In Balata camp, refugees say they've nothing left to lose

Palestinians endure Israeli invaders, look ahead to lives of war

April 19, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - For a few moments yesterday, residents emerged from their ramshackle homes here and cautiously gathered on the street. The men and women chatted as children milled about and played.

The sound of an approaching vehicle sent them scurrying inside, a reminder that they and thousands of their neighbors are living under a 24-hour-a-day curfew imposed by the Israeli military and routinely enforced by the crack of gunfire.

What scared everyone was an army jeep that sped down the street, kicking up a cloud of dust that rolled over this community outside Nablus. When the air had cleared, people crept back outside for another few minutes of freedom. The next vehicle to pass by would be a tank.

"Is this any way to live?" asked Nada Khazaran, 47, who was born in this camp built in 1950, two years after Israel became a state and turned tens of thousands of Palestinians into refugees. Her parents had lived in what is now a Tel Aviv suburb.

"For 17 days we have been under curfew," said Khazaran, as her eight children pressed close and her voice rose in anger. "There is no water, no electricity. We have no money. And even if the stores could open, there is nothing to buy."

Here, curfew means people are allowed on the streets for three hours every three days.

Khazaran stood amid the swirl of dirt, dressed in the same blue dishdasha, a traditional Arab dress and head covering, that she wore when the tanks rumbled into Balata, a desperate but resilient place whose Arabic name means "rock."

There was little hope here before Israeli soldiers invaded. Now, residents say, any promise of peace is gone forever.

"We have nothing left to lose in this war," said Khazaran's husband, Hatem. He is 42 years old, husband, father and refugee, and he has never held a job. He fears that his children are destined to spend the rest of their lives in the camp.

The Palestinian family's plight is repeated among countless others as the third week of Israel's war against terrorism slowly draws to a close.

The Israeli army has begun pulling out of many cities, including Nablus. As the military siege eases, more and more people are venturing out to look at what has become of their homes, their communities and their lives.

Israeli officials say that by Sunday, most troops will have withdrawn from West Bank cities, with the exception of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The Balata camp did not suffer as badly as other places. Bulldozers did not level entire blocks of homes as they did in Jenin, burying people under the rubble. Nor did Israelis shoot and kill dozens of Palestinians as in the historic covered marketplace in Nablus.

But houses are pockmarked with holes from bullets and tank shells. A tank flattened the new car-repair shop in front of Khazaran's makeshift house. The street is gouged. Walls from other buildings are ripped off or on the verge of collapse.

All prospects for the future seem to have vanished.

Yesterday, storefronts were locked tight and the camp was virtually empty, save for the few brave souls who spent the day dodging the army vehicles and Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets.

At the entrance to Nablus, just beyond Balata, a tank blocked an intersection and a lone Israeli soldier crouched in a doorway and opened fire up the street, apparently to warn curfew-breakers to go inside.

Nearby, a Palestinian ambulance, its bullet-shattered back window covered with cardboard, sat idling. Three paramedics sat on the curb, waiting for the soldier to stop shooting and resume inspecting their van so it could proceed.

Up another street, a group of men, old and young, slowly walked back into the city. They were among the hundreds detained by the Israeli army, held for days and questioned about alleged links to militant groups before finally being sent home.

They entered Nablus holding white flags of surrender, so other soldiers would know they were not violating the curfew. Blindfolds that Israeli soldiers had forced them to wear were pulled down around their necks, a trophy for being temporary prisoners of war.

For Balata, this latest invasion was its second in two months. On Feb. 28, Israeli troops stormed the 1.5-square- mile camp, regarded as a militant stronghold for the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank. The military operation was regarded as a historic first; never before had Israel's army dared send troops into the narrow confines of a crowded refugee camp. Balata is the largest in population in the West Bank, with 20,000 residents. About two dozen people were killed.

This time, soldiers merely passed through Balata on their way to Nablus. Still, fighting was intense, as Palestinian gunmen desperately tried to stop the army's advance into the heart of the West Bank's largest city.

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