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Israeli raids cause bitterness and bloodshed

Ramallah, West Bank

Three days after the Israeli army pulled out of the West Bank town of Ramallah, Radwan Ahmed was cleaning up the damage to his house from Israeli shelling and gunfire. Plaster dust and glass covered the floor. Large holes pocked walls and furniture. A projectile had blasted a hole several inches in diameter in a bookcase that would have to be junked, like much of the other furniture in the room.

Ahmed said it had been a frightening experience when his home was fired on by Israeli soldiers. “They terrorized us. That is the only explanation. We are an educated family. I am a pharmacist. My wife is a teacher. My house is not a secure house in war. It’s a house for peace, not war. It has windows all over. We shouted in their language, ‘We are civilians. We are family.’ My daughter raised a white cloth,” he said.

In March Ahmed and other Palestinians living in Ramallah experienced firsthand the effects of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s declared intention to beat the Palestinians into suing for peace. But the Israeli assault on towns and refugee camps in Palestinian-controlled areas during the past month may have gone too far. The assault triggered international criticism and a rare rebuke from U.S. President George W. Bush.

Recounting the events of March 13 and 14, Ahmed said an Israeli soldier entered his home shouting, “Where’s the martyr?” and ordered Ahmed’s family and neighbors into a corner of one room. They stayed in that corner for 39 hours and 20 minutes, from 8:30 a.m. Wednesday till 11:20 p.m. Thursday, said Ahmed.

After several hours, Ahmed’s daughter began to collapse from low blood sugar, he said. Recalling the incident, Ahmed began to weep. “This is civilization? Civilization is not only computers and automobiles. To love is civilization. To give people their rights, this is civilization. The Israelis are not democratic. They are not civilized.

“It was terrible. A Hitchcock film. And without reason,” said Ahmed, 54, who described himself as a man of peace. “Believe me, if you had been with us, you would have been a suicide bomber.”

Ahmed’s outrage is shared by many Palestinians. Increased hostility toward Israeli rule is probably the clearest, most incontrovertible consequence of the Israeli incursions. Dubbed Operation Vital Security, the raids took the lives of about 180 Palestinians in the first two weeks of March in the most violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in 20 years. Publicly, Israeli officials claimed Operation Vital Security a success that resulted in the arrest of several thousand Palestinian boys and men, the destruction of weapons workshops and the capture of explosives and arms.

But many both inside and outside the Israeli defense establishment suggested the raids amounted to little more than a show of force designed to impress both the Israeli and the Palestinian publics with the resolve of the Israeli military. The Washington Post quoted an Israeli senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying, “Nobody in the Shin Bet [the domestic security service] thinks these operations will stop terrorism. It’s impossible to end this wave of terrorism without a political process.”

David Holley, an independent military adviser who analyzed the military strategies used in the Israeli Defense Force operations for the human rights organization Amnesty International, said, “The military operations we have investigated appear to be carried out not for military purposes but instead to harass, humiliate, intimidate and harm the Palestinian population.”

Israeli officials said the raids were intended to send a message that refugee camps that harbor Palestinian militants could not expect immunity from reprisals. Though there were few casualties among the Israeli soldiers conducting the raids, some observers suggested that such a message came at a high price. “The cost in terms of human blood and Israel’s image worldwide is too great,” a Western diplomat in Jerusalem said of the Israeli show of force.

Certainly, the death of an Italian journalist from Israeli gunfire and the targeting of Palestinian ambulances and medical personnel during the incursions hardly improved Israel’s standing in the court of world opinion. During the incursions into Palestinian areas, the Israeli Defense Forces killed six medical personnel, including two doctors, and wounded several members of ambulance medical teams as they were on their way to evacuate the wounded. In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Force used ambulances to enter the Jabalya refugee camp and shot at other ambulances. During the three-day attack on Ramallah, most of the hospitals had water and electricity cut off, and there were multiple reports of the Israeli Defense Force preventing and obstructing medical treatment of the wounded, causing in some cases the wounded to bleed to death.

The Israeli actions spurred a strong protest from the International Red Cross, which denounced the attacks on medical personnel. Its March 8 statement emphasized that the Red Crescent ambulances hit on their way to evacuate the wounded were properly marked and their movements coordinated with the Israeli authorities.

Since the start of the second intifada 16 months ago and the subsequent sealing of Palestinian towns and villages, ambulances have increasingly become a target of the Israeli military. The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports that 16 medical personnel have been killed, 600 members of medical crews have been wounded, 22 ambulances destroyed, and 106 ambulances damaged in that time.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, has documented the disruption of medical care in the occupied territories. B’Tselem noted a significant increase in human rights violations since the start of Israeli operations in March and called the intentional attacks on medical teams and the Israeli Defense Force’s obstruction and prevention of medical treatment “almost unprecedented.” Israeli Defense Force officials have repeatedly claimed that Palestinians use ambulances to smuggle explosives and militants, but have never substantiated those allegations, despite repeated requests by human rights organizations, noted B’Tselem. The organization called on the Israeli Defense Force to honor international humanitarian law and to prohibit firing at ambulances and to ensure the supply of electricity, water and medical equipment to hospitals and the immunity and free movement of medical teams.

Investigators for Amnesty International noted “serious human rights violations committed during Israel’s incursions” and said dozens of individuals had been needlessly killed. Abuses cited included the looting of Palestinian homes by Israeli soldiers, the demolition of homes as collective punishment, and the arbitrary arrests of 2,000 boys and men, who were handcuffed, blindfolded and deprived of food, toilet facilities and blankets for up to 24 hours. Amnesty International said many of the human rights violations must have been carried out under orders.

“Either the Israeli army is extremely ill-disciplined or it has been ordered to carry out actions which violate the laws of war,” said David Holley.

In its news conference in Jerusalem March 19, Amnesty International criticized the random killings of Israeli civilians by armed Palestinian groups and the murder of suspected Israeli collaborators and said the United States must assume greater responsibility for supplying weapons used to violate human rights.

If the assault on Palestinian towns and refugee camps seemed part of a futile and bloody exchange of tit-for-tat violence between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers, it did have the positive effect of prompting renewed U.S. efforts at mediation. After months of giving Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s aggressive tactics a tacit green light, President George W. Bush appears to have grown apprehensive that the violence in the Mideast was escalating out of control. That and Vice President Dick Cheney’s unsuccessful effort to gain Arab support for a U.S. attack on Iraq prompted Bush to send senior Mideast envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni back to the area to try to negotiate a cease-fire between the two sides.

How committed the Bush administration is to forging a peace between the two parties remains to be seen, and expectations of Zinni’s prospects for success appear low among both the Israeli and Palestinian public.

Outside pressure did not deter the Israeli government from preventing Arafat attending the Arab summit in Beirut and on Passover a suicide bomber in Netanya, an Israeli coastal resort, killed 19 and wounded more than 100.

At the Al-Amiri refugee camp in Ramallah, 14-year-old Yasmin Ayoub said residents were expecting Israeli soldiers to return once Zinni left the Middle East. Israeli soldiers had raided her house, breaking the furniture and glassware, she said, but the soldiers were foiled in their attempt to capture the men they were looking for, who had left the camp before the soldiers’ arrival.

Ayoub’s mother showed photographs of her three sons, posed against a pastel-colored studio background holding guns in their hands. “Of course, I get scared, but what can I do? They have to defend Palestine,” she said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer.

Related Web sites

Amnesty International


International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Israeli Defense Forces

Palestinian Ministry of Health

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002