April 2002

Torture en masse

25 April 2002

Lawyers and international observers are excluded from Ofer detention camp at Betunia, near Ramallah, where it is believed 1,400 prisoners are currently being held. More than 5,000 Palestinians have passed through the camp since the start of Israel’s “Defensive Shield” operation. Seven leading Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations were due to appear before Israel’s high court today to demand that they be allowed to see conditions at the camp. New emergency laws permit Israel to hold suspects for up to 18 days without access to a lawyer or a hearing before a judge. Detainees have then either been released or sent on to military prisons such as Ketziot in the Negev desert and Megiddo in northern Israel.

The ‘engineer’

18 April 2002

An engineer of the fiercest battle waged by the Palestinians during the invasion of the West Bank spoke to Jonathan Cook about the days of defiance in Jenin Omar sits restlessly on his chair in the safe-house. He is an “engineer” from Jenin refugee camp: one of the revered bomb-makers from the City of the Bombers. To the Israelis he is the most lethal, and wanted, of terrorists. The poison from the Cobra’s head. We meet late last Thursday, hours after he escaped from the camp as Israeli soldiers took control of the area. We are still close enough to Jenin that we can see the constant stream of illumination flares, three launched by the army at a time, that light up the soldiers’ dark work in the city below.

Tales of Jenin

18 April 2002

Omar Said was wary of the international food aid: bottles of water, sacks of flour and rice, bags of sugar, being stacked up in front of the Jenin Charitable Society’s offices on the edge of the city last weekend. Inside, some 40 families, more than 200 people, were struggling to make a temporary home there, sleeping in corridors or on the floor of the building’s half a dozen rooms. Almost everyone’s eyes were bloodshot, maybe the result of too many tears or too little sleep, or simply the effect of living through two weeks of fear and terror. The human flotsam at the charitable society were just a tiny part of the exodus from Jenin refugee camp, home until recently to 16,000 Palestinians in a one square kilometre next to the city.

Convoys of Israeli army buses were crossing the dusty plains of the Negev desert this week to a high-security military base near the Egyptian border. Inside was a human cargo — hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, blindfolded and handcuffed. The reopening of the Ketziot prison camp is the first proof that Israel intends to imprison long term thousands of Palestinian men rounded up since the invasion of West Bank towns and villages began two weeks ago. Ketziot can hold up to 7,000 prisoners in several blocks of tents and is likely to fill rapidly, human rights groups warn. The army, which has been continuing house-to-house searches, is holding more than 4,000 Palestinians at temporary detention centres.

Halema Hussein Atrash, a mother of five, went into labour last Tuesday afternoon at her home in al-Walaja village, near Bethlehem. Her husband, Khaled, called the ambulance from the local Beit Jala hospital but the crew said they could not reach them. Al-Walaja on the West Bank is still under Israeli rather than Palestinian Authority control, so Khaled called the Israeli Magen David ambulance service. They told the couple to meet them at the army checkpoint at the entrance to their village. ‘Halema was in a lot of pain,’ Khaled said. ‘I drove to the checkpoint. The soldiers would not let us through and insisted on searching the car and looking at our ID papers. I kept repeating that my wife needed to get to hospital urgently.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, yesterday offered scores of Palestinian gunmen trapped in an armed standoff in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity the choice of surrendering and being tried in an Israeli military court, or going into exile “forever”. As negotiations continued behind the scenes between the gunmen in the church and Israeli military negotiators, Ra’anan Gissin, Mr Sharon’s spokesman, said Israel had given the proposal to the US secretary of state, Colin Powell. The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed al-Madani, who is among about 100 Palestinians, including gunmen, inside the church, rejected the Israeli proposal.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, enraged by the military assault on their ethnic kin in the occupied territories, risked the first mass confrontations last week with Israeli security forces since the police killed 13 of them at the start of the Intifada, in October 2000. The clashes occurred at several locations as the Arab minority tried to bring food and medical aid to the “closed military zones” declared around besieged West Bank cities by the Israeli army. Arab towns and villages in Israel have amassed huge stockpiles of supplies over the last few weeks but have struggled to secure permission to get the aid through.

Protests and general strikes have been staged by Palestinians on 30 March each year since 1976, when Israeli security forces killed six demonstrators in the Galilee town of Sakhnin as they protested against the government’s theft of huge swaths of Arab land. In the subsequent 26 years, Land Day, or Yawm Al-Ard as it is known in Arabic, has grown into a regional event commemorated by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. But Sakhnin, the scene of the first land strike, has remained the traditional focus of Land Day activities, often attracting crowds of more than 60,000.