After Jenin, An Eyewitness Report

— Charity Crouse

IN THE MONTH since Israel invaded the Jenin Refugee Camp on April 3, around 120 bodies have been recovered. Just over half of those bodies have been exhumed from the enormous piles of rubble that were once the homes of many of the camp's 11,000 residents.

The other half is comprised mostly of men between the ages of 18 and 50, who have been identified as “militants” wanted by the Israeli government or accused of being fighters in the camp during the incursion. Notwithstanding the more than seventy bodies of women, children and disabled individuals dug out of the wreckage of bombed and bulldozed houses, Israel points to the bodies of the “militants as evidence that its offensive targeted proponents of terror, not civilians.

Residents of the camp talk of other bodies not yet accounted for, bodies of men whose executions were witnessed by their families. The fact that these bodies have not yet turned up has led most in Israel and some in the international community to dismiss claims of a massacre, and to write off eyewitness testimony of metal trucks with black bags loaded into them that were driven out of the camp.

Some of these residents hope that the bodies of these disappeared may turn up among the thousands of living prisoners taken out of the camp by soldiers. But a list of the prisoners' names has yet to be released by the Israeli government, and the assurances from political figureheads in faraway places does nothing to assuage their memories.

In the aftermath of Israel's invasion of Jenin Refugee Camp and its subsequent smaller-scale incursions, the mothers and wives of the disappeared, as well as relatives of many of the confirmed dead, insist that their sons and husbands were not militants, they were just “regular” and “religious” men.

But the children of Jenin tell the story a different way -- a way which has compelled many who have visited Jenin to say, “Israel has no idea what it has created.” The men who have died and disappeared may not have been militants, but in the wake of the recent incursion they have become shaheed [martyrs], and their absence leaves a void in the lives of their children that their legacy of martyrdom is quick to fill.

“You see the children,” says Mariq, a 17-year-old resident of Jenin who says he resisted becoming a fighter until he saw his father killed in Israel's second invasion of the camp. “Before, their fathers might say, `Don't become a fighter,' but now their father is gone. Everyone says we need fighters now.”

Indeed, Israel's recurring incursions have only strengthened support of the fighters in Jenin Refugee Camp and other places throughout the West Bank. Elders who long held out hopes for a peaceful resolution have either been killed, arrested or demoralized, while many of the younger generation has known only one incursion after another.

An alternative to fighting is unimaginable, and if the Palestinian Authority (PA) won't fight for them, then they will support those who will. But the support of the fighters is about more than just fighting the Israelis -- it's also about fighting the corruption and oppression of the PA itself, as well as giving a political voice to the social forces that shape the world of most of Palestine.

This corruption is more than just Israeli propaganda. After traveling throughout the West Bank for more than a month and half, I'm convinced that while most of the world was refusing to pay attention, the government of Ariel Sharon was carefully surveying the sentiments and social situation of the Palestinian people, and designed its recent campaign to play off of the internal tensions pitting the people of Palestine against the Palestinian Authority -- while also securing the political influence of the Islamic fundamentalists over any possible secular movement.

Throughout the Occupied Territories, the PA suffers from a debilitating lack of credibility with the Palestinian people -- both religious and secular -- largely due to its reputation for economic exploitation. In the West Bank I encountered many people who relayed anecdotes about the PA's financial abuse.

A history professor at Bir Zeit University told me about how all international aid that was sent to support Palestinian universities prior to the ascent of the PA was sent directly to the schools themselves. But since the PA took over, all funds for any educational institution within the West Bank or Gaza, as well as any community organization, is sent to the PA which then never releases the funds to their intended recipients.

He reported that teachers at Bir Zeit had recently gone for over four months without any paychecks. Members of several community organizations spoke of how the PA refused to release funding specifically earmarked for them. More than one activist reported the recent rejection by Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi of additional aid to the PA because the last shipment of millions of dollars had been so mishandled -- Qadaffi insisted on having his own representatives see to the direct distribution of any additional aid in person.

The PA's overt corruption is revealed to the Palestinian people when they consider the composition of the PA bureaucracy. All industry is centralized into the hands of a few Palestinian business elites who are additionally compensated with a ministerial position.

One taxi driver attempted to amuse me by pointing to signs of the PA's attempt to recover infrastructure damaged during the incursions into Nablus -- light posts, cement trucks, telephone poles, etc. -- and gave me his estimate of how much money the ministers in charge of the energy, construction and communications monopolies would be pocketing in international aid dollars.

