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THE MIDDLE EAST

Israelis Free Hundreds of Palestinians

Mideast: Flying a white flag, about 80 released men brave war zone to walk back to Ramallah. 'We just wanted to go home,' one says.

April 07, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — First came the Palestinian man with the white flag.

Then, behind him, in groups of five, men just released from imprisonment in an Israeli army camp walked down the main avenue into Ramallah, hands in the air, shirts lifted to expose their stomachs.

Jittery Israeli paratroopers in combat mode took up positions at an intersection and trained their weapons on the men. A tank and an armored personnel carrier backed them up.

Israel has begun releasing hundreds of the men rounded up in house-to-house sweeps of this West Bank city. The dragnet was meant to capture Palestinians whom Israel regards as terrorists, but interviews with several of the freed men indicate that their interrogations were cursory and there apparently was never any real suspicion that they were involved in violent subversion.

More than a week ago, Israel launched a massive offensive across the West Bank, invading every major Palestinian population center except Jericho, battling Palestinian gunmen in refugee camps and destroying swaths of Palestinian property. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed and about 1,200 arrested in a campaign that Israel says will stop suicide bombers and other militants who killed more than 120 Israelis last month alone.

Of those arrested so far, however, around 30% have already been released, security sources said. Some of the men had question marks in their backgrounds, but many Palestinians believe that the army also wanted large numbers to show success in its campaign.

Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, planning director for the Israeli army, defended the arrests as effective. Of the people arrested, he said, "many dozens of them are very dangerous terrorists."

Israel Forces Allow No One on the Streets

Scores of men were released Friday night and taken to the Kalandia refugee camp a couple of miles from Ramallah. Under severe Israeli restrictions, no one is allowed on the streets. But about 80 of the released men, eager to get home, decided to take a chance and Saturday began walking from Kalandia into Ramallah.

Flying the white flag, the group was approaching a main intersection when soldiers spotted them and opened fire. The man carrying the flag, chosen because he was the best Hebrew speaker of the bunch, continued to walk toward the soldiers and beg safe passage.

After tense negotiations, in which soldiers lay belly-to-the-ground and held the Palestinians in the sights of their M-16 rifles, a commanding officer relented and said the men could proceed but only in groups of five. And they had to show their stomachs, because Israeli soldiers fear a potential suicide bomber with a belt of explosives strapped to his waist--an all-too-common M.O.

The men looked a disheveled parade.

Mohammed Ibrahim, a skinny engineering student with glasses, was among them.

"We didn't want to fight. We just wanted to go home," he said. "Getting home is a victory, a very great victory. Of course, I was angry, because this was not a good way to enter our country."

The stories of several men who were arrested and freed are consistent. Some reported to detention centers, such as a school basketball court in the Ramallah neighborhood of Al Birah, after Israeli troops on loudspeakers summoned all men ages 15 to 45; others were taken from their homes in raids. They were handcuffed and blindfolded and left for hours in a nearby Jewish settlement, and then taken to the Ofer army base just southwest of Ramallah.

At Ofer, upward of 700 or 800 men were crowded into tents and crude shelters, the interviewees said. The conditions of their confinement were terrible, they said.

Ibrahim, 22, said he was detained March 30 and kept in an open-air field at Ofer for three days before being transferred to a more substantial barracks. He was fed bread and a bottle of water to be shared with seven or eight fellow prisoners.

The only interrogation, he said, was five minutes of questioning, mostly about personal biographical information. A student at Birzeit University on Ramallah's northern edge, Ibrahim said he doesn't belong to any political faction.

Man Says Old Arrests Led to New Detention

Kamal abu Khadijeh, 40, is the financial administrator for the Coca-Cola company in Ramallah. He also was arrested March 30, by troops who came to his home, then released Wednesday. Khadijeh said he believes his political activism during the 1987-93 intifada against Israeli rule, and several arrests 10 years ago as a result, attracted Israeli attention.

"They needed some people [to arrest], and unfortunately I had a name from before," he said in the home of a brother after his release. "They were concerned about numbers more than anything else."

While held, Khadijeh said, he and the other men were fed matzo, the unleavened bread eaten by Jews for Passover, and uncooked frozen schnitzel. His interrogation didn't go beyond basic biographical data.

"I think they realized from the beginning that I was nobody," he said. "If I had been something, I wouldn't have waited for them to come to my house."

Mohammed Yacoub was also freed. Yacoub, an administrator at the Music Conservatory in Ramallah and a folk singer in a well-known Palestinian band, said he was forced to spend 26 hours in a rain-soaked field that smelled of sewage. He then slept on cardboard, and then on a thin foam-rubber mattress.

He had been arrested in 1989, which seemed to have put him on the Israelis' radar screen. He predicted that the sweeping roundups of Palestinians will backfire.

"It's hatred in each of us," he said. "It's sleeping in each of us, and when it wakes, it will never go back to sleep."

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