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Two Perspectives to Life on Israel's Clock

Mideast: The military sees curfews as a big success. Palestinians say the innocent are hurt.

July 16, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NABLUS, West Bank — It's 3 p.m. and time for the Israeli army to reimpose the curfew that confines Palestinians to their houses.

A tank, turret spinning, followed by a military jeep and an armored personnel carrier, roars up Rafidia Street. "Close your shops! Return to your homes!" an Israeli officer shouts in Arabic through a megaphone. Within seconds, the soldiers underscore their order with rapid bursts of machine-gun fire.

Businessman Fadi Touqan crouches and frantically tries to finish shutting the metal doors to his small shop. In the street, other Palestinians who had ventured out to buy food and see friends run for cover and hurry home.

Curfews--restrictions that in effect place about 800,000 Palestinians under house arrest--are one of the most salient features of Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank. Since the army seized control of seven of the eight major Palestinian cities in the West Bank nearly four weeks ago, 24-hour curfews have been in place, lifted every few days for a few hours to allow residents to restock.

As far as Israel is concerned, the offensive--called Operation Determined Path--is a major success. Launched after a wave of suicide bombings, it has restored a measure of calm to Israeli life while largely avoiding the international condemnation typical of earlier incursions.

As far as Palestinians and human rights organizations are concerned, however, the military takeover and especially the curfews constitute the collective punishment of innocents along with the guilty, which is illegal under international law. Moreover, they say, Palestinians who try to work, shop or play risk injury and even death.

In Kalkilya on Monday, a Palestinian worker died when Israeli troops fired two stun grenades into the Al Manar factory, setting it ablaze. The army said the incident began as a curfew violation.

According to Palestinians, dozens of people were sleeping in the factory, as many workers now routinely do because they fear that if they go home when the curfew is lifted, they might be unable to return to their jobs.

Soldiers appeared at the factory early in the morning and ordered those inside to come out. When the workers did not, the soldiers fired a grenade inside, setting off a blaze, said Khaldon Ghashash, owner of the factory, which makes car seat covers.

Ghashash said workers told him that they tried to put out the fire but that soldiers shot at them, then fired a second grenade that hit combustible materials. The fire quickly spread, and the army brought in a rescue squad and firetrucks from a nearby Jewish settlement to battle it. After the blaze was extinguished, the body of Mahmoud Samir Hilal, 22, was found inside; he apparently died of smoke inhalation.

Hassan Ghashash, 43, the foreman, said he, his wife and their four children were sleeping above the factory when the fire broke out.

"I gathered my wife and children and tried to leave the building," he said in a telephone interview. "The smoke and fire were heavy, and we were not able to breathe. I soaked some towels with water, put them on our heads and ran down the stairs and got outside.... About 18 among us had to be treated for inhaling smoke. We were lucky to have come out alive."

The army said it is investigating the soldiers' conduct and the cause of the blaze. Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman, said soldiers had seen a man fleeing into the building after violating the curfew.

They followed him, ordered him out and asked if anyone else was inside. When he said no, Dallal said, the soldiers fired two stun grenades inside, "and then some people came out." Dallal said that a fire then started and that Palestinians and Israelis worked together to put it out.

Marouf Zahran, Kalkilya's mayor, accused the army of being "barbaric." The soldiers, he said, "did not have to do what they did. If they wanted to check the factory, they could have ordered the workers out and searched it. But they did not do that.... There is a curfew on Kalkilya and because of that, the workers stay at the factory in order to work and earn a living. They have no other choice."

Only one Israeli--a soldier in the Gaza Strip--has been killed by Palestinians since June 20, the day after tanks started to move back into the West Bank. There have been no successful suicide bombings or shooting attacks on Israeli civilians.

In the same period, 37 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army, including 21 unarmed civilians not involved in confrontations, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Those figures do not include two people reportedly slain Sunday and the worker who died Monday.

Among the 37 dead tallied by B'Tselem were five women and 10 youths under 18. At least six unarmed people--four children and two adults--were killed in incidents related to the curfews; either soldiers shot at people they believed were violating the restriction, or there was confusion over when a curfew had been lifted or reimposed.

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