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Palestine: the world looks away

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      Palestine: the world looks away

      While international attention is on Iraq, Israel is taking the chance
      to expand army operations in the West Bank and Gaza, demolishing their
      structure and infrastructure, totally unconcerned about the deaths it


      Le Monde diplomatique - April 2003



      THE thoughts of the world were elsewhere on 17 March. The Azores
      summit ended the day before. The chances of a second United Nations
      resolution were gone, and television correspondents from the United
      States were monopolising airwaves, waiting for President Geroge Bush's
      "leave the country or face war" ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to expire.
      That day 11 Palestinians died in the Gaza Strip, most of them
      non-combatants, and it happened in a climate of indifference.

      It started around three in the morning. Muhammad al-Sa'afin, an
      Islamic Jihad militant, wanted by the Israeli army for his supposed
      role in two suicide attacks that killed five soldiers in Gaza, had
      just returned home under cover of darkness, to the fringe of the
      Nusseirat refugee camp. "It was a trap," said his teenage cousin,
      Nasser. Within minutes, 10 jeeps, followed by a column of tanks,
      encircled the house. "The tanks made a terrible noise," says Ihab, the
      grocer next door. "I thought the walls of my house were going to
      collapse. My pregnant wife was so frightened that she almost gave
      birth right in front of me."

      The building's 34 residents had to evacuate into the street under army
      orders. Five minutes was not enough to gather all their possessions,
      but they grabbed what they could: jewellery, photos, papers, money.
      Hidden, al-Sa'afin refused to surrender. A firefight started with the
      soldiers. Alerted by the gunshots and the muezzin's calls to
      resistance, dozens of militants came in support. Ibrahim al-Othmani
      and Iyad Zuraiq, aged 25 and 18, were killed in the fighting.

      Meanwhile, tanks deployed along the camp's main arteries. In G block,
      a baker, Ziad al-Assar, stepped out of his apartment. "His little
      daughter followed him out," said Othman Tawil, his neighbour. Ilham
      al-Assar, aged 4, was hit by two bullets in the chest and died in her
      father's arms. From the roof of his house, Othman's brother, Said
      Tawil, 30, prepared to attack the soldiers with an old revolver and
      homemade bombs. He was shot dead, probably by a helicopter gunship,
      before opening fire. Omar Abu Yussef, 17, also ventured into the
      street. He was killed by a mortar explosion. "Anyone who stuck his
      nose out was targeted," said Othman.

      A few streets away, in Block 5, Omar Darwich, a student of 17, Nabil
      Douidar, a tailor, and his brother Noman were returning from the
      mosque. Day was breaking, the gunfire had stopped, and they thought
      they were safe. "Suddenly, as we walked down the middle of the street,
      there was heavy machine gun fire in every direction," said Noman. Omar
      died instantly and Nabil, shot in the head, died a few hours later in
      Gaza hospital.

      The Israeli operation had been going on for three hours. Four
      brothers, all policemen, had been arrested. Muhammad al-Sa'afin was
      still holding out. At 6:15 am, soldiers set off the explosive charges
      they had placed in the building. Three storeys collapsed on top of the
      Jihad militant. Israeli troops returned to their base in the
      neighbouring settlement of Netzarim. A few hours later in Beit
      Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip, snipers shot dead three more
      Palestinians, one civilian and two members of the naval police. The
      outcome of operations - 11 dead, four prisoners - is ordinary for a
      day in Gaza.

      Since mid-February, buoyed by media polarisation over the Iraq crisis,
      the Israeli army has tightened its grip on the occupied territories,
      and especially on the Gaza Strip. The death of four soldiers on 15
      February in a tank explosion near the settlement of Dugit, and
      continued homemade Palestinian rocket attacks on the neighbouring
      village of Sderot, have given the army a pretext for raids against
      Hamas and Jihad strongholds. According to the United Nations Relief
      and Works Agency (UNWRA) the number of military incursions into the
      Gaza Strip rose from 55 in December 2002 to 77 in January, and 91 in
      February. On 18 February tanks entered the Gaza community of Al
      Tuffah: 11 dead. On 23 February they penetrated Beit Hannoun: six
      dead. On 3 March they attacked the camp of Al Bureij: eight dead. On 6
      March they came to Jabalya: 11 dead. In Nusseirat and Beit Lahia, on
      17 March, a further 11 dead. There was a surreal spectacle in Ramallah
      of Palestinian representatives squabbling over the powers of the new
      prime minister, while Gaza refugees were under attack by armoured
      mastodons. In a territory the size of a few London boroughs, chopped
      up by checkpoints and roads reserved for the settlements, the Israeli
      army is waging a dirty war against militias in sandals.

