Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, could not have done more for his reputation as a heartless, bloodthirsty war-criminal. Dozens of rotting bodies littering the streets and homes of West Bank cities; Israeli troops preventing ambulances and medical workers from reaching the injured and the dead; Palestinian civilians confined to their houses, shot if they ventured out and left with no electricity, no running water and diminishing food supplies for days on end; thousands of Palestinians, some as young as 15 years old, blindfolded and arrested, their whereabouts unknown, but reportedly ill-treated and humiliated while in detention; Israeli soldiers targeting journalists with bullets and stun-grenades or expelling them as they tried to report the human tragedy in Palestine: these are only glimpses of the wanton blood and destruction into which the “Butcher of Sabra and Shatila” has plunged Palestinian cities since his troops moved on March 29 to reoccupy areas under the control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank.
All over the West Bank Israel’s army went on an orgy of bloodshed and destruction, seeking to damage the Palestinians’ civilian infrastructure, including roads, water pipes and electricity grids. Civilian neighbourhoods, including hospitals, were bombarded. Muslim and Christian places of worship were desecrated. Such was the fate of the ‘Umari mosque and the Lutheran church compound in Bethlehem. The mosque was burnt; soldiers stormed the church compound, smashing doors and windows, ripping refrigerators and shooting holes into sinks. Field-workers for Palestinian and Israeli human-rights organizations were prevented from reaching the occupied areas to monitor human-rights violations being perpetrated by Israeli troops. Offices of Palestinian human-rights organizations, such as al-Haq and al-Dameer, were ransacked by Israeli troops. Throughout the recaptured cities, Israeli soldiers behaved like hoodlums, brigands and thugs instead of disciplined soldiers. In Ramallah, five Palestinian policemen were found shot dead in a tiny apartment. The Israelis claimed that they had died in a gun-battle, but the bullets that killed them had all been fired gangland-style from close range into their heads. Soldiers also looted food and personal items from houses and shops.
In several places, such as Ramallah and Nablus, hospital authorities decided, after waiting in vain for permission to bury the dead, to inter in mass graves dozens of bodies that had been in their morgues for days. Eyewitnesses have reported seeing tanks smashing cars, ambulances and even bodies in the streets.
Christian officials have reported at least 200 Palestinian civilians, including 60 Franciscan monks and nuns, seeking sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity in Ramallah. An unknown number of PNA policemen and fighters from the Tanzim militia, a branch of PNA president Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Movement, are holed up with them as well. The Israeli army has surrounded the church with tanks. On April 8, the troops surrounding the church opened fire on the shrine and threw smoke grenades into the compound; as a result a fire burned down a meeting hall of St. Katherine’s, a Roman Catholic church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. Franciscan clerics in Rome accused Israel of reneging on a promise not to attack the church. The Rev. David Jaeger, a spokesman for the office of the Custodians of Catholic Sites in the Holy Land, described the attack as “perfidious” and pleaded with the international community to intervene, saying: “I’ve been warning for days now that an attack is imminent and on behalf of my brothers calling on the church and the world to intervene with the Israeli government.”
The heaviest fighting raged in the West Bank city of Nablus and in Jenin refugee-camp, where hundreds of lightly armed Palestinians have decided to fight the Israeli juggernaut to their end. Both areas have been heavily bombarded, with Apache helicopters, tanks and sometimes even F-16 warplanes firing on anything that moves in the densely-populated camp, where at least 15,000 people live in an area of roughly 1 square kilometre. Israeli soldiers have even used Palestinian civilians as human shields to inch their way into these areas. Civilians were seen strapped to tanks and armoured personnel-carriers: false pledges of safety had been given to lure them from their homes. According to the Palestine Media Centre, Israeli soldiers used loudspeakers in Jenin to announce that they would “cease fire in order to allow the women and elderly to get water”, only to arrest them when they emerged. Shortly after that, residents reported hearing the Israeli forces calling out on megaphones to the resistance fighters and security officers to “surrender in order to save the lives of the detained civilians.”
Scores of people have reportedly been killed in the Old City quarter of Nablus and in the Jenin camp; their exact numbers cannot be determined, but the total is feared to be in the hundreds. Many have bled to death inside their homes because the Israelis would not allow ambulances through to treat them or take them to hospital. Israeli army bulldozers razed the front rows of houses in Jenin camp to the ground, usually without warning to residents inside, many of whom are reported to have perished under the rubble. Even the dead were not immune to mistreatment: on April 4 Israeli bulldozers exhumed a makeshift mass-grave that the camp’s residents had dug to bury people who died during the Israeli incursion in February, leaving dug-out bodies strewn across the street.
Sharon’s stated objective is to “destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.” On March 8 he made it clear that his ultimate goal was to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, which he has branded as a “terrorist organization”. He told Israel’s Knesset that “the army will continue operating… until the mission has been completed, until it has dismantled Arafat’s terror infrastructure and until the murderers hiding in different places have been arrested.” After the operation is over, Sharon said, Israeli troops will withdraw to buffer zones in the West Bank, adding that the evacuated places “must have a responsible Palestinian leadership that will take over the areas.” So far Sharon’s attempts to destroy Arafat’s PNA have backfired. The siege of Arafat in two rooms in his compound in Ramallah has made him something of a hero to the Palestinians; political groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum, the left, the right, the nationalists and the Islamists, have all now rallied to his support.
But above all the credibility of international human rights and humanitarian law has fallen victim to Sharon’s bloodbath. The “international community” has failed to take significant action to stop Sharon’s rampage. The UN Security Council has merely called on Israel to withdraw its troops from the areas it reoccupied. Despite condemnation of Israel’s actions in the West Bank from various European officials, the European Union has declined to back calls for its trade and cooperation agreement with Israel to be suspended. Instead European Commission president Romano Prodi told a news conference on March 8 that the EU would have to consider calling Israel to a “special meeting” under the terms of the agreement unless it stopped its offensive.
US president George W Bush has made a number of speeches in which he heaped blame on Arafat, demanded that he stop the “terror” attacks on the Israelis, told Arab governments to put maximum pressure on the Palestinians to renounce the attacks, and chastised Iran and Syria. These peremptory speeches also contained passing demands, of dubious sincerity and in any case of no effect, that Sharon should withdraw his troops from the West Bank cities they had reoccupied. In response to these calls, Sharon assured Bush that Israel will expedite its offensive in the West Bank. A statement from David Baker, a spokesman of Sharon’s, said on April 6: “The prime minister told the president that Israel would make every effort to speed up Operation Defensive Shield.”
There is no reason to think that Sharon will heed any calls for restraint, or care about international condemnation, the shocking number of civilian casualties, and the grave violations of human rights, in a war he conducts in the name of “fighting terror”. After all, his patrons in Washington are also involved in a similar campaign that has caused thousands of civilian casualties in the name of “fighting terror”, so why should he behave any better?