City of 14,000 Stories

The governor of Jenin, Zuhair Al-Manasreh, a gentle bear of a man, is testy this afternoon, his deep baritone punctuated by bursts of nervous laughter. "You have not even seen the mukhayyam [refugee camp] yet? Well, let's speak later, after you visit." His former office was demolished in an Israeli attack some five months ago. We talk in his large office, spare save for a Palestinian flag, off-peach curtains, and five bullet holes that unceremoniously pierce four separate white walls. He has had a million things to attend to since the May 17 withdrawal of the Israeli forces from this hilly Palestinian town, home to roughly 30,000 people, after this latest "targeted operation." Al-Manasreh's constituents, still reeling from a previous Israeli incursion, seem unable to regain their balance.

"This time, they destroyed five houses, arrested 40 people, and injured three," says Al-Manasreh. "The Israelis gave no reason for the attack, and they have stopped giving reasons."

This is not really true. The governor may not like the reasons the Israelis have given, but they certainly exist. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has justified months of invasions into Palestinian territory, including Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's largest military offensive in decades, as part of a larger war on terrorism. But since the end of the five-week operation, there have been three bombings in Israel, a fact that blows large holes in Sharon's contention that his offensives were a success.

If there is truth to be found, it may be in the flattened Hawashin neighborhood.
photo: Jehad Nga
If there is truth to be found, it may be in the flattened Hawashin neighborhood.

But Jenin was in trouble before Israel flattened large sections of it. The residents, most of whom work inside of Israel, have been unemployed for more than a year. The fields on the outskirts of town, which once produced olives, wheat, and a host of other crops, yield nothing now but a parched brown scrub. And the thousands of visitors who once sparked the city's commercial center stopped coming months ago. It is a story repeated throughout the Palestinian territories, and in the view of many who live here, the attacks have simply added insult to injury. It is at once revolting and numbing, the sheer scale of the destruction offset by the bewildering absence of visible grief on the faces of its deeply shocked inhabitants.

Jenin's mukhayyam is not a refugee camp as one might imagine, but should properly be called a slum. The intact houses (more than 140 were destroyed in the April siege) are concrete, many with garages and gates. Dalal Dassouk's sister Afaf was killed during the siege when she opened the door for Israeli soldiers, hidden behind a neighbor used as a human shield.

"They set a bomb in the door, and it blew off the right side of Afaf's face," says Dalal, who points to splotches on the wall she says were her sister's eyes. A wall opposite is pockmarked with bullet holes. "Then they shot her, and the soldiers started laughing." Dalal says Afaf, 52, never married in order to help their mother at home. "My sister will never come back," she says. "Please tell the truth."

Nowhere is the truth more elusive than in Jenin. Journalists and human rights groups have pieced together what happened over those 10 days in April, and are attempting the work the United Nations should have done. But as good as these independent reports are, one can't help but think of them as belated refereeing. Adnan Sabah, a local journalist, advises, "Walk around, my friend. There are 14,000 people living in the refugee camp who know what happened. You will find 14,000 stories."

And if there is truth to be found in Jenin, it may be in the now flattened Hawashin neighborhood. A mosque just north of the district provides a bird's-eye view of the infamous devastation. Jeninites have taken to calling Hawashin "Ground Zero," but unlike the New York site, here there are no sophisticated cranes or legions of volunteers; just residents attacking mountains with water buckets.

There is Yahya Hindy, who, despite weeks of work, has made little progress with his rubble. His daughter Kafah watches as he locates what used to be a sink, and they pause to share a moment of triumph. "I found this jacket, a shirt "—he points to two hanging rags, one striped, one leather—"my passport, and my mother's death certificate." He lights a cigarette and considers the suggestion floated by neighbors that the refugee camp be left as it is, like the Syrian town of Quneitra, also sacked by the Israelis. "You know, the building was mine, but the land is not," says Hindy. "If they want to leave it, fine. I just want a house."

Not far from Hindy's crushed home, Bassam Abu Tabeekh appears and demands that we have coffee with him and his three sons. Asked about his future, one son says, "I wanted to go to America. Now I don't know. Australia, maybe?" Maher Zakarnih has not soured on America, but he never leaves Jenin. He is a "business guy"—nice watch, flashy clothes—who owns a bar with a pool table. He left Palestine 16 years ago and traveled all over Southeast Asia. Since returning to Jenin four years ago, he has never ventured out. "I don't want to be humiliated," he says. "I could go out and be shot because the Israelis think I'm someone else."

The sun sets on the refugee camp from just down the road in the "rich" area of town, where Ziad Senan and his wife, Thowra, live. Ziad teaches architecture at a nearby university; his hour-long commute these days takes three. Israeli soldiers took over their apartment in April. He says they destroyed the dining-room furniture, ate all their food, and took the children's beds to cover the windows. Ziad's son Sultan brings out bands of spent bullet shells. He drapes them around his neck, and asks to have his picture taken. Ziad watches and asks without irony, "What do you think—should we continue to struggle for our rights, or sign on for another peace process?"

Gunfire erupts just down the street, and the cell phone rings. Israeli tanks have been spotted on top of the hill overlooking Jenin. Thowra turns down Independence Day, the movie on the satellite dish. "The Israelis fill our lives with sorrow," she says to everyone in the room, and turns up the volume in time for Bill Pullman's speech.

Governor Al-Manasreh seems more relaxed the next morning. We talk about the reasons for the Israeli attack. It seems impossible to justify the destruction unleashed in Jenin. But what about the Palestinian fighters? Don't they endanger Jenin's citizens? Are there members of Hamas, as the Israelis maintain, planning attacks from Jenin? At first he reacts angrily, clearly having fielded plenty of such questions lately.

"Hamas is a political organization. They declare a political program, but they are opposition. But Sharon is the prime minister. See, there's a difference," he says. "Sharon did not destroy the infrastructure of Hamas. He destroyed the infrastructure of the Palestinian society." I ask about the bombings in Israel. "I am against the operations against civilians—not because the Israelis are against them, or the United States is against them—but because morally and politically, it doesn't fit with our struggle for freedom. I think in order to defeat the Israeli occupation, I have to be against racism, murder, and killing, the things the Israelis are guilty of. It is my right to defend my homeland and my people—but with legitimate means."

Adnan Sabah, the journalist, also worries about the growing influence of the Islamic groups, and the increasing association of "martyrs" with heroes. "But listen," he says. "You need to be clear on where this problem starts. It's the occupation of our people, the constant state of siege and insecurity." Amanda Melville, who has worked with children in Jenin for UNICEF, agrees.

"The children have seen horrible things. Some are becoming more aggressive, and more willing to take risks. They feel like they could die at any minute, and some wish they could. I've never seen anything like it."

"Did I say 14,000 stories?" Sabah asks me. "Walk around Palestine. There are 3 million stories here."

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