Two years ago, spurred to act by a series of suicide bombings that took the lives of some 87 Israeli citizens and wounded 570 others, the Israeli Defense Force attacked what it believed to be a terrorist stronghold in the heart of the West Bank town of Jenin, a place of densely packed buildings and labyrinthine alleys and home to a close-knit core of Palestinian fighters thought to be responsible for 25 per cent of the bombings.

What happened that day was said to be a massacre on the scale of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, with entire buildings flattened and hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed.

People around the world assumed this to be true because United Nations aid workers, The Independent, the Times of London, The Guardian, BBC News and a host of other media organizations across Europe reported it to be so.

"Massacre evidence growing," a headline on BBC's website blared on April 18, 2002.

There was just one small problem. None of that happened.

The truth would come out eventually, Canadian reporter Martin Himel reports in his new documentary, Jenin: Massacring Truth. But the damage was done.

The myth of the massacre endures to this day, even though the BBC was backpedalling within days of the initial reports.

Little more than 10 days after accusations of a massacre were posted on the BBC's website, British military expert David Holley, a major in the British Territorial Army and military adviser to Amnesty International, was quoted on the same site saying Israel was right to challenge the UN observers' claims.

Holley cited numbers closer to "possibly 54 bodies. . . with possibly 20 or 30 unaccounted for."

He could not verify those figures until the entire site was cleared.

Massacre is an overused word, Holley said, and not very helpful in situations like that.

Three months later, in August 2002, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch put the final fatality figures at 26 Palestinian fighters, 26 civilians and 23 Israeli soldiers.

But the genie was out of the bottle, and once out, it would prove next to impossible to put back in.

The "massacre" is now part of the historical record, promulgated in part by a Palestinian documentary film, Jenin, Jenin, that equated the Israeli incursion into the town with war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and by the refusal of many European journalists who covered the initial story to admit they got the facts wrong.

Himel chose to make his documentary through the eyes and recollections of an Israeli reservist, Johnathan Van Caspel, a man who has felt the stain of being branded a war criminal.

Himel managed to get his hands on camcorder footage taken by both Van Caspel's unit and, remarkably, that of Palestinian fighters in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to take viewers inside what in actuality was a nasty urban firefight, full of frenzied confusion and near-panic.

"I tried to put the (viewer) right into what it's like to fight urban warfare, to be in it," Himel explained by phone from Israel.

"The unusual thing in this film is that the fighting was filmed by the fighters on both sides. Today, with these little home video cameras, instead of people taking stills of their buddies in war, they can actually film the war.

"What I tried to do was put the viewer right in there. And what I mean by that is, it's confusing. You don't see the enemy.

"You don't know where the bullets are coming from. It's scary. No one really knows what's going on. And that's really what it's like."

Himel wanted his film to reflect both the macro view and the micro view of what happened that day in Jenin.

The micro view is the personal story of an Israeli reservist who is still mourning the death of friends who died in the heat of battle, their memory stained by lingering accusations of a massacre.

The macro view is the wider story of how the media cover conflict zones, and how so many journalists managed to get this story wrong.

"Today, with live TV and instant deadlines and the Internet, in some sense we are demanding clarity of every situation that we see," Himel said. "But situations like this are very unclear. And because of that, a lot of information you get is also very unclear. This is a classic case."

Himel's film includes interviews with Palestinian fighters in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who were there at the time -- ironically, Himel says, Palestinian fighters are far more forthcoming than many of the journalists he tried to talk to -- as well as senior editors at BBC-TV; The Independent's senior defense correspondent, Kim Sengupta; the Daily Telegraph's David Blair (who defends his view of events by saying he reported what he saw and merely reiterated first-hand accounts of Jenin residents he talked to); the Toronto Star's Olivia Ward, who disputes the accuracy of some of the conclusions drawn at the time; and the Times of London's Janine di Giovanni.

"The interesting thing is that, of all the people I interviewed, the one thing they all agreed on, without exception, was that where the journalist is coming from, his background, etc., has a big impact on how he reports things," says Himel.