The PA ministers are free to leave the Occupied Territories, a fringe benefit that most Palestinians have no access to and which they hold up as a sign that the PA is disconnected with the struggle of the Palestinian people. The week after the Israeli military left Jenin Refugee Camp, the PA representatives for the province returned from Jordan, including the governor of the province whose family moved to Jordan after he was appointed governor. People in the camp and many in Jenin City were openly hostile to the PA representatives for leaving two days before the Israelis began shelling the camp without giving them any notice.

Residents of Jenin Refugee Camp accused the PA of holding up recovery efforts until they could show off the carnage and destruction to relief workers and international press representatives who would assist them in obtaining more monetary aid; they also pointed out that the demolition company providing bulldozers and other equipment paid for by international aid dollars was partly owned by the governor.

Beyond the perception that the Palestinian Authority is capitalizing on the suffering of the Palestinian people lies the belief that the PA is openly complicit in Israel's economic exploitation. The most readily cited example involves the designation of Industrial Free Trade Zones in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Such zones are seen first and foremost as part of Israel's efforts to annex Palestinian land, as all of the zones are actually built on land assigned to Palestinian control under Oslo. Additionally, although Palestinian workers labor in the zones, all the companies that enjoy the tax free benefits of such zones are owned by Israelis.

“There was plenty of opportunity for the PA to avoid this,” said Hakim, a resident of the Al-Bireh Refugee Camp. “But they went along with it, knowing that the PA would be able to profit from the kickbacks. They're all a bunch of gangsters.”

In Ramallah, there are many Palestinians who had once placed their faith in Arafat and the PA despite their flaws with the hopes of one day living as citizens in a sovereign Palestinian State. Many of them come from the camps and villages where support for the fighters is increasing and reject the social restrictions that the fundamentalist Muslim organizations demand.

But the hopes for the future of a Palestine that might emerge from any peace deal negotiated by Arafat were all but destroyed along with all of the infrastructure that the Palestinian Authority had been able to build since Oslo. In their purported quest to round up militants, Israel also rounded up all documentation recording the workings of a Palestinian civil society and destroyed it. Everything from land deeds, birth and marriage records and identification cards to school books and libraries was targeted.

The files and hard drives at the Ministries of Education and the Interior were gathered up and burned; all that was left by the Israeli soldiers in the Ministry of Culture were piles of human feces in places like the photocopier. Even hospitals, press offices and non-governmental agencies weren't spared.

As a result, even those who were once content to live with the PA at the helm have lost faith. Secular Palestinians in the cities are even talking about the need for a civil war, no longer able to withstand the illusion of security promised by Arafat, and resigned to the imminent rise of the fundamentalists.

I spoke with several members of the Palestinian police who say they only work for the PA because they need a job and they can get a gun, but that if there were a civil war they would not fight for the PA. It seems to many Palestinians in the West Bank that the only Palestinian support that exists for Arafat and the PA is coming from rich Palestinians, including many of the PA ministers, living outside of the Occupied Territories.

As one member of the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] put it, the “international Palestinian bourgeoisie” was the only thing keeping Arafat in power. In addition, the consistent support that the international community and Israeli peace activists provide the PA only serves to convince many Palestinians in the West Bank that they are without allies abroad, except Islamic fundamentalists who publicly support their struggle.

Support for the PA from the international community and peace activists around the world would seem to make sense on one level when one considers the alternative, but it denies the reality of the economic and social situation experienced by most Palestinians in the West Bank.

Most of the fighters are connected to fundamentalist Muslim groups who are repeatedly condemned by the international community for their severe social codes which oppress women and other minorities. But in lieu of financial support from the PA, the camps and most of the villages throughout the West Bank have developed their own infrastructure and cultivated their own leadership, often with the guidance of these militants.

Following the invasion on Jenin Refugee Camp in April, the people of the camp turned to the fighters from Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- not the PA or even the UN -- to assist them with finding housing and food. Throughout the camps, Palestinians associate the fighters with the people who obtain food, housing and supplies through whatever means necessary, in addition to those who are willing to give their life for Palestine.

While the international community rides the militants for their human rights abuses, the human rights abuses promoted and tolerated by the PA are left untouched as Palestinian society becomes normalized to extreme domestic violence.

Following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority government, the PA decided that all laws concerning personal and family issues were to be based on the sharia [traditional Islamic code], and the family and personal court system was to be dictated by religious codes. In practice, this has put the family courts under the control of the same kind of Islamic fundamentalism that the PA claims to be keeping at bay.

Often, the PA is directly implicated in promoting the militant Islamic views on resolving personal conflicts. As a result, the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza under the PA has already achieved alarming levels of abuse, especially concerning women and homosexuals.

According to a 2000 report by the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, thirty-eight cases of femicide involving women suspected of dishonoring their families were recorded in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during 1999. In all of these cases, the women were killed by fathers, brothers or uncles; none of the men were prosecuted or even arrested.

