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18 July 2002 Edition

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Three months after the horror

Jenin 6 July


Horror, despair, and madness still hover on the dusty breeze winding down the slope where the refugee camp lies. I first entered this nightmare called Jenin almost exactly three months ago. The city and its camp were undergoing their 15th day of Israeli attack, under strict curfew and at the end of their tether. Armed resistance had ceased eight days after the attack was first launched but the Israelis were still murdering innocent people. I had never seen anything like that before; it was one of my most painful experiences.

Three months later, little has changed and the destruction has remained "intact" thanks to Israel's refusal to allow appropiate equipment into the area. Decomposed bodies still lie under the dunes of rubble of Jeningrad, the district called Hanat al Hawashim at the centre of the camp, which no longer exists. To take a short cut along the hill, people have created a makeshift road amid the ruins; as people cross over they cast a hasty eye on what remains.

An earthquake could not have caused more meticulous destruction. What meets the eye is a lunar landscape, a huge gaping tomb. Minutiae of ordinary human life are still trapped between twisted iron wires and tons of rubble flattened by tanks and bulldozers - a marble, a comb, a shoe. The local people have ceased to dig as they did before, often using only their bare hands, looking for traces of their belonging.

The only difference compared to three months ago is the people: children, women and elderly have left the shelters where they sought refuge during the 17 days of bombin in April. Sunken faces, sorrowful eyes, deeply wounded souls - but almost no signs of the adult male population.

Before the April invasion, 14,000 refugees lived here. According to local people, 1,200 are still missing. Of these, 700 are still detained in Israeli prisons. More than 150 corpses have been identified. Nobody knows the fate of the 500 Fedayeen who defended the camp against the vicious assault. Bodies have been burnt, bulldozed in the sewage system, hidden in mass graves.

Humanitarian aid, food and medicines barely manage to trickle through because of the hermetic closure of the Territories. Water and electricity have returned only to a few small pockets within the camp and the military oppression continues unabated. The windblown dust comes to rest on the entire city, greying its colours, choking its perfumes, ageing its hearts.

"The soldiers return here every night to arrest a few people, shooting, sacking, killing. But nobody here is afraid of their tanks and helicopters, we want to fight back, show them we are human beings who don't deserve this," says a woman who hasn't heard from her husband since he was deported by the IDF in April.

Last month, two children asked their father's permission to go and buy a bar of chocolate during an official curfew. As there were no Israeli troops in sight and the grocer's shop was around the corner, Jamil (11) and Ahmed (6) took their bicycle to get there. They were returning home when a tank surprised them from behind them, firing two shells at close range and killing the two brothers. Ahmed was buried with the chocolate bar clutched in his hands.

"Sharon and Bush arrived in the night and fired missiles from their helicopter, their soldiers shooting everywhere, thirsty for blood, Palestinian blood," asserts an old man sitting on the remains of his front door. It was centred by an Apache helicopter rocket, which landed in the living room. The walls, photographs and floral decorations are riddled with machine-gun holes. Like more than 1,400 people in the camp, he has lost everything and the house will have to be demolished.

The Baraha primary school is just on the top of Hawashim and offers an horrific view on Jeningrad. Kamal, a teacher, points to the house were 13 Israeli soldiers died in an ambush, the half-standing shack where a crippled man was murdered, the old railway station where dead bodies were piled up.

"I was arrested and detained for 18 days, beaten and tortured without interruption," says the elderly man. "They have killed two members of my family, deported my father. But we have resisted 30 years of British rule and 54 of Israeli occupation and we have only one road open to us. The road to independence and freedom."

Under the British Mandate (1918-1948) Jenin became the hub of Palestinian resistance. The British tried to raze the town to the ground but suffered a humiliating defeat. A local hero and the most revered figures in the city's history, the Muslim preacher who led the famous revolt against London's rule in the 30's, Izzadin al-Qassam, was from Jenin. The Islamic Hamas' armed wing has been named after him.

Israeli, like British, violence has failed. The last two suicide bombers/martyrs, who killed 23 people in Jerusalem, came from here. The ghosts of Jenin are destined to haunt the Israeli government indefinitely.

As Israeli Army generals themselves admit the failure of the April invasion of the West Bank, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given the green light for the construction of the "security fence" approved last winter. At the Jenin/Salem checkpoint, building on the fence has already begun.

It is a three-metre high concrete wall surrounded by electronic devices and electrified barbed wire (like that already built around Gaza). When it is completed in ten months, the 360 km long and 10 km deep barrier will cantonise the territories into a kind of bantustan without geographical continuity because of the presence of 240 army posts and dozens of jewish settlements. Each kilometre will cost around $1 million and there are numerous delays because, from Jenin, Hamas has fired upon the army and civilian workers employed in the massive project.

