Published on Thursday, April 12, 2001 in the Guardian of London
'Operation Enjoyable Song'
You've Just Been Visited by the Israeli Army
by Suzanne Goldenberg in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip
The army called it "Operation Enjoyable Song". There was no warning. "It happened all of a sudden, in the middle of the night when we were all sleeping," said Soraya Abu Loz.
Her family has lived in Khan Yunis refugee camp since arriving as refugees from the Israeli town of Beer Sheva in 1948. Yesterday, she sat surrounded by her eight children atop the pitiful belongings she had managed to salvage from the rubble of her home: a sack of flour, and one of rice, a hand-operated sewing machine, a bouquet of plastic flowers and a colouring book.
The Israeli defence minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said the raid was in response to mortar fire. "These are points we don't want the Palestinians to return to. This is a clear act of defence."
The attack was launched only hours after the hardline prime minister, Ariel Sharon - known as the "Bulldozer" for his personal predilection for razing Palestinian homes when he was military commander in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s - announced that he had a plan for dealing with the revolt against Israel's occupation.
Even by the standards of the last seven months, which have seen the Israeli army uproot thousands of olive trees and raze vast tracts of farm land in Gaza, the early morning assault on this refugee camp set a new extreme, Peter Hansen, the commissioner of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said.
He said the demolition of more than 32 shelters - housing by conservative estimates some 400 people - was the worst single act of destruction visited on the Palestinians since they began their revolt against Israel's occupation last September. It also marks Israel's first invasion of Palestinian territory since 1994, when Khan Yunis, like 60% of the Gaza Strip, came under the rule of Yasser Arafat's administration as part of the Oslo peace accords.
All residents in the camp are refugees or the descendants of those who fled their homes when the Jewish state was created in 1948. Overnight, 56 families were homeless again.
"This is a pretty bad message, and it is something that looks extremely deliberate," Mr Hansen said. He said the UN agency would lodge an official complaint with the Israeli government. The French foreign ministry delivered its own rebuke yesterday, saying the army assault was fuelling a "downward spiral".
The Israeli army's seven-hour attack on Khan Yunis, whose low, asbestos-roofed houses are home to some 60,000 refugees, was launched after Mr Sharon's visit to army bases in Gaza for what was reported in the Israeli press as a bristly encounter with senior military commanders.
Mr Sharon is reported to have upbraided his commanders for including political content in their briefings. Referring to his own command in Gaza, he said: "In my time, there were no such terms. We spoke less and focused on action."
But he also gave a hint of what was to come in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army has been confronting a new threat from Palestinian militias firing mortars on illegal Jewish settlements inside the territory, and on a nearby kibbutz which lies within the borders of the Jewish state.
"We know exactly what to do. I have a very clear plan and it will be implemented," Mr Sharon was quoted as saying.
During the election campaign, Mr Sharon's advisers said he supported moving Israel's army into Palestinian-ruled territory - a course the former prime minister, Ehud Barak, had rejected as a violation of the peace accords.
Khan Yunis was perhaps the most likely place for Israel's first invasion of Palestinian terrain. The western edge of Khan Yunis has emerged as one of the fiercest battle arenas of the uprising. An Israeli army base hugs the camp on three sides like a horseshoe, with sandbags and gun placements protecting the illegal Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim.
In the relentless exchanges of fire between soldiers and Palestinian militias, some of the refugee houses have taken so many bullets they look like they have caught a rash.
But the Israeli army says Palestinian fighters have fired more than 70 mortars on Jewish settlements and army bases since February 24.
Although Israeli intelligence officials say the Palestinians appear to be using homemade launchers, they say the move towards higher calibre arms is a dangerous escalation in the uprising. Israeli military officials fear it is only a matter of time before the Palestinians inflict heavy casualties.
Amid increasing international concerns that the mortar war in Gaza, and yesterday's invasion of Khan Yunis, will fuel a further escalation of violence, security officials were expected to meet last night at the Tel Aviv home of the American ambassador to Israel. It was the first security meeting scheduled since last week, when Israeli soldiers shot at the returning Palestinian delegation at the Erez border crossing to the Gaza Strip.
But amid the ruin of Khan Yunis yesterday, where dozens of people clambered over the detritus of their homes searching for lost belongings, there was no mood for compromise. "Now I feel sure that aggression can only be answered with aggression," Mohammed Ayash, an engineer and father of seven, said.
He stood on a chunk of concrete pointing out the remnants of his home: a slab of marble tiling from the bathroom, a mattress several feet away, and a computer, television set and refrigerator buried somewhere under another heap of rubble. "The Palestinians believe in peace, but the Israelis want to treat us like master and servant."
UNRWA is setting up shelters for the new refugees in a nearby school. Mr Hansen said the UN agency would have to decide whether it would be safe to rebuild their homes where they once stood, or move them on.
"If Mr Sharon... wishes to increase the anger and hatred, and deepen the vicious circle we are in, then this is probably the way to do it," Mr Hansen said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001