Middle East

A street fight called Jeningrad
By Paul Belden

AMMAN - On March 27 last year, in the coastal Israeli town of Netanya, a bomb exploded in the Park Hotel as hundreds of people were sitting down to their Passover seder. Twenty-eight people were killed and 140 wounded in what turned into the intifada's bloodiest single day in the bloodiest single month for Israel, a month that saw 80 people killed in total from 16 separate suicide bombing attacks.

The response of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, not unexpected, was not long in coming. Two days later, the cabinet of the government of Israel issued a communique announcing "a wide-ranging operational action plan against Palestinian terror". It was the start of what was to become known as Operation Defensive Shield, whose goal, according to the communique, was to "defeat the Palestinian terror infrastructure and to prevent the recurrence of the multiple terrorist attacks which have plagued Israel".

That same day, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) entered the Ramallah compound of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), where they seized most of the structures and surrounded PNA chairman Yasser Arafat in his headquarters building. The IDF quickly followed up with heavy incursions into the Palestinian cities of Tulkarm and Qalqilya on April 1, Bethlehem on April 2 and Jenin and Nablus on April 3. By the end of the first week of April, the Israeli military had occupied six of the largest cities in the West Bank, along with their surrounding villages and camps.

But then the battle really began. It was fierce, it was house-to-house and it was bloody. It lasted for more than two weeks, and ended only with the starving out of the last resisting Palestinian fighters from a tiny northern West Bank refugee camp not more than a kilometer square. It is a battle that is still known today in Palestine as "Jeningrad". And there are increasing signs that it is being played out again 500 kilometers to the east.

As US forces embark on the urban warfare that some are already calling the Battle of Baghdad, they have so far been largely following the playbook written by the IDF in Operation Defensive Shield. Martin van Creveld, a military expert with close ties to the Israeli army who teaches at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, recently told The Guardian newspaper of London that he had met with US officials at a briefing in North Carolina last September.

"There were three key things," he was quoted as saying. "How to clear streets house by house, particularly using bulldozers. They're very useful in this kind of war to break houses. How and when to use helicopters to take out snipers. And when not to - and I'd say Baghdad is one of those situations. And how to avoid civilian casualties."

When the battle for Jenin began, the camp held more than 3,000 families containing close to 14,000 refugees, of whom nearly half - 47 percent - were either under the age of 15 of over 55, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Jenin camp is the second-largest refugee camp in the West Bank, and about a square kilometer in diameter. Most of the buildings are of two or three stories, constructed of concrete and brick. The streets are narrow, and the houses are all connected. There are no yards, as such - adjacent houses are connected by common walls.

As described by the government of Israel in a report to the UN after the operation, "A heavy battle took place in Jenin, during which IDF soldiers were forced to fight among booby-trapped houses and bomb fields throughout the camp, which were prepared in advance as a booby-trapped battlefield." Specifically, according to an IDF spokesman, Israeli soldiers faced "more than a thousand explosive charges, live explosive charges and some more sophisticated ones. Hundreds of hand grenades [and] hundreds of gunmen." In its own UN report, the Palestinian Authority acknowledged that "a number of Palestinian fighters resisted the Israeli military assault", but said that they were "armed only with rifles and crude explosives".

The methods used by the IDF were to first establish control of the camp by declaring it a "special closed military area" and imposing round-the-clock curfews for inhabitants and restrictions on the movement of humanitarian and medical personnel, human rights monitors and journalists. This was followed by various incursions into the heart of the camp by helicopters and ground forces in the first two days.

According to Susy Mordechay, an Israeli human rights activist who was present on the outskirts of the camp at the outset of the battle, the IDF "followed a zig-zag course into the center of the city. We called it 'the salami method', because they would just keep cutting off one chunk after another. But they were very careful; they would never move more than 100 yards at a time. They carried out this part of the operation very slowly."

But on April 9 - one year ago today - something happened that the IDF had not expected. A booby-trapped house in Jenin exploded, and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. After that, the tactics changed. The army brought in armored bulldozers and began cutting a new road into the heart of the city. This road ran from the north of the camp directly into the central bazaar known as the Hawashin district. They also began forcing Palestinians to knock on doors and "walk point" during house-to-house searches. Loudspeakers required occupants to leave, and many houses were systematically demolished.

