What's A Massacre?

President John F. Kennedy and his wife are shown riding in a motorcade moments before the president was fatally shot. Texas Gov. John Connally and Mrs. Connally are in the front seat of the limousine. This frame-grab image was made from a restored version of a film showing the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.
We aren't paying much attention to the murders of five Americans in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer wonders why.

Terrorists murdered five Americans on Wednesday, July 31. By Friday, the stories of Marla Bennett, Benjamin Blutstein, Dina Carter, David Gritz and Janis Ruth Coulter had nearly vanished from the news.

They were killed by a bomb in Jerusalem.

If the bombing had been in New Jersey, the coverage would be wall-to-wall, 24/7, incessant, emotional, up-close and personal.

If five American Jews had been murdered in Paris, Nairobi, Buenos Aires or Warsaw, the fallout and clamor would have been gargantuan.

But it happened in Israel.

And so even though these five people were all Americans, their deaths have already been plastered into the endless wall of blood and hate between Israelis and Palestinians. Endless, and for most Americans, faceless and nameless.

The most notorious recent symbol of that wall between Israel and Palestine is known simply as Jenin.

In April, Israeli forces invaded the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers fought for ten days in what has now become the most famous and controversial battle in this latest war. But the lasting import of that fight, however, has been in the arena of perception and propaganda.

Palestinians have consistently claimed that there was a "massacre" or "atrocity" at Jenin, that some 500 Palestinian civilians -- mostly women, children and old people – were intentionally slaughtered by Israeli soldiers and then buried from the world by Israeli bulldozers.

The "Jenin Massacre" is accepted historical fact in much of the Arab and Muslim world, and, indeed, in many circles of the West often described as "liberal" (for reasons unknown to me). Jenin has had a huge impact on how the world sees the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

The United Nations has now issued a report that concludes there was no massacre at Jenin.

In the legalistic, hedged words of the report:

"Fifty-two Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by the hospital in Jenin by the end of May 2002. IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) also place the death toll at approximately 52. A senior Palestinian Authority official alleged in mid-April that some 500 were killed, a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of the evidence that has emerged."

Among the 52 dead were a large but undetermined number of Palestinian fighters; the dead were mostly civilians. There was no massacre of civilians.

And contrary to the myth of Jenin, the report makes clear that Jenin was not a battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian innocents. "According to both Palestinian and Israeli observers," the report finds, "the Jenin camp had, by April 2002, some 200 armed men from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Tanzim, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas who operated from the camp."

Palestinian fighters and terrorists clearly used the town for cover. "That the Israeli Defence Forces encountered heavy Palestinian resistance is not in question," the U.N. report concludes. "Nor is the fact that Palestinian militants in the camp, as elsewhere, adopted methods which constitute breaches of international law that have been and continue to be condemned by the United Nations."

The United Nations is not an organization inclined to acquit Israel, to put it politely. The report does not exonerate Israel. It finds that the Israeli military was dangerously unprepared for the level of resistance it met and criticizes Israel for imposing curfews, using excessive force at times and for keeping medical and humanitarian aid away from Palestinians.

Indeed, the report is hostile to Israeli conduct in most regards. One curious example: the report correctly says, "The proximate cause of the operation was a terrorist attack committed on 27 March in the Israeli city of Netanya, in which 28 people were killed and 140 injured." Astoundingly, the report fails to mention that this occurred on the Jewish holiday of Passover.

When the anti-Israeli United Nations rejects these claims of massacre, it should have some credibility in the world.

There is no disputing that there was cruel tragedy at Jenin. But that chaotic battle was turned into a massive piece of international propaganda. The legend of Jenin became more important than the battle ever was.

There is also no disputing that the Hebrew University bombing was a cruel tragedy.

If those Americans had been murdered anywhere but Israel, America would now be shocked and irate about what we would surely call a massacre. But we're not. In fact, it's almost as if we're somehow disowning these five people.

The stories of Marla Bennett, Benjamin Blutstein, Dina Carter, David Gritz and Janis Ruth Coulter are smaller than they should be.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer