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The Middle East

'They Forced Me to Hate'

Conflict: Residents of the Jenin refugee camp speak of the viciousness of the Israeli attack.

April 15, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JENIN, West Bank — Lukea Tomei could only watch through a peephole as one neighbor was shot, his arms in the air. She cried out when she saw an elderly woman blasted by a sniper.

But she could stay still no longer when she saw a little girl wandering through a mine-filled street.

"The soldiers told me not to go out, but I didn't listen to them," said Tomei, a Palestinian nurse who rushed outside to snatch the girl to safety. "I could not sit by any longer."

Nearly two weeks after the Israeli army launched the bloodiest battle in the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East War, there is growing testimony that its victory at the Jenin refugee camp was marred by human rights violations.

Israeli soldiers shot unarmed civilians, bulldozed people alive and blocked access to medical care, according to more than a dozen witnesses who spoke Sunday in a temporary shelter just outside the smoldering camp.

Their accounts, which could not be independently confirmed, painted a picture of a vicious house-to-house battle in which Israeli soldiers faced Palestinian gunmen intermixed with the camp's civilian population.

Israeli forces escorted a group of reporters into the blasted camp Sunday for the first time since the start of the offensive. The body of one bearded Palestinian gunman lay in the street, covered with flies. Homes and other buildings were flattened. Israeli soldiers said they had found booby traps throughout the camp.

Israeli officers said they had almost achieved their objective of ridding the camp of militants, noting that half the suicide bombers who have killed scores of Israelis during the last 18 months came from the Jenin camp, which was established in 1953.

But late in the day, after the group of reporters had left this city, fighting flared anew. Explosions that locals said were charges designed to blow down doors could be heard. Machine-gun fire rattled, and tank fire boomed. Black smoke billowed from one side of the camp, once home to 13,000 refugees.

A local man, speaking by telephone, said that few people remained in the camp, which lacked water and telephone service, though power was restored late Sunday.

"We are in despair," said the man, who identified himself as Waleed Zagha, a father of three. "We can smell the rotting bodies."

The Israeli officials put the number of dead at 23 Israeli soldiers and about 70 Palestinians, though they said more bodies might be found under 25-foot-high piles of rubble. Palestinians have insisted that between 300 and 500 people were killed in almost two weeks of fighting.

The final toll may remain controversial. On Sunday, Israel's Supreme Court denied a bid by Israeli Arab politicians and human rights groups to block the burial of bodies by the army. It said the army was entitled to bury the dead if Palestinian authorities failed to do so, although it recommended that the International Committee of the Red Cross be involved.

Military officials denied that any massacres or human rights violations had taken place.

"Most of the houses we approached on entering the camp were empty [of civilians]. The camp was ready for war," Lt. Yoni Wolff, commander of a platoon involved in the battle, told reporters. "We saw very few civilians. Some old ladies and children were made to hold a gun in front of terrorists to make it hard for us to fight back."

Many of those who fled the camp in the last few days have wound up at the headquarters of the local Muslim charity and school, where about 2,000 people were packed into two buildings without running water.

There, as tanks rumbled through the city's deserted and devastated streets, more than a dozen witnesses independently described a pattern of attacks against civilian targets that began April 3, the first day of the Israeli assault, and continued until Saturday, when the camp was nearly vacated.

Many of those interviewed said they had seen Israeli soldiers shoot at unarmed civilians or bulldoze occupied houses. Others said Israeli soldiers had prevented wounded people from seeking medical treatment.

Still others said Israeli soldiers had detained them and threatened them with death before releasing them.

On the first night of the invasion, Tomei ran from a United Nations clinic in the camp to seek shelter in the nearby home of a cousin. Later, as she watched through a peephole, she saw a man walk into the street, holding his stomach, she said.

"He had no guns. He said: 'I want a doctor. I want to go to the hospital,' " Tomei said. "They shot him."

Tomei and a second witness, Baha Awad, 20, a worker for the Palestinian ambulance service, also described an incident in the early days of the invasion when Israeli soldiers ordered a family out of a house with loudspeakers, then proceeded to bulldoze it.

The family ran out, screaming that they had been forced to leave behind their mentally handicapped son. Army officials denied that they had buried civilians alive.

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