Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
Issue No.582
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The 'engineer'

An engineer of the fiercest battle waged by the Palestinians during the invasion of the West Bank spoke to Jonathan Cook about the days of defiance in Jenin

Omar sits restlessly on his chair in the safe-house. He is an "engineer" from Jenin refugee camp: one of the revered bomb-makers from the City of the Bombers. To the Israelis he is the most lethal, and wanted, of terrorists. The poison from the Cobra's head.

We meet late last Thursday, hours after he escaped from the camp as Israeli soldiers took control of the area. We are still close enough to Jenin that we can see the constant stream of illumination flares, three launched by the army at a time, that light up the soldiers' dark work in the city below.

But Omar will not be staying here long. He is going to ground deeper in the West Bank before regrouping with his comrades from Jenin.

There may not be too many. Even according to Israeli army sources, at least a hundred fighters were killed and hundreds more wounded and captured during the eight days of savage fighting.

Omar will not give his name or age. He is slim, in his mid-20s, with a closely cropped beard. He is a member of Islamic Jihad, but says in Jenin all the factions were loyal to only one cause: liberation or death.

Visible beneath a blue bomber jacket is the tightly bandaged stump of his right arm, the end of which he rubs distractedly.

How did he lose it? During the previous invasion of Jenin by the Israeli army several weeks ago, he says. He was hiding with only his arm visible as he tried to throw a 'kwa' -- a home-made pipe bomb -- at a tank. Shrapnel from a shell severed it, he says.

But as a bomb-maker, one of the most highly respected positions in the Palestinian resistance, he could equally have lost the arm in less glorious circumstances: in one of the explosions that are a professional hazard of his job.

Omar admits he is one of only a few dozen fighters not to emerge either dead or in plastic handcuffs from the fiercest battle waged by the Palestinians during the Israeli army's invasion of the West Bank.

Of his group of 30 gunmen, only four escaped from the camp on Wednesday, after the Palestinian arsenal ran dry. Most of the others were shot dead.

"Of all the fighters in the West Bank we were the best prepared," he says. "We started working on our plan: to trap the invading soldiers and blow them up from the moment the Israeli tanks pulled out of Jenin last month."

Omar and other "engineers" made hundreds of explosive devices and carefully chose their locations.

"We had more than 50 houses booby-trapped around the camp. We chose old and empty buildings and the houses of men who were wanted by Israel because we knew the soldiers would search for them," he said.

"We cut off lengths of mains water pipes and packed them with explosives and nails. Then we placed them about four metres apart throughout the houses -- in cupboards, under sinks, in sofas."

The fighters hoped to disable the Israeli army's tanks with much more powerful bombs placed inside rubbish bins on the street. More explosives were hidden inside the cars of Jenin's most wanted men.

Connected by wires, the bombs were set off remotely, triggered by the current from a car battery.

According to Omar, everyone in the camp, including the children, knew where the explosives were located so that there was no danger of civilians being injured. It was the one weakness in the plan.

"We were betrayed by the spies among us," he says. The wires to more than a third of the bombs were cut by soldiers accompanied by collaborators. "If it hadn't been for the spies, the soldiers would never have been able to enter the camp. Once they penetrated the camp, it was much harder to defend."

And what about the explosion and ambush last Tuesday which killed 13 soldiers?

"They were lured there," he says. "We all stopped shooting and the women went out to tell the soldiers that we had run out of bullets and were leaving." The women alerted the fighters as the soldiers reached the booby- trapped area.

"When the senior officers realised what had happened, they shouted through megaphones that they wanted an immediate cease-fire. We let them approach to retrieve the men and then opened fire.

"Some of the soldiers were so shocked and frightened that they mistakenly ran towards us."

On Wednesday, after the fighters ran out of ammunition, he says, armoured vehicles roamed the streets calling out to them in Arabic: "You are finished and can't win against us. We are more powerful than you. Surrender."

He saw one fighter who went down to the street with his hands in the air shot dead by snipers. He chose to flee the camp, although he will not say how.

Using his left arm, Omar shot a revolver during the gun battles.

With a new intensity on his face, he leans forward to ask a question. Do I think the doctors will be able to give him a strong new artificial arm with fingers he can operate. I don't know, I say. Why?

"Because I want to be able to hold a heavy rifle again. That way I can kill more Israeli soldiers. It's that or become a suicide bomber."

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