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Across West Bank, Daily Tragedies Go Unseen
Published on Saturday, April 27, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Across West Bank, Daily Tragedies Go Unseen
Suzanne Goldenberg reveals the extent of abuses against civilians in Israel's four-week military offensive
 
Arif Said Ahmed's life ended at 5.05am on April 9 when two Israeli helicopter gunships soared over the hillside, firing a rocket at him and his cousin Naif as they walked home from morning prayers.

The helicopters returned, firing their machine guns for several terrifying minutes as Arif's wife, Samira, stumbled out to their bodies with her infant daughter. Mother and daughter were saved from serious injury by her brother Farooq, who flung himself over them.

A bullet pierced his side and fragments ripped his leg.

That was the beginning of the invasion of Dura, a village south-west of Hebron which marks the southernmost extent of the Israeli army's offensive in the West Bank.

The Jenin refugee camp, whose physical erasure has come to symbolize the devastation and death inflicted by the Israeli army in the past four weeks, lies at the northern extremity of the territory.

While the world has been preoccupied with the camp, the stories beginning to unfold from the Palestinian cities, towns, refugee camps and villages that lie between Jenin and Dura show that the Israeli army has been engaged in systematic abuse the length of the West Bank.

"Jenin is not so different from any of the other attacks," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The focus of the international community has been on events in Jenin, but equally serious violations took place in Ramallah, particularly, and in Nablus."

The most grievous abuses break down into four categories: the killing of Palestinian civilians, the denial of medical care, the wanton destruction of civilian property, and the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields for house-to-house searches.

Human rights organizations have not even begun to investigate the raids on the smaller West Bank towns and villages such as Dura. The scale of the offensive, the biggest since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, is too forbidding, as is its use of a military curfew to deny international organizations access.

The first human rights field worker, from the Israeli group B'Tselem, reached Dura on Thursday, when the village had been under curfew for 17 days.

The first civilian deaths B'Tselem recorded were those of Arif Said Ahmed, 34, a teacher and the acting imam of the local mosque, and Naif Said Ahmed, 33, who was his cousin and brother-in-law. After dawn prayers they had paused outside the mosque to smoke a cigarette when the rocket killed them.

Their bodies were not removed for 36 hours. Despite his serious injuries, Farooq Said Ahmed was rounded up with the other Palestinian men of the village, propped up by two other men. One asked the soldiers for a doctor.

"The soldier told him in Arabic: 'Whoever is dead is dead, and whoever is injured can wait'," he said.

The army allowed an ambulance through 10 hours later, by which time his jeans were so soaked in his own blood that he considered wringing them out.

It took three hours to reach the hospital, he said. Twice soldiers shot at the ambulance, and twice they stopped it, unloading him on his stretcher, prodding his injured leg until he yelled in pain, and flipping him over on his face to check for weapons on both occasions.

Nothing that happened in Dura is extraordinary in the context of the past month.

Six Palestinians were killed - three wanted militants and three civilians - two houses were blown up, hundreds of men were rounded up and a few men were used as human shields.

Human rights organizations accuse the Israeli defense force of failing in its duty to the Geneva conventions to "refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination therefore which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated".

The Israeli army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal said: "Considering the type of war we are engaged in we have done very, very well to protect civilians.

"This is a war being conducted in an urban setting. We are not on a hilltop fighting another army. We are fighting an army of terrorists, and terrorists hide in civilian areas."

In Arrabah, southwest of Jenin, a pair of helicopter gunships fired on Mohammed Nabil Hardan and his wives, Amal and Jamila, killing all three as they walked home from their fields. Jamila was five months pregnant.

A few minutes later they fired a rocket at the barn where Mohammed's father, Nafeh Abed Hardan, 67, was sleeping, wounding him in the hand and the foot. The foot may have to be amputated.

"I swear I don't know why," he said. "There was no reason for them to kill my son and his wives, and if I knew they were going to fire on the barn, I certainly would not have slept there."

During the siege of the Nablus casbah, doctors used a mosque as a mortuary and hospital. It was strewn with the stained mattresses of the wounded who bled their lives away. Two dozen corpses lay there for six days, stacked up like firewood, before a chaotic evacuation on April 8.

"If the Israelis are calling it a military zone, and not allowing others in, there is an obligation to provide aid to friend and foe," said Hanna Megally, director of Human Rights Watch.

"They can prevent medical aid coming in for military reasons, but they have to provide it themselves."

Capt Dallal said: "There have been very many cases where we have allowed the ambulances to go through, but the drivers say they are afraid of shooting."

He also denies that the army caused unwarranted destruction, saying the buildings destroyed were used by snipers.

But the fighting devastated much of the West Bank. In the Nablus casbah several historic buildings with 2ft-thick stone walls, including a soap factory, were reduced to mounds of rubble.

In the Balata refugee camp, homes were destroyed as punishment. The army blew up four houses near the entrance of the camp. One belonged to the Badawi family, whose two sons were commanders in a Palestinian militant group.

Ramallah, the seat of Yasser Arafat's administration, was another destruction zone.

This was where the army established its pattern of compelling male civilians to walk in front of soldiers when they were hunting the Palestinian militants and police.

On March 30, Israeli soldiers exchanged fire with more than 20 Palestinian policemen and threw grenades into their hideout in a third-floor flat in a town center building.

Moments later Nader Mansi, 22, an architecture student, was ordered to enter the building and approach the flat to see if the policemen would surrender.

In Jenin refugee camp the following Friday, Ali Mustafa Abu Siria, 43, an Arabic teacher, was marched from his flat in handcuffs and at gunpoint and forced to walk ahead of troops and 13 army sniffer dogs seeking gunmen.

He went to 11 houses before he was shot in the kneecap. "As soon as I knocked on the door, a bullet was fired at me," he said.

Capt Dallal emphatically rejected the term "human shield", though he admitted that Palestinian civilians were used as "guides".

On the eve of the arrival of a UN team to investigate the nine-day battle for Jenin, such disputes about terminology, and what really happened in the refugee camp, will likely grow more heated.

Samira, wife of the dead Arif Said Ahmed, would like to welcome the team to Dura.

"I believe this mission should visit every place in Palestine. The behavior of the Israeli army was savage, and it didn't distinguish between Jenin, Hebron, Dura or any other place."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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