A village in two countries

9 May 2002

The large arched sign over the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into a nearby fortified army post belie the greeting. Ghajar, which along with the rest of the Syrian Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, can only be reached by a four-mile road marked with frequent yellow signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence reinforced with barbed wire. On the other side is Lebanon. Our car’s way into the village is blocked by concrete barriers. To the right, just visible in a raised concrete pillbox, a soldier studies the horizon through a pair of high-powered binoculars. An armoured vehicle with a machine-gun mounting peeks out from behind a high grass embankment, where more troops are hidden from view.

Email from Ghajar

6 May 2002

An arched sign at the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into an army post belie the greeting. Ghajar, which along with the rest of the Syrian Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the Six Day war of 1967, is reached by a four-mile road marked with yellow signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence. On the other side is Lebanon. My car’s way into the village is blocked by concrete barriers. Just visible in a raised concrete pillbox is a soldier studying the horizon through binoculars. An armoured vehicle mounted with a machine gun peeks out from behind a high grass embankment.

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.

A shameful legacy returns

18 April 2002

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.

‘We lost our baby boy’

17 April 2002

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.

Gunmen in Bethlehem church offered trial or permanent exile

15 April 2002

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.

Blocking humanitarian aid

11 April 2002

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.

Nazareth eyes on Ramallah

4 April 2002

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.

Police outnumber pilgrims

30 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.

Political mercenaries

21 March 2002

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.

Letters of Warning: The Or Commission in Israel

18 March 2002

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.

Ordeal ends for trapped Briton

16 March 2002

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.

Ramallah Briton held at gunpoint

3 March 2002

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.

Citizens but not neighbours

28 February 2002

Adel Kaadan, a 44-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, made headlines around the world two years ago when he won a lengthy court battle with his government. After five years of legal argument, the judges ordered that he be allowed to buy a plot of land in one of the hundreds of Israeli communities open only to Jews. His victory was seen by the French news agency, Agence France Presse, as meaning that Arabs could now “live anywhere they choose in the Jewish state.” Human rights groups hailed the Supreme Court ruling as the end of apartheid in Israel.

An ominous prelude

28 February 2002

Crowds of several hundred supporters of prominent Palestinian member of the Israeli Kenesset, Azmi Bishara, converged on the square outside the court building where he is being tried in Nazareth yesterday, waving Palestinian flags. Some wore stickers bearing Bishara’s face and the legend “J’accuse” — a reference to the Dreyfus affair, the trial of a Jewish army officer in 19th century France often cited as an archetypal example of anti-semitism. Bishara, a combative and outspoken figure among the handful of Palestinian Members of Knesset (MKs), is being prosecuted for two speeches — made a year apart — in which he praised resistance to the occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. If found guilty, he faces up to three years in jail.

Judge puts Barak under suspicion

28 February 2002

Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, were warned last night by a panel of judges that they are under suspicion of acting illegally during its investigations into events at the start of the intifada. The commission, headed by Justice Theodor Or, sent both men letters advising them to prepare for more investigation. It has powers to recommend prosecutions for those it warns. Mr Barak’s government fell in February last year after his negotiations with the Palestinian leadership failed to reach a peace agreement. His challenger, Ariel Sharon, defeated him by a large margin.