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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Analysis: 'War crimes' on West Bank
Red Cross workers relates destruction of Jenin over mobile phone
The Red Cross is searching for bodies in Jenin
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By Barnaby Mason
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Palestinians and Arab politicians are already accusing the Israeli army of war crimes in the Jenin refugee camp and elsewhere in the West Bank.

They are comparing what has happened in Israel's current campaign to the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, in which at least 800 Palestinians died.

But the Israelis see their operation as a battle against Palestinian terrorists responsible for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Israeli soldier encounters the smell of death
The smell of death pervades the Jenin refugee camp
The full picture of what went on in Jenin is not yet clear, and the Israelis may not allow a proper investigation by outsiders.

But international officials say some actions by their troops, there and elsewhere, would appear to have breached the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilians in war or under occupation.

The convention forbids violence being used against civilians, as well as inhumane or degrading treatment. Some Palestinians say they were used as human shields by Israeli soldiers.

It is claimed that civilians died in Jenin when their houses were demolished. The convention prohibits the destruction of property except where military operations make it absolutely necessary.

There is obviously dispute about what was necessary. The Israelis say many buildings in Jenin were booby-trapped and it was often impossible to distinguish between Palestinian fighters and civilians.

Sealed off

But the Geneva Convention also requires that the wounded are collected and cared for - and that medical supplies and other aid are given free passage.

There are many reports of Israeli soldiers stopping ambulances so that wounded people bled to death on the streets.

More generally, Palestinian areas were sealed off for days on end and Israeli tanks cut water and electricity supplies.

Bomb attack in Jerusalem
Suicide bomb attacks are against international law
The Red Cross says the basic principle governing military operations is that the weapons and methods used should not be disproportionate to the target.

That is spelt out in a 1977 Protocol to which Israel is not a party, but the Red Cross says the principle still applies under customary international law.

The Red Cross makes the same point about suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians - such attacks on civilians are prohibited under all humanitarian law, whether codified and ratified or not.

The Palestinian Authority is not a state and is not a formal party to the Geneva Conventions but has said in the past that it intends to abide by them.

Justice elusive

The question of whether crimes committed by Israelis or Palestinians will ever be brought to court is another matter.

Israel as the occupying power does arrest, try and imprison Palestinians, but they regard such justice as a fraud.

As for trying Israelis for alleged war crimes, that is hardly a practical possibility.

In theory, the new International Criminal Court might act, but only for crimes committed after 1 July when it becomes a legal reality.

See also:

16 Apr 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Inside ruined Jenin
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN chief wants international force
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinian society lies in ruins
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin after the battle
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel steps up Palestinian arrests
24 Jan 02 | Middle East
Flashback: Sabra and Shatila massacres
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