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A Passover massacre, a terror war and the lies they told

In the wake of the ICC’s decision to launch a war-crimes investigation against Israel, a look back at 2002’s “Operation Defensive Shield” and the baseless accusations that followed it.

IDF soldiers in the Jenin refugee camp during "Operation Defensive Shield," April 9, 2002. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office.
IDF soldiers in the Jenin refugee camp during "Operation Defensive Shield," April 9, 2002. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office.
Shahar Azani
Shahar Azani

The International Criminal Court recently made headlines when it ruled that Palestine is a State Party to the Rome Statute, extending the court’s jurisdiction to the territories “occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.” Shortly thereafter, the ICC Prosecutor announced the launch of an investigation against Israel regarding “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s defensive war against Hamas in 2014.

The ICC’s decision has implications that extend beyond Israel’s political and military leaderships to high- and low-ranking officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Due to the unique nature of Israel’s conflicts—and its terrorist enemies—Israel faces a most complex, if not unparalleled, situation on the battlefield.

Here is one glimpse into that world: the story of my cousin, Ofer.

I’ve known Ofer all my life. He’s always been a jolly guy, the kind who always smiles, focuses on his work and takes care of his family. On one balmy Tel Aviv night a few years back, we were sitting down together for dinner when the conversation took an unexpected turn. I had asked Ofer what he’d been up to lately, and he paused, seeming hesitant to speak.

“What’s up?” I urged him, curious.

He finally relented.

“I’m not sure you know, Shahar, but I was a reservist during ‘Operation Defensive Shield,’ at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002. I was one of those who fought in Jenin.”

I had vaguely known that, of course, but it had never occurred to me to ask him about it.

Ofer began his tale.

“It was the eve of Passover, 2002, and we were on the way to celebrate the holiday at my mother-in-law’s house, Grandma Mazal. I remember the endless traffic, impatient drivers honking in despair and the kids squabbling in the back seat while we tried to reassure them: ‘Just a few more minutes and we’ll be there.’ We were moving a few inches forward and then stopping again. Almost an ordinary Passover eve. Suddenly … a stern voice on the radio announced there had been a terrible bombing in Netanya. ‘Terrible,’ the voice repeated, but said no more.”

On Wednesday, March 27, 2002, at around 2 p.m., a Palestinian suicide bomber and his driver, both members of Hamas, were driving around in Israel, looking for crowded places. After traveling from Herzliya to bustling Tel Aviv, they decided to drive to the coastal city of Netanya, where they had worked illegally in the past. They chose the Park Hotel, which was abuzz with innocent men, women, children and seniors, many of whom had no one to celebrate the holiday with or were incapable of doing so on their own.

They had all gathered to celebrate the Passover seder in the hotel’s dining room on the ground floor. Sometime around 8 p.m., the suicide bomber entered the hotel and walked straight to the center of the dining room. He then detonated a powerful bomb strapped to his body. The explosion could be heard miles away, due to parts of the ceiling collapsing. Dozens died and hundreds more were injured. Eleven Holocaust survivors perished in the horrendous massacre, that sent shockwaves throughout Israel.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya, March 27, 2002. Photo by Flash90.

“We began to hear the details. A terrible bombing attack in Netanya … a massacre. Bodies were strewn all over the hotel’s dining room, and the white clothes meticulously prepared for the celebration were now drenched in blood around what was left of the seder table. We were still standing in traffic. We looked around, only to see great sadness in the eyes of others. Everything turned eerily quiet, as the honking stopped and the entourage of vehicles continued to drive in silence to their respective celebrations.”

Sadly, such tragedies were not uncommon in Israel at the time. Around September 2000, the Palestinian leadership, then headed by Yasser Arafat, launched what was later called the Second Intifada, a series of suicide attacks against Israel targeting buses, malls and coffee shops. Some of these atrocious attacks were executed by women and even children. They resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis, with many more injured. The Park Hotel Massacre is considered to be the bloodiest terror attack in Israel’s history, part of the Bloody March that year, during which more than 135 Israelis lost their lives to terrorism.

The funeral of Shalhevet Pass, who was shot and killed by a Palestinian at close range during the Second Intifada, March 26, 2001. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

“It was clear to everyone that something had to change. We must put an end to this suicidal terrorism madness that tsunamied through Israel at that time and reached its peak that seder night at the Park Hotel. Instead of a seder [Hebrew for ‘order’], our enemies did their best to wreak havoc and chaos. No more. The die had been cast, and along with it, the uniform came out of the closet.”

As a result of the Park Hotel massacre and Bloody March, Israel decided to call up 20,000 IDF reservists, including Ofer, and launch “Operation Defensive Shield,” a large-scale counterterrorism operation in the West Bank. It took place between March 29 and May 10, 2002, and marked the beginning of the end of that period of unfathomable horror.

An IDF soldier during an operation in Nablus, April 8, 2002. Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Wikimedia Commons.

The Jenin refugee camp was the site of the operation’s most notorious battles. The IDF encountered heavy resistance from Palestinian terrorists entrenched in the camp. The camp was densely populated, which forced the IDF to engage in door-to-door combat instead of relying on aerial bombardment.

The result was devastating. The ferocious firefights in the camp resulted in the death of 23 IDF reservists, 13 of whom died in one bloody day. The Israeli soldiers had gone in not knowing that an integral part of the Palestinian terrorists’ battle plan involved women and children. They used them not only as human shields—a practice sadly seen often—but also deployed them as front-line combatants, as well as logistical and intelligence support.