Although there were reports that the IDF also had compelled Palestinian civilians to stand in the line of fire to protect IDF soldiers, the IDF has denied the deliberate use of civilians as human shields. Last year, Israel's state attorney's office informed the High Court of Justice of Israel that "in light of the various complaints received ... and so as to avoid all doubt, the [IDF] has decided to immediately issue an unequivocal order ... that forces in the field are absolutely forbidden to use civilians as a means of 'living shields'."

It was here, in the Hawashin district, that the heaviest fighting occurred, as well as the heaviest physical destruction - destruction that effectively turned the area into a "moonscape", in the words of Mohammed Aghawani, a coordinator with the Palestine Media Center in Ramallah. By the end of the battle, Hawashin had been effectively leveled. The battle ended on April 11, when the last remaining Palestinian fighters surrendered.

There have already been strategic similarities between Operation Defensive Shield and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a large sense, both operations began with an attempt to cut off and isolate expected pockets of resistance, and both operations suffered unexpected setbacks midway through that had the effect of forcing a change of tactics.

So far, the most obvious tactical similarities between Jenin and Baghdad involve the likely necessity of close-in street fighting by coalition troops in built-up neighborhoods where they face possible resistance by Iraqi army troops, Ba'ath Party loyalists and members of the Fedayeen Saddam. According to current news reports from Baghdad, coalition forces have yet to engage in house-to-house searches, relying for the most part on the sort of "reconnaissance in force" that the IDF started with in Jenin.

But there are signs that that stage may not be long to last. For one thing, in recent days, there have been indications that the Iraqi government has been arming citizens. Last week, a human rights volunteer who had recently returned to Jordan from Baghdad told Asia Times Online that guns were being handed out to anyone who asked. And some are apparently asking: "I am not afraid to die," one 16-year-old Iraqi boy was quoted as saying in The Daily Star newspaper on Monday. "I am doing this for my country."

For coalition troops, the most dangerous parts of the city remain those that most resemble the Jenin camp: the small, narrow market areas of Saadun and Muthana, and the largely Shi'ite Saddam City slum. If American troops do end up having to fight house to house, they may utilize Israel's method of moving not in the street where they are vulnerable to sniper fire, but from building to building by means of holes blasted in the common walls.

Jenin is not, of course, Baghdad. There are important differences, both strategic and tactical, between how these battle are being fought, with the most important of these being strategic. "In Jenin, the IDF weren't even pretending to try to 'liberate' anyone," says Mordechay. "They weren't trying to win anybody's good opinion - it was a battle for resources, pure and simple: the resources of land and water." In Iraq, as has been stated non-stop, the goal is liberation rather than occupation, which means that the US may not have the option of risking a humanitarian disaster by starving out a millions-strong urban population.

In Jenin, the early fighting resulted in the cutting of power, water, oxygen and blood supplied to Jenin Hospital, after which, on April 4, the hospital itself was ordered sealed, with nobody being permitted to enter or leave for nine days. To order any of the main hospitals in Baghdad sealed would result in almost unimaginable suffering.

Likewise, in Operation Defensive Shield, more than 2,800 Palestinian "refugee housing units" were damaged, and 878 homes demolished or destroyed, leaving more than 17,000 people homeless. Eleven Palestinian schools were totally destroyed, and 50 were damaged. Fifteen were taken over and used as military outposts, with another 15 turned into mass detention centers.

In the matter of the battle for hearts and minds, the story of a diabetic Palestinian named Jamal al-Sibagh may be instructive. Al-Sibagh's story was recounted to UN investigators on June 20 last year by witnesses who had ended up at al-Urdun hospital in Amman.

"When the Israeli army asked the men and young men to leave the houses in order to be searched and arrested," the witnesses said, "Jamal was carrying a bag with his medication. When he began to undress on the orders of the soldiers, the zipper in his trousers jammed. He tried to unjam it, but the soldiers thought that he was going to act against them and fired at him. He was killed, and his blood spattered a young child of five years who was by his side."

There were several other similar statements. These were not intentional killings, and the IDF has been justly praised for waging battle with so few losses on both sides.

But again - Israel was not in Jenin camp trying to win over Palestinian hearts and minds. In Baghdad, America is doing just that, while it simultaneously wages war. The image of a blood-spattered child is not the image of the war that the US would want to see endure.

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Apr 9, 2003

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