Most of the women who were killed were murdered because they were raped or incested by a male family member. In 1999, the center also documented more than 540 cases of women who were physically or sexually assaulted by a husband or family member and 115 cases of women who were raped -- most of these women contacted the center after receiving death threats from men in their families.

Maha, a counselor for the center, said that these official statistics do not begin to expose the extent of the problem because such violence is considered a family affair and often not brought to the attention of any authority who would record it. In addition, domestic violence has become even more rampant since the beginning of the intifada, but most assistance agencies have no way of offering services to remote areas because of constant curfews and closures.

The PA's complicity in such violence against women can be seen in regards to the recent death of a woman in Nablus. The women's shelter located outside the city is administered by the PA in order to “preserve the decency of women.” As such, a woman must be deemed “morally decent” before she is permitted entrance into the shelter.

Women who are not deemed decent -- for instance, who are pregnant and unwed, who have been raped and are over the age of 18 or who have a reputation for “improper” behavior -- are not permitted to access the shelter. In early May, a woman was killed within two blocks of the shelter by her brother after being denied entrance. According to Maha, this was only one of many times when a woman was killed on the streets after being denied access to the shelter.

For gay men in the Occupied Territories, the situation is also life-threatening. While members of the PA insist that there are no homosexuals in Palestine, I ran into several gay Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who were forced to work as prostitutes in Tel Aviv. According to Aguda, the largest gay and lesbian organization in Israel, there are between 350-450 gay Palestinian men living in
Israel out of fear of death, sometimes verified in writing by the PA.

Sammy (not his real name) has been living with his lover in hiding throughout Israel for more than a year while he attempts to obtain asylum abroad. In July of 2001, he received a family court order on PA court stationery under the door of his house in his village in the West Bank, informing him that he had been charged with “indecent acts” and that he was subject to a punishment by death if he were to be found guilty.

Sammy fled the West Bank and has since been pursued by family members intent on killing him; the PA claims that such an incident is a “family matter” despite the official edict it issued him.

Young gay Palestinians I talked with told me about how they were sent to “re-education camps” located outside of Jenin and Dar Yunis Refugee Camps. These camps are under PA jurisdiction but are administered by local Muslim clerics. The camps are presumably for minors who have been found guilty of a crime in a family court, including the commission of “indecent acts.”

The official “re-education” program consists of fifteen hours of Koranic study and training in a trade skill per day for several months. But the young men I talked to told me of how both guards and other inmates were encouraged to physically and sexually assault the young men who were interned there.

Tarek was taken to the camp in Gaza. “The Palestinian police shaves the head of those who are suspected of homosexual activity and does it in public so that everyone will know...They are sentenced to six months in jail without seeing a lawyer or your family . . . During my own jail time I was subjected to beatings with belts, clubs and was forced to sit on bottles which were inserted into my rectum. I was hanged by the hands, I was deprived of sleep and when I finally
did sleep, my limbs were tied to the floor.”

Such treatment lasted for the first two months of his six month internment; the abuse was lessened during the last four months, but did not stop. Tarek also reported that he saw at least one other youth killed after the bottle that was inserted into his rectum was shattered following a series of kicks from one of the police.

Despite such testimonials and even documented evidence of human rights abuses against women and gays, the international community has remained silent on the PA's record. According Shaul, an organizer with Aguda, no NGO or international human rights monitoring body will investigate the evidence concerning the situation confronting gay men in Palestine because of the current intifada.

I personally spoke with members of two Palestinian organizations and one international NGO based in the West Bank who knew about the situation, but said they could not admit as much on the record because of the political consequences of doing so, including the possibility that the PA would cut off all communication and shut them down. In my conversations with representatives of the PA, they refused to admit that there were any gay Palestinians.

Such evidence clearly proves that the PA has been anything but a deterrent to human rights abuses in Palestine. On the contrary, with the general support of the international community, the PA has proven to be another unaccountable force oppressing the people of Palestine.

The social influence of the fundamentalists has become increasingly normalized throughout Palestinian society, in large part due to the PA's support of personal laws based on the sharia, and has paved the way for the fundamentalists to assume a more political role. Many Palestinians have had enough with the economic exploitation they have suffered at the hands of Arafat and his cronies, but the PA's social policies have already ensured that it will be a long time before women and gays will ever know security in a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Sharon continues his campaign of terror against the Palestinian people, encouraging retaliation from a society already accustomed to violent punishment. The international community needs to confront the horrors of the Sharon government in the Occupied Territories, but it also has to be up front with the domestic situation for Palestinians.

That includes taking the Palestinian Authority to task for its corruption and its complicity in rampant human rights abuses. It's time for peace activists to start listening to the people of Palestine.