      From mid-February to mid-March, according to reports from the
      Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 109 Palestinians were
      killed in the occupied territories, mostly in Gaza. This equals the
      toll of October and November 2000, the deadliest months of the
      intifada, next to those of March-April 2002, during which period
      between 238 and 242 Palestinians were killed, according to figures
      from the Israeli human rights association, Betselem. "We feel that the
      army are turning from hit-and-run attacks towards longer operations to
      eradicate Hamas infrastructures," surmised Etienne Antheunissens, head
      of the Gaza Strip Red Cross. "Over the next few weeks, we are
      expecting an even more radical cleansing, pocket after pocket."

      Civilians are the main victims of these blind attacks, particularly in
      Rafah, at Gaza's southern tip. In O Block, along the Egyptian border,
      bulldozers are razing hundreds of yards of homes. There is only a no
      man's land left, dominated by concrete watchtowers, like a
      bullet-riddled fairground. "It's the most dangerous place in the
      entire territories," says Antheunissens. "Almost all deaths there are
      civilian, shot from a distance by Israeli snipers. One kid was playing
      football; another fetching cigarettes for his father. In May and
      August last year, our teams came under fire. During the meeting
      afterwards with the officer in charge of the Gaza South Brigade, he
      told me straight to my face, 'If your employees had been dealing with
      me, they'd be dead.' Since then, we don't go to Rafah any more."

      On 6 March in Jabalya, as the army seemed to have pulled back, leaving
      six dead including the camp muezzin, an explosion happened in the
      middle of a group of people. Five people were killed instantly,
      including a fireman who was putting out a fire in a furniture shop.
      Palestinians maintained it was a tank mortar; the Israeli command
      denied responsibility and said the explosion was caused by a stock of
      explosives inside the burning shop. But film shot by a Reuters
      journalist at the exact moment of the explosion shows in slow motion
      the dispersal of shrapnel after the impact. In the seconds after,
      heavy machine gun fire broke out, sending rescuers running for
      shelter. The film also makes it clear there were no armed men among
      the victims.

      In military terms, the results from these operations are meagre, if
      not zero. An hour after a raid, Hamas militants often manage to fire
      more Qassam(1) rockets on Sderot. The raids have the opposite effect
      to that which is claimed. Not only do they engender vengeance but, by
      solidifying the people around Hamas, they destroy efforts by the
      Palestinian security services to halt the firing. On 20 March, as a
      police patrol attempted to arrest Qassam instructors in a field by
      Jabalya, the population, shocked by the recent events, spontaneously
      took up the Hamas cause. One Islamist was killed in a shoot-out, while
      residents burned two police jeeps.

      The incursions have had little effect on the intifada, but have done
      much damage to civilian society. Since the start of the year,
      according to UNRWA, 232 houses have been totally or partially
      destroyed in the Gaza Strip, a quarter of the total destroyed in two
      and a half years, and 2,250 Palestinians have found themselves
      homeless. "Day after day, we list violations of the fourth Geneva
      Convention: deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian property, use
      of non-conventional weapons, and attack on medical missions. We
      communicate these regularly to the Israeli government," says
      Antheunissens. "They usually fit on a page and a half. The last one we
      sent took four pages, with everything the army should have addressed
      since October, and hasn't."

      In his Gaza city-centre office, Jaber Wisha, PCHR deputy director,
      sighs as the latest army sins are mentioned. On 16 March Rachel
      Corrie, an American from the International Solidarity Movement, was
      crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah. Wearing a red jacket,
      holding a megaphone and perched on a mound of earth, she was
      determined to prevent the bulldozer from demolishing a house. She was
      clearly visible, yet the driver did not brake. "If such horrors can
      happen to an American citizen, you can imagine what the locals endure.
      Every day, the Israelis push up that red line a little more. By
      staying quiet, the international community gives the Israeli army its
      blessing. We get the impression that what was unacceptable six months
      ago is now permitted." What will be the next step? Does Wisha fear
      that attention diverted to Iraq will incite the army to reoccupy the
      entire Gaza Strip, as it did the West Bank? "Sharon doesn't need any
      pretext to invade Gaza. If he wants to, he'll do it. But for the
      moment, I don't expect it. The army just wants to keep us simmering.
      To corner us, and prepare the way for the extremists."


      * Benjamine Barthe is French journalist based in Palestine

      (1) Homemade rockets with a range of a few miles, which can reach
      Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.

      Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane



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