equally shocked.

While the army was holding him, Yasser asked about his father and brothers, and an Israeli soldier casually told him they were all dead. But after Yasser's release, the other two brothers also emerged from Israeli custody within days, making the family whole again.

"This is the smell of my home. This my neighborhood. I have nowhere else to go," said Abu Iyad.

Israel hit hard at the Jenin camp, which it says was the launching pad for more than 20 of the roughly 60 suicide bombers who have struck Israeli targets during 19 months of Mideast fighting. But Israel, which puts the Palestinian death toll at 51, says only seven were civilians, and that the army relied heavily on ground forces rather than air power in an attempt to limit civilian casualties.

In the camp, anger at the Israeli army is universal and residents are quick to raise examples of civilians they believe were killed either intentionally, or by indiscriminate force. Residents also say that ambulances and aid groups were not allowed in during the fighting.

The intense, round-the-clock fighting made it extremely dangerous to step outside at any time during the battle, though most said they ultimately took the risk when shooting closed in on their parts of the camp, which is less than a half-mile square and home to about 15,000 people.

An estimated 200 hard-core Palestinian fighters from several militant groups took part in the battle. One fighter, who gave his name only as Khalid, acknowledged that kids barely in their teens also took part, throwing homemade grenades at soldiers in the streets.

Human Rights Watch investigators spent a week in the camp and said they "did not find evidence to support claims that the (Israeli military) massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the camp."

However, the group did say that "the abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious and in some cases appear to be war crimes."

Israel vehemently denies the war crimes charge. "It was a war zone. It was full of booby traps and explosives," said Danny Ayalon, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, explaining why Israel destroyed the buildings.

Of the Palestinian bodies that have been found in the rubble, camp residents say they fall into three groups: wounded fighters who couldn't be evacuated; people in wheelchairs, who also were difficult to move, and the mentally ill, who could not grasp the dangers.

The Palestinians, who frequently refer to massacres suffered decades ago in the Mideast fighting, have sought to put Jenin in the same category. When asked, Palestinian officials still defend the massacre charge.

"I believe that what happened in Jenin refugee camp was not only war crimes, it was also a massacre," said Fakhri Turkman, head of the emergency committee in the camp and a member of the Palestinian legislature.

He was generally dismissive of the report by Human Rights Watch, an independent, widely respected group based in New York. He claimed the group was influenced by United States support for Israel, and "doesn't want to show Israel as a state that carries out massacres."

The Palestinian claims prompted the U.N. Security Council to establish a fact-finding committee. But Israel, which has long had a contentious relationship with the U.N., feared the report would be biased, and prevented it from coming. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan disbanded the team last week.

Erekat said recently that Israel's refusal to accept the U.N. team showed they had "a big thing to hide."

"There's no point in complaining to the United Nations or Kofi Annan," said Abu Iyad, as the afternoon shadows stretched out over the camp. "They don't listen. All I can do is sit here and complain to God."