While the Israeli authorities call it "self-defence against terrorists", it really means legalising a military and economic apartheid. It seems to me that the Israelis, in the name of their own peace and security, are capable of perpetrating any kind of heinous crime with total impunity.

The wall, which will turn the West Bank in a patchwork of open prisons, is simply another such crime.

And the paradox is that the Israelis are well aware that, when all comes to all, only the birth of a truly independent Palestinian state has the power to bestow full legitimacy on Israel as well as to ensure the security and peace their continual wars of aggression have never been able to guarantee.


Amid Gaza's ruins

Gaza City 8 July


"We were born to suffer. This is our life. Exploited, subjected, slaughtered." Rahid is speaking from his Gaza City slum-area flat. The missile-riddled spire of a mosque protrudes from a line of white roofs broken here and there by gutted gaps of grey rubble. The disfiguration is a result of the F-16 bombers that hammered the city all winter. But as there is nowhere else to go and this is the largest open prison on earth, the people simply go on living here amid the ruins.

Since last winter, no attempt to occupy the Gaza Strip has been made by the Israeli Army, the IDF. While Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah were invaded during the April Defensive Shield operation, Gaza remained the only area in Palestine not directly in the hands of Israeli military forces.

Although extensive invasion, in the long term, seems inevitable, for the moment there are strong reasons for postponing it. The IDF faced (and killed) 500 partisans in Jenin and lost over 40 dead. In the Gaza Strip (a Hamas bastion where the first Intifada began in 1987 and where the majority of the 300 Palestinian children killed during the present insurrection lived) Israel might have to come to terms with an estimated 4,000-5,000 strong resistance.

Yet this is not the only reason why the Israelis prefer helicopter, artillery and battleship shelling to infantry incursions. As the Gazans themselves claim, "conditions have never been so atrocious". The closure of the checkpoint and the strangling apartheid imposed by Tel Aviv have a very high cost in human terms: in many cases the IDF are killing innocent civilians, children and the elderly in particular, without firing even a single bullet.

The hospitals have run out of medical supplies, the local farmers are meeting staple demands only in part. The people are often obliged to use contaminated water from the open sewage running through the Strip's alleyways. Women and children search for leftovers in skips and bins.

Misery and poverty are transforming Gaza (1.2 million Palestinians, of whom 700,000 are refugees - living in a 365 square km area, while 6,000 Jewish settlers occupy almost 40% of the Strip) into a time bomb ready to blow up at any moment. Exasperated, the population has started taking to the streets. The people march with dry bread and empty plates, women, children, the elderly, their faces emaciated with hunger, full of the hatred of those who have been denied everything. They are deprived of the right to food and water, work and education, with large families to feed. "Victims of Israeli occupation and of Palestinian indifference" recites the banner heading the march of the hopeless.

"Israel's ethnic cleansing created this situation, did its utmost to bring us to our knees, starving us through siege and the closure of the Strip. And the Palestinian authorities have done nothing to back us. We have shared the bloodshed, we deserve to share the bread," declare the organisers.

The Gaza protest is also against Yasser Arafat's PNA, accused of not having provided sufficiently for those who survive thanks only to humanitarian aid provided by the UNO and the Red Cross.

The Israeli generals, watching the march on television, must have fumed. Sharon's fundamentalist and religious majority is pressing for a "permanent reoccupation" of the Palestinian territories. A solution which, at first glance, may appear a mere military matter, really implies far more.

The destruction of Palestinian autonomy will be followed, inevitably, by a rebirth of the former "civil administrative units" controlled by the Israeli military commands which ruled over the Palestinians from 1967 to the Oslo treaty of 1993. The IDF will thus have to take on over 3.5 million Palestinians. A population which has lost everything, and of which 60%, children and adolescents between ages one and 18 and adults who have been unemployed for at least two years, live below the level of poverty.

Meanwhile, military repression continues to reap innocent victims. There may have been no military invasion, but killings are a feature of everyday life in Gaza. Children throwing stones are killed because they pose an obvious threat to heavily armoured tanks. The last two were murdered only two days ago. They were not even throwing stones but simply playing football.

There have been cases of children's corpses returned to their families after being burnt, or bulldozed, or maimed, or torn to pieces by settlers' dogs. Extra-judicial executions of Islamic leaders are still the order of the day, but selective targets are often tantamount to an attack against civilians.

As Rahid stated: "Our lives are not worth anything to anybody. We are Palestinians and nobody wants us. According to Egypt, Israel, the United States, we should simply vanish silently from their world, their history, their memory."

An Phoblacht
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