'This is now a comprehensive war,' says police chief surveying wreckage of Jenin

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'T'was not a famous victory'.

The Israelis, Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat told us, had "thrown open "the gates of hell". With only slightly less hysteria, the Palestinian Authority called Israel's destruction of Jenin's police headquarters a "declaration of war".

And when I talked to the Palestinian chief of police, he described to me a four-hour gun-battle during which hundreds of Palestinian "nationalist fighters" drove the Israeli enemy out of the city. They had fought off four tanks. Which later became six tanks. And later again, eight Israeli tanks. But you had merely to walk through the rubble of Brigadier Louai Jadallah's police compound to realise this was no epic battle.

Not for the Palestinians. Nor for the Israelis. Indeed, the only gate around was the crushed red, black, white and green iron barrier which the Israeli bulldozers had ground into the muck by the main road. The headquarters of the anti-riot squad had been demolished along with the governor's office; a row of police dormitories were semi-pulverised, the other half sagging Salvador Dali-style into the dirt.

It was punishment, so the Israelis said, for the Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Haifa on Sunday. Nine of the suiciders had started their journeys from Jenin – mercifully, not all of them were successful – and Israel blamed the Palestinian Authority.

So off we went again. Sunday's Palestinian bomber was retaliating for the Israeli murder of an Islamic Jihad member in April, and Israel's mini-invasion of Jenin was retaliation for the Sunday bombing – and now Hamas, of course, was yesterday promising retaliation for the destruction of the Jenin police station. If the bloody logic behind all this verged on the juvenile, the rhetoric was unstoppable.

"Brutal aggression," Brigadier Jadallah called it, a "pre-planned attack on the Palestinian people". He described helicopters dropping flares, tank columns crashing into western Jenin, F-16 fighters flying cover for this armoured behemoth.

Or so the good brigadier would have us believe. The Israelis certainly destroyed the police compound – Brigadier Jadallah's offices were the only ones left – and they had crumpled the governor's house into dust. But there were no casualties on either side – and I was a bit sceptical about all those bullets that had been fired for four hours.

Why, for example, was there not a single shell-hole in any of the wrecked buildings? Or a single bullet hole? Or a single cartridge case lying on the main road outside? Just by the wreckage stood an old pick-up truck covered in dust. It must have been there for a year. But it didn't have a scratch on it.

So I had my doubts about the fierce gun-battle. And I had the same doubts about the "eight" tanks. There were track marks on the road and there must have been three or four Merkavas (Israeli tanks) moving as cover for the armoured bulldozers. They arrived after midnight and probably took four hours to complete their vandalism. But battle, I suspect, there was none.

The Israelis travelled just 500 metres into Palestinian territory – a gross violation of Area 'A' under the Oslo agreement, but hardly the full-scale invasion of the whole town which was reported at dawn.

No, in Jenin, there was anger, not blood. Brigadier Jadallah, graduate of the Rumanian and Egyptian police academies and of the Algerian Military College (1968) with paratrooper wings – and survivor of the 1982 Beirut seige – was apoplectic. "How can the Israelis expect me to arrest the so-called bombers when they've destroyed my police station?" he demanded.

So why did the Israelis do this? "They want to paralyse our institutions and the Palestinian Authority is the target," he replied, his voice rising higher and higher in fury.

"Our job in Palestine is to keep internal order. So what have the Israelis done? They attacked all our police stations in Gaza, in Ramallah too, in order to create a security vacuum, to create chaos. They want a split between the Palestinian Authority and the people who will no longer feel secure."

Given the Israeli venom currently being voiced against Yassir Arafat and his "gang of murderers", the brigadier's analysis is not without merit. And precisely the same argument has been outlined in the Israeli press.

But what about the suicide bombers? Do nine of them not come from Jenin?

What about the men whom Israel murdered, he replied, whom Israel claimed to be bombers and who turned out to be innocent?

"They are the ones who are pushing people to do suicide bombings.

"We are against killing civilians anywhere but violence begets violence. We can't put a person in a cage and close the cage on him." It was a slightly unnerving reply.

Then into the office strode the uniformed figure of Brigadier Fayez Arafat – a relative of Y. Arafat, Esq – who is commander of the entire region surrounding Jenin.

"There is a part of the Palestinian people," he said, "who are convinced that the Israeli enemy will not be convinced except through strong attacks. We are alone in this battle, but we have a strong national unity."

Which means that the Palestinian Authority is not going to allow its people to break apart in civil war by arresting members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad at the behest of Israel.

Which is what the destruction of the Jenin police station was all about. As Brigadier Arafat said, "this is now a comprehensive war" That's one thing upon which both he and the Israelis would agree.