The fight over the fight in Jenin.

The fight over the fight in Jenin.

The fight over the fight in Jenin.

How you look at things.
May 2 2002 6:23 PM

Just the Facts, Imam

The search for answers in Jenin becomes a fight over questions.

Here's one version of what happened in the Jenin refugee camp last month. Israeli soldiers fired into windows without knowing who was inside. Sometimes they shot at houses just to provoke return fire and locate snipers. They had no idea how many innocent people they were killing. They shot a man who was crawling in the street, just because he seemed about the right age for a fighter. They used civilians as human shields. They bulldozed houses after the fighting had waned.

Here's another version. Jenin was the principal base for launching suicide bombings into Israel. Palestinian fighters had rigged the camp with booby traps and sniper nests. The fighters hid among civilians and used children to carry ammunition. Most of the residents supported terrorist groups and harbored or aided the fighters. The Israelis didn't resort to bulldozers until snipers ambushed and killed 13 of their soldiers. While the Israelis were fighting in Jenin, a bomber from Jenin was blowing up eight Israelis in Haifa.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The first version comes from articles in the April 21 New York Times, the April 21 Los Angeles Times, and the April 23 and April 26 Washington Post. The second version comes from the same articles. The first version, which makes the assault seem outrageous, comes from Israeli soldiers. The second version, which makes the assault seem justified, comes from Palestinians. In short, neither version is spin. Both are true.

This is the problem with the fact-finding mission that collapsed this week in a dispute between Israel and the United Nations. The mission's stated premise was that it could settle "the facts" about Jenin. But the mission failed to get off the ground precisely because that premise was false. Israel and its critics couldn't agree which facts to find. The mystery of the Jenin investigation—namely, why a country with nothing to hide would resist a search for truth—dissolves when you realize how much of the battle for public opinion takes place not between truth and falsehood, but between one truth and another. To control the answer, you must control the question. That's the game Israel was playing. So was its opponent, the United Nations.

There's a difference, of course, between fact and fiction. Palestinians have accused Israel of slaughtering hundreds of innocents in Jenin; Israel has accused Palestinians of excavating and moving corpses to create that impression. Reporters have tried without success to verify these charges. If they're false, honest investigations will debunk them. Thursday's report by Human Rights Watch has begun to do just that.

The haggling over the Jenin probe, however, focused on subtler disagreements about scope, perspective, and emphasis. Israel's critics wanted the investigation to focus on what Israeli soldiers did to Jenin; Israel wanted to include what Jenin's terrorists did to Israel. Critics wanted to begin with the assault; Israel wanted to begin with events that provoked it. In evaluating the Israeli military's behavior, critics wanted to treat the camp's residents as civilians; Israel wanted to treat them as abettors of terrorism. Critics wanted to ask whether Israeli soldiers distinguished civilians from fighters; Israel wanted to ask how the fighters got mixed in with the civilians. Critics say a massacre should be defined by how many civilians were killed; Israel says it should be defined by whether the killing was deliberate.

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Which of these parameters and definitions would the U.N. investigators have adopted? That depended on where they come from. Of the three people originally named to lead the investigation, two came from humanitarian organizations. None had military experience. Israel feared that these investigators would view the battle from the perspective of Jenin's residents rather than Israel's soldiers and would regard these residents as refugees even if, at the same time, they were aiding terrorists. To accommodate Israel, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan added military advisers to the investigation, but he refused to reshuffle its leaders.

Annan kept claiming to have a mandate for the investigation. But the mandate, expressed in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1405, simply authorized an "initiative of the Secretary-General to develop accurate information regarding recent events in the Jenin refugee camp through a fact-finding team." Annan and his appointees interpreted this blank mandate as they saw fit, essentially making up the rules as they went along. Annan said his April 27 letter to Israel clarified "precisely how the team is going to approach its work." Not so. According to the letter, "It will be for the Team to decide what falls within the definition of 'recent events in the Jenin refugee camp.' " In an April 22 letter to the Security Council, Annan said that Israel must "provide free and complete access to all sites, sources of information and individuals that the team considers necessary." When asked whether the probe would explore the reasons behind the Jenin assault, Annan ducked the question, insisting that the investigating team "has a clear idea of what it has [to] do." Yet when asked whether the probe would be limited to Jenin, Annan said the head investigator "does not know at this stage where the search for facts will lead."

The obvious result was that Israel didn't get to shape the investigation. The less obvious result was that Annan did. The answers depended on the questions, the questions depended on the perspectives, the perspectives depended on the appointments, and the appointments had been made. "It is only the Secretary-General of the United Nations who determines which assignments are given to United Nations officials," Annan declared on April 22, when queried about his selections. Two days later, Annan's spokesman added, "Those are his people. And that's the end of the discussion."

Why? Should an investigation's design face less scrutiny than its findings? Should the United Nations be presumed apolitical? Days before the fighting ended in Jenin, the United Nations' top officer for Palestinian refugees denounced it as part of a "pitiless assault on civilian refugee camps." One of Annan's appointees to lead the investigation was distrusted by Israeli officials for having isolated Israel's medical relief agency from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, yet Annan refused to reconsider the appointment. Maybe Annan, his subordinates, and his appointees could have explained why these incidents didn't show bias. But shouldn't they have been obliged to address them?

Instead, the United Nations got a pass. By objecting to the investigation Annan designed, Israel reaped scorn for "challenging the entire international community." On Thursday, Israel's critics unsuccessfully sought a Security Council resolution demanding Israeli cooperation. Annan presented the dispute as a choice between truth and coverup. "It was Mr. Peres [Israel's foreign minister] who told me that 'we have nothing to hide' and the team was welcome," Annan protested  to reporters this week when Israel rejected his conditions for the fact-finding mission. Be candid, said the secretary-general. Do it my way.