Israeli assaults on Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, which appear set to continue despite a new United States peace mission this week, are themselves coming under heavy attack by international human rights groups and others.
In separate statements, Amnesty International and MADRE, a New
York-based women's human rights groups, have denounced the raids--which Israel has defended as necessary to disarm and arrest Palestinian gunmen--as violations of international humanitarian law and specifically the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
"Breaches in humanitarian law by an armed group can never justify a
state's breaches of fundamental principles of human rights and
humanitarian law it has solemnly sworn to uphold," said Amnesty.
Both groups, as well as Human Rights Watch and the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have singled out recent incidents in
which the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has fired on Palestinian
ambulances and medical personnel. At least five Palestinian medical workers, including the director of a Bethlehem hospital and the head of emergency services in Jenin, have been killed by Israeli fire in the past week.
"The ICRC condemns these attacks and calls on the Israeli authorities
to take immediate steps to protect medical personnel and to conduct a
full inquiry into the latest events," said the Geneva-based
The protests came at the end of the bloodiest week in the almost
18-month-old intifada which so far has taken almost 1,500 lives, almost three quarters of whom have been Palestinian. Since the end of February, when the IDF began moving into densely populated refugee camps, almost 200 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40 on Friday alone.
Palestinian attacks on Israelis, carried out by gunmen and suicide
bombers, have also been deadly. Over the same two-week period, almost 50 Israelis, 34 of them civilians, have been killed. On Saturday, 11 Israelis lost their lives when a suicide bomber blew
himself up in a Jerusalem café, and two others were shot dead in an
attack by Palestinian gunmen on the northern seaside town of Netanya.
The sharp rise in the cycle of violence helped prompt U.S. President
George Bush to dispatch his Mideast mediator, retired General Anthony Zinni, to the region for ceasefire talks, a task that could be aided by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to drop his long-standing demand that the Palestinians halt all attacks for a full week before such talks can begin.
At the same time, however, Sharon's government also decided to continue
retaliatory raids against Palestinian targets until a ceasefire accord is reached. Some reports from Israel said the IDF may
actually intensify its attacks, at least until Zinni arrives Thursday.
"I want an agreement, but first they have to be beaten so they get the thought out of their minds that they can impose an agreement on Israel that Israel does not want...We have to cause them heavy casualties," said Sharon early last week.
MADRE strongly denounced Sharon's remarks noting that "inflicting
violence on the civilian population in order to influence its political
leadership" amounted to terrorism. It said it was precisely Israel's
attacks, as well as its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, that spurred Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
"They kill massively and turn the relatives of their victims into
avengers," noted Uri Avnery, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer and a leader of Israel's peace movement, in an article published by Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv this weekend.
The refugee camps, located in both the West Bank and Gaza, house tens
of thousands of Palestinians whose families fled or were forced out of
their homes in 1948. In these camps, which have some of the highest
population densities in the region, the IDF has used hellfire missiles
from Apache helicopters, tank rounds, and bullets from heavy machine guns mounted on Merkava tanks, according to Amnesty.
"This represents a disproportionate use of lethal force and endangers
the lives of ordinary people in the camps," the London-based group
MADRE, which helps sponsor a children's center in Deheishah Camp in
Bethlehem, noted that many of the wounded have been denied medical
treatment by Israeli soldiers who have also fired on ambulances, medics, and doctors.
Under the Geneva Convention, the camps have "protected civilian
status," even if individual armed combatants are located within them,
according to MADRE, which added that the majority of those killed have been "unarmed women, men, and children." Indeed, published reports from the region indicate that the armed militants within the camps' populations have generally left the camps before the IDF's attacks.
MADRE also charged the United States with complicity in the
Convention's abuses due to its role in providing weapons, funding, and diplomatic backing for Israel's continued occupation.
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