AL BIRAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — The Al Amari refugee camp here was under its third straight day of army curfew Friday morning, so the young Palestinian residents, banned from the streets, moved to the roofs.
Atop one house, half a dozen Palestinians sat beneath a metal water tank, out of sight of the Israeli soldiers below, and played a rummy-like local card game called Basra. Others shimmied along ledges, crossed plank bridges, or simply jumped from roof to roof to visit friends or to fetch needed food and other supplies for their families.
"Yehud!" ("Jews!") came the whispered alarm from a nearby rooftop, and everybody crouched low, aware that anyone found outside risked a beating or arrest.
Other than a hard, cold rain, Israeli security forces have found curfews their most effective ally in trying to contain the widespread unrest that has been sweeping the West Bank and Gaza Strip since early last month.
Mass Curfew Imposed
As a result, the selective curfews seen in the first weeks of the disturbances gave way a few days ago to mass actions. On Friday, for example, about 275,000 Palestinian residents of 15 camps were under army orders to stay in their homes. That is nearly 20% of the entire Palestinian population of the occupied territories, and almost 80% of the refugee population.
But while the curfews have caused considerable hardship, it seemed clear in Al Amari on Friday that their short-term impact is limited--and that they promise no long-term solution.
"It's true that the curfews have maybe slowed things down," said Khaled, a 19-year-old student from the camp. "But yesterday, for example, we threw stones at the soldiers from the roofs."
Asked if they hurt any of them, Khaled laughed. "I don't know," he said. "We throw the stones and then run."
A Humane Solution?
Israeli security sources say that mass curfews are more humane than having to shoot people, which they claim is often their only choice once a clash develops in the streets. They have tried almost everything else--tear gas, rubber bullets, mass arrests and selective deportations--all without notable success.
The army can declare curfews anywhere it deems necessary--including inside Israel's pre-1967 borders. But the curfews have been imposed mostly against the refugee camps, where some of the worst unrest has been centered.
On Friday, for example, all eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and seven in the West Bank were under curfew for at least part of the day.
Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip was under its tenth straight day of curfew, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which operates the camps, and "we had a plea from the people inside that they were running out of food," said the agency's public information officer, William Lee.
19 Days of Curfew
Nearby Jabaliya, with 60,000 residents, was under its 19th day of curfew in the last 37 days.
Even U.N. workers are forbidden to enter a camp under curfew, and residents are not allowed out except in an emergency and with army approval.
Curfews are, in army parlance, "environmental punishments," which means that the innocent as well as the guilty suffer.
A resident caught outside his house while the area is under curfew is subject to arrest. While soldiers do not shoot curfew violators, their treatment "depends on who finds them and what the circumstances are at the time," said a senior security source.
Lee said that in the larger and more hostile camps of the Gaza Strip, in particular, soldiers are known to "just beat anybody they see on the street--particularly young males."
Policy Boomerang Feared
Writing in the Hebrew-language Haaretz newspaper Friday, military affairs correspondent Zeev Schiff characterized the curfews as a "siege" designed to exert so much pressure on residents that they will turn against those who organize disturbances. The danger, he added, is that the policy will "boomerang, and cause a greater explosion because the population will become more desperate."
An army source denied that the purpose of the curfews is to prevent Palestinians from going to work and thus increasing economic pressure on them. However, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has warned that if the riots intensify, Israel "won't have any choice" but to bar the 120,000 Palestinians who hold jobs in Israel from going to work.
And Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin pledged in a television interview earlier this week that "we will carry out curfews for as long as is needed."
At Al Amari, a few women and boys sneaked in and out of the camp through a one-foot-by-two-foot hole in a concrete outer wall. The spot was clearly no secret to the Israelis: A five-man army patrol used the same hole during its rounds Friday morning.
Food From Jericho
The Garden Fruit and Vegetable Store, on the main road to Jerusalem near the not-so-clandestine entrance, was bustling with camp residents rummaging through a fresh shipment of potatoes, eggplant, carrots and other items from Jericho.