In Jenin, the Palestinians weaponized Israel’s values and the IDF’s ethical code against its own soldiers.

Ofer is not one to tear up. Still, that night his eyes spoke volumes.

“April 8, 2002, was the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. By that time, we had already been heavily engaged in fighting in Jenin, known to be the suicide bombers’ capital of the West Bank. The IDF chose a risky path. We were fighting door-to-door, passing through walls, to minimize casualties, rather than carpet-bombing the camp. All that was done in order to save the lives of the many Palestinians who were in the camp, held hostage and used as human shields by the terrorists.

“The sun set slowly on yet another day of fighting and we found shelter for the night. Dror Bar, one of the force’s commanders, convened the soldiers after nightfall. In the heat of battle, Dror found the time and will to hold a Holocaust remembrance ceremony with a group of sweaty soldiers. Together they lit six candles in memory of the six million of our people who perished at the hands of Nazi evil.

“His words still echo in everyone’s ears. ‘We are fortunate and privileged to be alive at a time when the Jewish people are free. When we have a state of our own, and an army of our own, to fight for our people, for our freedom, for our lives. To be masters of our own fate.’ The words resonated amid the bullets’ whistles. ‘This battle today, in Jenin,’ he said, ‘was part and parcel of the Zionist ethos and an expression of the resurrection of the Jewish people in our modern State of Israel.’”

On April 9, 2002, IDF soldiers stumbled into a Palestinian ambush in the camp. They entered an open yard, later nicknamed “the bathtub,” and fire was opened on them from all directions. In the heat of that intense and bloody battle, Palestinians kidnapped three soldiers’ bodies and hid them in a nearby room. The soldiers’ friends, however, refused to leave them behind—even at the peril of their own lives. They fought to retrieve their fallen friends, an action they were later decorated for.

It was the IDF’s deadliest day of battle since the First Lebanon War in 1982. Lt. (res.) Bar, age 28, of Kibbutz Einat, was killed mere hours after that ceremony, along with 12 other brave soldiers.

Senior Palestinian officials rushed to blame Israel, claiming it was nothing short of a “massacre” of hundreds of Palestinians, with some even going arguing 3,000 (!) Palestinians had died at Israeli hands. These were blatant, shameless lies. Recently deceased Palestinian spokesperson and chief negotiator Saeb Erakat is well remembered for having rushed to TV studios to point the finger at Israel, claiming it was guilty of “genocide.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaks at a news conference in Ramallah, on Aug. 23. 2010. Photo by Issan Rimawi/Flash90.

At first, international media reported the Palestinian accusations without scrutiny, while Israel’s government fought the blood libel. This false accusation was later thoroughly debunked not only by human rights organizations but even by the United Nations itself, which denied the occurrence of such a massacre in Jenin. And a Time Magazine investigation concluded: “There was no wanton massacre in Jenin, no deliberate slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. But the 12 days of fighting took a severe toll on the camp.”

But the battle was not over. The end of one day of fighting marked the beginning of another struggle. It was a battle of the heart, a battle for the memory of those fallen soldiers and for the soul of a nation.

Mohammad Bakri is an Arab-Israeli actor and film director. Shortly after “Operation Defensive Shield” ended, he filmed a series of interviews with residents of Jenin. He produced a film based on these testimonies and other materials, titled “Jenin, Jenin.” The movie was described as a one-sided production, echoing the Palestinian false narrative of what transpired at the camp. It was edited to blame IDF soldiers for supposedly committing atrocities at the camp, including firing at a hospital, robbing the elderly and even running over an infant.

Arab Israeli Filmmaker Mohammad Bakri at the Lod District Court, Dec. 21, 2017. Photo by Flash90.

Ofer paused for a minute.

“After taking heavy fire in the camp and paying a costly price in human lives, we were not about to take this attack on us and our fallen friends lying down. Not by a long shot.”

The movie’s lies were too much to bear for the IDF soldiers who took part in the fighting. They had lost many friends fighting a battle for the people of Israel. Now, they found themselves on yet another battlefield—a legal and media one—to cleanse, cherish and uphold the memory of their fallen comrades against an orchestrated campaign of lies and incitement. It took many years of work and many failures before it reached a temporary conclusion a few months ago.

In January 2021, Israel’s Central District Court prohibited the movie’s screening. The battle over the movie faced various legal challenges, and the film was finally banned only after Nissim Meghnagi, an IDF reservist who took part in the operation in Jenin, filed a defamation suit of his own against Bakri. Meghnagi appeared in the film, which accused him of stealing money from an elderly Palestinian man. The court ruled he had been “sent to defend his country and found himself accused of a crime he did not commit.”

“The battle in Jenin was the epitome of heroism, and much happened on that battlefield which has yet to be told. Tales of glory and virtue to share with generations to come.”

Rabbi Hillel famously said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). Ofer and his friends were on the front lines, ready to give their lives for the people and State of Israel. They marched onto the battlefield, determined not only to defend and protect the innocent but also to preserve the memory of their slain comrades.

“But if I am only for myself, what am I?” they asked and, with their deeds, answered.

What will the ICC answer?

 Shahar Azani is a former Israeli diplomat and senior vice president at JBS.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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