As we drew near the tank, the soldiers shot over our heads. A clear message: this far and no further. So we turned our armoured Land Rover round and drove through the olive groves, and along the tractor paths. The Israeli forces were determined that no journalists should see the destruction they had wreaked on Jenin camp, the site of the most vicious battle in Israel’s reoccupation of the Palestinian West Bank. But we were equally determined to defy them.
It took six hours to find our way to the hospital in the centre of Jenin, taking directions from Palestinians we met on the way. We had been in the town briefly the previous day, but the army had tightened the cordon overnight, placing tanks and armoured vehicles in the surrounding villages where journalists had been camping out. Reaching the town was only the beginning of our journey, because we had yet to penetrate the adjacent camp. Cautiously, we stepped out towards the barrier that marked the camp entrance. A shot rang out overhead. Was that for us? We walked a little further. A burst of gunfire – yes, it was. We retreated back to the hospital.
News spreads quickly in a small, besieged town under curfew: journalists are in town, they want to get to the camp. As much as the Israelis wanted to hide what had happened, the Palestinians wanted us to document the destruction of their homes. After a while, a young Palestinian man appeared and offered to be our guide.
We set off, 14 of us, weighed down by our flak jackets and helmets. Our first guide led us through the cemetery, and we ran across two open roads into the courtyard of a house. We could hear the roar of armoured bulldozers and vehicles – if one came round the corner and found us, we would be lost. I didn’t fear being shot, but I did fear being arrested and forced to hand over our journalist ID and our tapes.
Another guide – a small, lithe boy in his late teens – led us up stone staircases and across exposed wasteland. Panic – run faster! An armoured personnel carrier crawled round the corner as the last of our group made it to safety. The heavy flak jacket pulled me down – I was hot, sweating and exhausted. We came up to a wall: 10ft high with a 25ft drop down the other side. I looked at Alex, a French photographer as unfit as myself. How would we make it? But there was no way back. The Israelis were after us, and we hadn’t got the story yet. So someone pushed me up, and someone caught me as I dangled above the rickety ladder on the other side.
We were in the camp – a misnomer, because the refugee camps of Palestine have been home to so many for so long that they are now just suburbs, and people have poured their life savings into their houses. Jenin camp must have been quite prosperous in parts. Now it looks as if an earthquake has hit it. Streets have turned into great heaps of rubble, landslides of stones, bent girders and shattered glass. On the houses that are still standing, blackened locks show how the Israelis blew the doors with explosive charges.
Our guides led us into a house where a body lay, charred and unrecognisable. A few yards away, a foot was sticking awkwardly out of the rubble. The Palestinians say 500 people were slaughtered in Jenin; the Israelis have put the death toll at no higher than 100, and say that most of them were gunmen. Everywhere we went, people told us to hurry, not to linger, because the Israelis might catch us.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live through those terrifying days when Israeli troops smashed their way into the narrow streets of the camp in armoured bulldozers and tanks. Militants laid pipe-bombs under the paving stones, and snipers shot at the soldiers from the windows of the stone houses. The bullets must have bounced and echoed off the walls. And the Israelis – young, inexperienced reservists – panicked, not expecting such resistance. So they demolished the houses in which they believed the enemy hid.
Some people hid from us, fearing that we were Israeli soldiers. But most rushed out to greet us. This was once home to 14,000 people. Maybe 3,000 remain, the rest having fled, if they weren’t killed or wounded. A woman shouted that she had no food or water. Another told me she was trying to keep five children alive in what remained of their house. For more than a week, the Israeli army denied the Red Cross access to the camp – at first, the army said it was too dangerous; then it said that an offer of access had been turned down – an allegation denied by the Red Cross.
It was time to go. The dull roar of the tanks and armoured personnel carriers felt closer; it was late afternoon and we didn’t want to be stuck in the camp overnight. So our guide beckoned us back. Most of us were exhausted. Someone heaved me up the 25ft wall, another pulled my arms, and I was over. Then we had to run. Run downhill, run across the wasteland. By the time we made it to the graveyard, I felt I could move no further. A man in a long robe came out of his house and gave us all glasses of sweet tea, and the strength to keep going.
Sitting in Jerusalem now, I still feel exhausted. I’m a journalist, not a commando. Reporters argue about who got in first, and who got the story right, but none of it matters. What matters is that Jenin has become the emblem of this bitter war. To the Palestinians, it was a massacre of the innocents, a story as shocking as Sabra and Shatila in 1982, when Lebanese Phalangists sponsored by Israel murdered hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. To the Israelis, it was proof that terror can be fought only with harsh tactics: 22 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in Jenin when Palestinian militants booby-trapped buildings and ambushed a patrol.
The truth will take months to emerge. But the truth may not matter, because Israelis and Palestinians have already decided what happened at Jenin – and increased their anger and hatred to match their mythic versions of events.
Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News