Israel says `path of terror' takes its army into camps

Refugees rounded up, resisting or not

March 12, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DHEISHEH REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - Maneuvering his jeep through the narrow alleyways, an Israeli soldier delivered a message before dawn yesterday to the frightened residents of this squalid community of cinder-block homes.

He urged all men ages 15 to 45 to surrender. "If you come in peace," he shouted in broken Arabic through a bullhorn mounted on the jeep's roof, "bring your ID with you and we'll let you go back in peace."

About 500 men complied, emerging from their houses in the refugee camp, on the southern edge of Bethlehem.

Soldiers directed the men to a nearby schoolyard, where they stripped down to T-shirts and undershorts. The men were photographed and then led blindfolded and handcuffed to a stone-cutting factory. There, they stood under a hot sun; several men collapsed.

Among those arrested were the husband and two brothers of Umm Mohammed Dweik, a Palestinian who arrived two weeks ago from Egypt.

"They took away my family," Dweik said, surrounded by a group of children on her second-story balcony, as an Israeli tank rumbled along on a nearby road. "They have nothing to do with all of this."

By "this," Dweik means the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli response, which has taken a new, deadly turn in the past 10 days.

The army is invading the refugee camps, one by one, to face down the core of Palestinian resistance on the impoverished streets and alleys where the uprising was born. Until now, the camps that were created as temporary settlements for Palestinians displaced by earlier Middle East wars were off-limits even for the army.

"We're getting serious about the refugee camps and these militant strongholds," said Capt. Jacob Dalal, an Israeli army spokesman. "Doing this shows that we're not going to hesitate to go where the path of terror takes us."

But the new strategy has come at a cost. The narrow streets make it impossible for a mechanized army to move freely, forcing soldiers to move house-to-house and engage guerrilla fighters on unfamiliar turf.

In the first two camps the Israelis targeted, resistance was fierce. Dead bodies were left in the streets, wounded went untreated and Palestinian ambulances came under fire. Four paramedics were killed. Israeli helicopters raked residential streets with gunfire, tanks blasted away at buildings and soldiers punched holes through houses to move without having to go outside.

At the Balata refugee camp, the army killed more than a dozen people but made no arrests and found only a single mortar factory and some small arms. At a camp in the city of Tulkarm, armed fighters massed near the center and vowed to fight to the death. But then something unexpected happened. Over the weekend, 750 people gave themselves up. Israeli officials said 200 were armed and 50 were wanted as suspected terrorists.

Surprised by what the army called the "surrender of Tulkarm," Israeli officials hailed the operation as a successful way to capture a town without having to confront a swarm of armed fighters. On the first day of the attack, 16 people had been killed.

Palestinian officials said all the gunmen had fled the camp long before its residents gave themselves up. Reporters found many fighters holed up in the Nablus hospital.

Last night, Israeli troops were massing around the Bureij camp in the Gaza Strip. Chris Nardahl, deputy director of the United Nations organization that runs the 27 refugee camps, called the invasions dangerous.

"This is a serious escalation," Nardahl said. "The camps in Gaza won't go quietly. There will be a huge blood bath."

But since the first raids, soldiers have faced only isolated pockets of resistance.

Here, in Dheisheh, the streets normally teem with children, donkey carts and fruit vendors. Yesterday, the Israeli army cut off the camp's electricity and pounded Palestinian police posts with tank shells. The camp of 10,000 people seemed deserted.

The army blew up a house suspected of containing a bomb factory and removed makeshift gasoline bombs strewn about the streets. Soldiers moving through the streets fired their weapons at every corner.

Then, a soldier in a jeep asked the men of Dheisheh to surrender.

Hundreds of young and middle-aged men emerged from their houses and were rounded up by Israeli soldiers. A day before, reporters saw most of the Palestinian gunmen fleeing the camp, running along a steep dirt road winding through a field strewn with the remnants of abandoned cars.

Bethlehem yesterday was quiet. Only a handful of people were on the streets, some with bags of food. Children stayed indoors. The rutted roads leading into Dheisheh were ripped apart by Israeli bulldozers, the broken asphalt piled into impenetrable barriers.

At one point, an armored personnel carrier rumbled down a street near the camp, followed by a tank. The Israeli army was clearing the streets, drawing gunfire from a handful of militants hiding in doorways, darting from alley to alley.

The intermittent exchanges - heavy tank-mounted machine guns vs. Kalashnikov rifles - echoed through the city. A small child ran down the steps of his house sobbing, while his parents stood on a balcony to watch the action.

Dheisheh has been besieged for five days, its residents cut off from hospitals and stores. Palestinian fighters interviewed in previous days said they wanted to live to battle another day. By last night, only a handful remained behind.

On the streets of Bethlehem, Palestinian men carrying machine guns walked along the streets or waited in parked cars, knowing that Israeli soldiers could be around any corner.

At the Aza refugee camp on the northern edge of Bethlehem, an Israeli slowly moved along Yasser Arafat Street.

A block away, a lone Palestinian wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet crouched in an alley, gripped his machine gun and prepared to fight.

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