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Rights group on Jenin: Massacre, no; human shields, yes

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Israeli troops used Palestinian civilians as human shields and forced them to participate in dangerous military operations during the Israel sweep through a refugee camp in Jenin last month, according to a report released Friday by Human Rights Watch.

But the group's investigators found no evidence that Israeli troops massacred Palestinian civilians in Jenin, as some Palestinian officials had earlier charged.

"The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious, and in some cases appear to be war crimes," said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for the group and a member of the investigative team.

"Criminal investigations are needed to ascertain individual responsibility for the most serious violations. Such investigations are first and foremost the duty of the Israeli government, but the international community needs to ensure that meaningful accountability occurs," he said.

Israel Defense Forces said the Palestinians who used the camp as a "center for terror" in effect "used the civilians as human shields when taking cover from IDF soldiers."

"We're talking about a terrorist camp in the center of a refugee camp," said Col. Miri Eisen, an Israeli military intelligence officer. "Maybe we should address the fact that in the center of the refugee camp, a hundred or so terrorists built a booby-trapped minefield and not about the other issues."

Report: No evidence of massacre

The New York-based group did conclude that Palestinian gunmen in the camp had endangered civilians by using it as a base for planning and launching attacks, planting explosives in the camp and intermingling with civilians during the Israeli offensive.

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Israeli tanks and troops rumbled into the camp on April 3, part of a larger Israeli offensive in the West Bank after a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Just what happened in Jenin remains bitterly disputed between the two sides.

The three-member investigative team, which spent 10 days in the camp, put the Palestinian death toll at 52. Of those, it identified 22 as civilians. The population of the camp, about one mile square, is estimated at 14,000.

But while the group's investigators found no evidence that Israeli troops massacred Palestinian civilians in Jenin, as some Palestinian officials had earlier charged, the report concluded the IDF didn't do enough to protect civilians.

"When the Israeli army decided to go into this densely populated refugee camp, they had an obligation under international law to take all possible precautions to protect the civilian population," said Bouckaert. "Clearly, the Israeli army failed to take the necessary precautions during its attack."

Israel disputes that conclusion, noting that 23 of its own soldiers died in the fiercest urban warfare the IDF has experienced in 30 years.

"The extent of Israeli casualties and the duration of the combat are proof of the great efforts made by the IDF to conduct the operation carefully in an effort to bring to an absolute minimum the number of Palestinian civilian casualties," said an IDF statement.

An IDF reservist who spoke with CNN, identified as Lt. Ron, said, "This was no summer camp. This was an act of war, and it was done in the most sensitive way to human life as possible."

The IDF also said the report ignored the "root cause" of the Israeli operation in Jenin -- suicide bombings by Palestinians trained there. In 18 months, 28 bombers had received their instructions, and in some cases, their bombs, at the Jenin camp, according to the Israelis.

Civilians forced to do 'potentially dangerous tasks'

The Human Rights Watch team at the camp gathered detailed accounts from victims and witnesses and cross-checked the statements. The group said Israel has not agreed to the group's requests for information about military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza.

The report cited instances in which Palestinian civilians were "forced to stand for extended periods in front of exposed IDF positions" and made to "accompany the soldiers as they moved from house to house."

"As in prior IDF operations, soldiers forced Palestinians, sometimes at gunpoint, to accompany IDF troops during their searches of homes, to enter homes, to open doors and to perform other potentially dangerous tasks," the report said

The IDF initially, and forcefully, denied the charges. But Israeli officials later acknowledged that after an investigation, they had discovered at least one case where a Palestinian woman who emerged from her house was asked to go back inside and ask others in the house to come out.

"That is the only instance of what we know of as a human shield," Eisen said.

Lt. Ron said using Palestinians to open doors was a method that was considered "acceptable," although he did not personally see it being done.

In interviews with CNN, two Palestinians, Rawad Tawalbi, a 13-year-old boy, and Faisal abu Sariya, a schoolteacher, charged they were mistreated by Israel soldiers. Tawalbi said he was used to search neighboring apartments, and abu Sariya said he was both used as a human shield and forced to go door-to-door and tell people inside to move.

Human Rights Watch says that using civilians in such ways during a military operation violates the Geneva Conventions.

The U.N. Security Council is still deadlocked over how to proceed on the issue of Jenin. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has announced he is disbanding the fact-finding team set up to look into events at the refugee camp.

Annan informed the council, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority of his decision, which came in the wake of the Israeli Cabinet's refusal to cooperate with the team. Israel has questioned the makeup and mandate of such a mission and expressed reservations as to its fairness.

-- CNN Correspondent Sheila MacVicar contributed to this report.




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