Censorship with a global reach

30 June 2002

If anyone was in any doubt about who was going to emerge victorious from the public relations battle between an American billionaire media mogul and the Israeli government, the answer was reliably delivered by Cable News Network (CNN). The American 24-hour television channel filled the screen with a short message brought to the viewers in big red type: “Ted Turner’s views are his own and they do not in any way reflect the views of CNN.” The row that followed CNN founder Ted Turner’s comparison last week of Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories with Palestinian suicide attacks — saying both were forms of terrorism — was an object lesson in the intimidatory practices now routinely employed by the Jewish lobby and the Israeli government against the foreign media.

Adding another fence

20 June 2002

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer briefly strode through scrubland close to Salem military checkpoint on Sunday backed by a heavy security contingent to oversee the official launch of work on a 360-kilometre electrified fence to separate Israel from the West Bank. There was no ribbon-cutting. Three bulldozers carefully piled up mounds of earth next to a few scattered olive trees on the hillside overlooking the Israeli Arab village of Salem for the benefit of reporters. Once they had left, the diggers uprooted the trees too. With Israeli flags at his back, Ben-Eliezer addressed the journalists: “The terrorist attacks that have been haunting Israel have obliged us to build a continuous obstacle to stop the infiltration of terrorists into Israel.”

‘Ticking timebombs?’

13 June 2002

Hidden amid the narrow back streets of the town of Arrabe in Galilee is the modest cinderblock home of the Jarbouni family. Until a few weeks ago the building was as anonymous as most others in Arrabe, itself just another deprived Arab town in Israel far from Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburbs. But today the Jarbouni sisters, Lena and Lamis, are well-known– at least by reputation– to Israelis. They and Arrabe have been making headlines since the women’s arrests for allegedly helping Palestinians plot terror attacks. The Jarbouni family have shied away from publicity but it has not stopped a spate of news reports painting the sisters as monstrous traitors, a new kind of enemy in Israel’s “war on terror”.

Judicial partiality?

6 June 2002

Under mounting legal pressure, the Israeli army has promised to stop using Palestinian civilians as human shields, a practice widely employed during Israel’s recent military invasion of the West Bank according to evidence compiled by human rights groups. The army made the promise during a hearing before the Israeli high court, although it refused to confirm or deny whether it had a policy of using human shields. But lawyers at the Adalah centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, which filed the petition, said the military’s decision to issue an order banning the use of human shields was an implicit admission that soldiers were resorting to such tactics. Adalah doubted, however, that even with the ban in place it would be possible to prove to the court’s satisfaction that in individual cases people had been taken as human shields.

Time to clean up the battlefield of a dirty war

3 June 2002

United Nations special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen entered Jenin refugee camp on April 18, shortly after Israel lifted its news blackout, and declared the sight of the devastated camp “horrific beyond belief”. He was not alone in being appalled. The pictures of a vast wasteland that days before had been home to thousands of Palestinians shocked the world. Six weeks later, the horror of the camp is undiminished. The only visible difference is that peacemakers like Roed-Larsen are nowhere to be found. Last week, there were plenty of families sitting out the midday heat under makeshift tents or in crumbling buildings propped up with wooden scaffolding. At least 2,000 people are homeless and some were still scavenging for whatever belongings survived the collapse of their homes.

‘Where is Jamal’s body?’

30 May 2002

The hands scratching frantically at the grey dust were searching for a body under the rubble. A skull found moments earlier at the same spot brought hope to the crowd of onlookers that another victim of Israel’s 10-day invasion of Jenin refugee camp in early April was about to be identified. Watching intently were the brothers of Jamal Fayid, a mentally and physically handicapped man of 37 who died on 9 April when Israeli army bulldozers demolished the family house before Jamal could be evacuated. His body has been missing for seven weeks.
But the handful of bones pulled from the lunar landscape of destruction at the centre of Jenin refugee camp last Saturday were unlikely to be Jamal’s. The site was several hundred metres from where he is known to have died.

Not quite the same boat

23 May 2002

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat plunged himself deeper into his promised institutional reforms by agreeing, under pressure from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to a six-month deadline for parliamentary and presidential ballots. His pledge, though, has failed to silence critics, domestic and foreign, largely because of the conditions attached. Elections, it was announced, will be held only if Israel withdraws to its September 2000 lines. Dissatisfaction with Arafat’s handling of the 20- month uprising has been increasingly voiced by Palestinians since he emerged from his besieged Ramallah compound.

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.