Palestinian fighter describes 'hard fight' in Jenin
Says he didn't see large numbers killed
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A senior member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who surrendered to Israeli forces in Jenin described the battle as "a very hard fight" in which both sides took on casualties, but he said he didn't see "tens of people" killed by the Israeli army.
Tabaat Mardawi spoke Monday to CNN from the Israeli prison where he was taken after his surrender. His comments were some of the first from a Palestinian fighter from the battle at the Jenin refugee camp, which was the scene of Israel's most fierce offensive during Operation Defensive Shield.
Palestinian officials claim hundreds died in what they are calling a massacre at the camp during Israel's military offensive. Israel vehemently denies the charge, saying deaths -- including 23 of their own soldiers -- came during fierce fighting. The United Nations has formed a fact-finding team to investigate the events at the Jenin camp.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.
Mardawi said he and other Palestinian fighters had expected Israel to attack with planes and tanks. He spoke enthusiastically about Israel's decision to send in infantry.
"It was like hunting ... like being given a prize. I couldn't believe it when I saw the soldiers," he said. "The Israelis knew that any soldier who went into the camp like that was going to get killed."
He added: "I've been waiting for a moment like that for years."
Israel Defense Forces spokesmen have said that the decision to use infantry to spearhead the attack – rather than using air power and artillery – stemmed from a desire to limit civilian casualties, even at the risk of higher IDF casualties.
The decision to take the crowded refugee camp – with its narrow streets and alleyways – block by block did prove costly to the Israeli forces. In the worst single incident, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli unit on April 9 and killed 13 reservists and troops sent to rescue them.
Mardawi drew a map of the camp and talked about the course of the battle. Their weapons were guns and crudely made bombs and booby traps -- "big ones" for tanks and "others the size of a water bottle." He estimated 1,000 to 2,000 bombs and booby traps were spread through the camp.
"It was a very hard fight. We fought at close quarters," he said, "sometimes just a matter of a few meters between us, sometimes even in the same house."
He said there were about 100 Palestinians in the battle -- 60 to 70 fighters from the camp and 20-30 members of the Palestinian security forces.
That figure is not so different from what Israel has said. The Israel Defense Forces has said as many as 200 fighters were in the camp but that about 100 surrendered during the fighting.
Asked about the allegations of a massacre, Mardawi said, "By my own standard, what happened there was a massacre. But if you are asking, 'Did I see tens of people killed?' Frankly, no. In my group, we were in an area with no other people. Three fighters with me were killed. Later when we started to move from place to place, we saw destroyed houses and could smell bodies."
He eventually surrendered when infantry forces disappeared and armored bulldozers appeared.
"The huge bulldozer came in, and we were in destroyed houses," he said. "There were no soldiers or tanks. ... There was nothing I could do against that bulldozer."
"What could I do? I either surrendered or stayed to be buried under the rubble."
Israel has said the use of bulldozers was a tactical necessity to end the fighting and that the devastation of the camp was unfortunate collateral damage.
The U.N. fact-finding team team, headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, will report its findings about Jenin to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will present them to the Security Council.
Ahtisaari said the team should reach the Jenin camp later this week. No timetable was given for its work.
"Our intention is to meet as soon as possible," he said. "We will, of course, go after all the necessary information" at the camp.
The Palestinian Authority applauded the decision to send the team: "The Palestinian Authority and its leader [Yasser Arafat] welcome the appointment of a fact-finding committee."
In Washington, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the U.N. investigative effort in Jenin "when we've had dozens of proven massacres by Arafat when they didn't lift a finger."
"It's irrelevant, unjust, unfair," Netanyahu told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in a speech Monday night. "We should discard [the findings of the U.N. team], the United States and Israel together."
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