Ramallah emerges to assess damage

Israeli soldiers went too far, Palestinians say as they begin cleanup

April 22, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Nobody knew for certain who rifled the safes and cashier tills, damaged the bill counters, tried to pry open the automated teller machine and attacked the handles of the main vault at the Palestine International Bank.

But Usama M. Khader, the bank's general manager, expressed his suspicions yesterday that the guilty parties were Israeli soldiers. He alleged that they used the bank headquarters for the past several weeks as an interrogation center - and there is no doubt that they were there.

"Destroying things like that, I did not imagine," Khader said, standing in a lobby where the carpet was covered in mud and a pile of sandbags lay on a table. "It is a kind of a destruction of the institution."

Throughout this tattered city, the capital of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, people began cleaning up the refuse and wreckage left by the Israeli army. After being confined indoors for weeks, venturing out only during brief lifting of curfews, residents had their first real opportunity to see - and smell - the damage, as workers hauled away a month's worth of pungent garbage.

The damage was not confined to government buildings. Israeli forces and the fighting left deep marks on shops, office buildings and the headquarters of a human rights organization. Israeli troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers and at least one bulldozer remained outside Arafat's headquarters, the curious kept well clear by dirt roadblocks.

Some of the damage inflicted by soldiers had clearly been intentional. Hard drives were taken from computers in Palestinian Authority offices, and windows were shattered by rockets. Other wreckage had the hallmarks of a hasty retreat. On a street where Israeli forces had been stationed alongside armored vehicles, barbed wire was left rolled up on the sidewalk. On another street, three smashed cars, seemingly beyond towing, still formed a roadblock.

At the offices of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, workers said three computers were destroyed and two stolen. They added that a member of the staff, Yasser Al Disi, a public relations officer, was arrested on the second night of the Israeli incursion and ordered detained for three months.

The damage was far worse at the offices of the Mattin Group, an agency that promotes human and economic rights. The main work area was piled 3 feet high with desks, chairs, trash and rotting food. Office equipment was piled 6 feet high in a closet. Empty chocolate milk cartons and fruit were strewn on a balcony overlooking a main street, an apparent sniper's nest.

"It's like an atomic bomb went off here," said Salwa Daibis, a partner in the group. "I haven't located my computer yet. Lots of files in my office are missing. The computer is definitely missing. It will take me months to sort out the garbage."

She found a cash box but said $1,000 was missing.

And she was furious. In her office, someone had left a handwritten note in English that began with an obscenity, was signed in the name of the Israeli army and read, "Never mess with us again."

"I am going to chase everyone who was here," she said of the soldiers. "This is the only mission left in my life. I will use the law. Too many Palestinians have the same feeling. My whole life is damaged."

The Israeli army has said its building-by-building searches in Ramallah were part of an operation to destroy an infrastructure responsible for Palestinian suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians. The army was not seeking to "undermine or to destroy the civilian infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority," said a spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dalal.

"Overall, there were a lot of offices and in some cases residential buildings searched," he said. "That was part of what we felt was needed in an attempt to uproot and get to the bottom of the network of the various organizations involved in terror. And unfortunately it is a testimony of how deep-rooted this whole thing was and is that these were things not done in previous incursions.

"Where there is inappropriate behavior by soldiers," he said, "those cases will be investigated by military police."

Azzam al Ahmad, the Palestinian Authority's minister of public works, held court in an office where the sofas and chairs were slashed, pictures damaged, even a map of the region altered by someone who had ripped out the depiction of the West Bank. Nearby, workers were roughing in new doors, the clang of hammers echoing in the building.

"We don't want to turn our place into a museum," he said. "We have to start to work. Every member of the staff will start cleaning."

Earlier, staff members said Israeli forces damaged the building housing the Palestinian Authority's public works and transportation offices. A top floor was apparently blasted from inside with explosives. Rubble was piled in one room. Another room was scorched black, almost as if black paint had been thrown on the walls. All the bathrooms were destroyed.

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