"They all say, and I agree with them, that in many respects, objectivity is a fiction. It's not that we're not trying to give an accurate picture of what's going on, but we all come from somewhere. And that's something we all have to realize.

"The truth is, though, that some journalists have bigger axes to grind than others, on all sides. And that comes into play here, definitely -- especially in a case like Jenin."

BBC's initial reports of a massacre were the most damaging, because BBC is widely considered to be the standard bearer for reportage from the world's combat zones. BBC News assignment editor Malcolm Downing tells Himel in the film that, because of its reputation, people are naturally inclined to believe that what the BBC says to be true is true.

"Like everybody, we make mistakes," Downing tells Himel in the film, "and we try to own up to them when we do. . . The correction is lying behind, though. We never catch up. That's true of everybody else, as well as us."

In an ideal world, Himel says, rival media organizations would take a step back and agree not to jump to conclusions until they have a better grasp on what's going on.

"But that's not going to happen. We're all going to come up with our stories as fast as possible, especially in the age of live TV."

The difference, Himel says, for people who really want to be informed and are willing to make an effort, is whether the reporter's approach involves a healthy level of skepticism or whether the reporter is willing to accept first-person testimony -- 'I saw this, I saw that' -- at face value.

BBC showed little skepticism toward initial claims of massacre from the Palestinian side, Himel says, whereas CNN's domestic service was more circumspect.

In an interview with Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erekat, CNN's anchor at the time asked if Erekat would return and retract his statement if initial claims of more than 500 casualties proved to be inaccurate.

"If (Israeli claims of 70 casualties) are right and your initial numbers were wrong, will you come back here on our network and retract what you said?"

"Absolutely," Erekat said. "Absolutely. And I hope the numbers will be nothing. I hope the numbers will be zero."

In a later interview with Himel, Erekat admitted he made a mistake. "On that day, the Red Cross was not permitted to go to Jenin," Erekat told Himel. "Foreign journalists were kicked out of the Jenin area. . . Martin, we've known each other for the last 25 years. This is the only time I've said I've made a mistake, in all my interrogations."

But first impressions stick, veteran BBC correspondent James Reynolds tells Himel in the film. "Going around the world right now, if one was to ask anyone who watched the news of it, what do they think of Jenin, they think 'Jenin massacre'," Reynolds tells Himel.

"Those two words are linked. First impressions are very important. And perhaps, despite all the other reporting at the end, they are never rubbed out."

Himel says he knows critics will question his own point of view before they even see his film. The difference between his film and blanket media coverage of the Israeli incursion into Jenin, he says, is that he went out of his way to get the other side of the story, even going so far as to risk his personal safety by tracking down and querying Palestinian fighters.

Many European journalists at Jenin didn't bother to talk to Israeli soldiers and their commanders after the fighting, Himel says, even though they were standing just meters away.

"I thought it was extremely important to do what these other journalists did not do," Himel says. "When they were in Jenin, they spoke to Palestinians who gave them a very graphic account, which turned out to be inaccurate. They did not take those graphic accounts and then sit with Johnathan Van Caspel or with the Israeli IDF and really ask them what their side was, and bring an equal version out of it. They didn't. I really felt that if I was going to put Johnathan Van Caspel's side out there, I really had to get a hold of the people who were fighting against Johnathan Van Caspel. Which I did. Which is not simple."

The controversy over Jenin hints at a deeper, wider issue, however, and that is the entire tone of media coverage on Israel and the Middle East.

"What's really going on here is confusing, because the real dialogue is not whether there was a massacre or not a massacre," Himel says.

"The real dialogue is: Is Israel or Palestine legitimate or not legitimate? It's all a matter of point of view. For people who feel Israel is an illegitimate state, it doesn't matter if it was one person here and two people there. Whatever Israel does is going to be wrong, because it's an illegitimate country.

"That's the real discussion. The massacre thing just echoes the real discussion. Sometimes I say to myself that everything would be better if we just had the real discussion."

The documentary is available for purchase at:

© The Calgary Herald 2004

Material reprinted with the express permission of The Calgary Herald Group Inc.”, a CanWest Partnership.