Israelis try to pin blame for Jenin on suicide bombers

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The Independent Online

Israeli officials were desperately scrambling to explain the war crimes committed at Jenin refugee camp as the international furore over the devastation rose to new heights yesterday.

A senior Israeli government official admitted to The Independent that civilians had died in Jenin, but said they were killed by Palestinians.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, claimed Palestinian militants rigged the buildings with explosives, and blew them up while holding civilians as hostage. The Israelis decided to send in bulldozers to fully demolish the homes because they contained booby-traps, he said.

And the Defence Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said 45 of the 48 bodies recovered from Jenin were wearing the uniforms of Islamic Jihad – a claim that contradicts those who have seen the bodies.

The United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, visited the most heavily damaged area and described the scene as "horrific beyond belief". He told Israel Army Radio: "Jenin will forever be a blot on the history of the state of Israel."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that the scale of the devastation was so great that Israel should allow international rescue and recovery teams into Jenin.

Yesterday the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw added his voice to the calls for an outside investigation into Israel's "excessive actions" in Jenin, which its forces invaded on 3 April in a "counter-terrorism" operation. Mr Straw said: "Such is the scale of the evidence that there is a strong case for Israel to answer."

Humanitarian groups fear that the exact death toll will never be known. Saeb Erekat, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, said he had received 1,600 calls from families who had been unable to find relatives from the camp.

Peter Hansen, commissioner-general of Unrwa, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, said: "It was worse than I feared. I saw a family digging for their father who they had found in decomposed bits, and the remnants of a child under the rubble. It was a gruesome sight. We saw hundreds and hundreds of people walking around in a daze, looking for what used to be their dear ones."

He said he did not believe the camp had been heavily booby-trapped – a claim used by the Israeli army to justify banning access to Red Cross and UN ambulances.