March 2002

TRADITIONAL Easter celebrations in Jerusalem were eclipsed yesterday by the sight of Israeli police launching baton charges, firing stun grenades and chasing Muslim worshippers through the streets of the Old City after Friday prayers. The thousands of Christians who normally gather for Easter services in the Old City, which contains all the stations of the Cross and the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected, were absent. The few pilgrims who did venture out were outnumbered by heavily armed Israeli police.

The man who commands Israel’s powerful military machine, Chief-of-Staff Shaul Mofaz, has never shied away from the cameras. So it came as no surprise when, the weekend after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to withdraw from Ramallah, Mofaz accepted an invitation to appear on Channel Two’s “Meet the Press” television show. His public duties on this occasion, it might be assumed, would include defending the prime minister’s decision against the condemnation being heaped upon him by the international community for the 13 Palestinians killed and more than 100 injured in the three-day invasion of the Palestinian Authority’s temporary capital.

Email from Baqa

18 March 2002

The Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiya (Western Baqa) sits uncomfortably on the Israeli side of the green line, the border separating Israel and the West Bank until the Six Day war of 1967. The muddy road running through Baqa’s chaotic open-air market ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence guarded by soldiers. On the other side is the town’s Palestinian mirror image: Baqa al-Sharkiya (Eastern Baqa). The twin towns, located in northern Israel, are separated only in a formal sense. The army checkpoint is in fact 75 metres inside the Palestinian Authority, an implicit admission by Israel that it would be impossible to cut the market in two. Elsewhere, movement between the towns is blocked by earth mounds. They do not deter children from riding over them on bicycles – or Palestinian adults slipping past them to shop and work in the market, or possibly commit armed attacks.

After 12 long months of hearings and the appearance of 349 witnesses, a panel of Israeli judges has offered the first insight into its conclusions about the deaths of 13 Palestinian citizens at the hands of the country’s police force in October 2000. Justice Theodor Or, head of the commission tasked with investigating the deaths, surprised most legal observers by issuing letters of warning to former prime minister Ehud Barak and his internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who was also foreign minister at the time. Barak, Ben Ami and 12 others, who were urged to hire a lawyer and prepare for a second round of investigations, can expect to be judged harshly in the commission of inquiry’s final report. In effect, each is being warned now to prepare his defense against the accusations made in the letter.

An elderly British woman held for three days by Israeli soldiers who occupied her apartment building in Ramallah told yesterday of the gunbattles raging from flats on the floors above. Patricia Rantisi, 69, was held prisoner in her home in the West Bank city’s Tireh district with 22 other residents after soldiers took over their building on Tuesday night. The group included 10 children, one only 18 months old. The troops left early yesterday morning in the Army’s general withdrawal from the city. Mrs Rantisi said there had been constant gunfights and tanks patrolling the streets.

Called to account

7 March 2002

Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, were warned last week by a panel of judges that they are suspected of having acted illegally during its investigations into events at the start of the Intifada. The Or Commission sent both men letters of warning, advising them to obtain legal counsel and prepare for further investigation. Nine of the country’s top police officers and three Israeli-Arab politicians also received letters. The inquiry has the power to recommend criminal prosecutions against anyone it warns.
The high number of warnings — a total of 14 — surprised most legal experts.

IsraeliI soldiers were holding a 69-year-old British woman at gunpoint in her home in Ramallah last night.

An attempt yesterday by the British consulate to reach her to check on her condition failed when its armoured vehicle was forced to turn back because the area had been sealed off. Patricia Rantisi has been a prisoner in her apartment building in the Tireh district of the West Bank city since late on Tuesday night.

Troops have forced the building’s 23 occupants, including 10 children, into one room and stationed snipers on the roof. The consulate relocated three British nationals from Ramallah yesterday, moving them to Jerusalem.