Sunday, February 26, 2006

balata invaded

The Israeli army, backed with Apache attack helicopters, tanks and jeeps, invaded the Balata refugee camp at 1:00 am on February 19, 2006. The invasion was the largest and most serious the dense refugee camp has endured in the past two years. The attack began with Israeli soldiers announcing a curfew. In the occupied West Bank, ‘curfew’ means that no one can leave their home at all, not simply that they must stay inside after a given hour. Curfew is constant, and makes emergency medical work and other vital services, as well as simply living, difficult to impossible.

All entrances to Balata were immediately blocked by the army, on some streets by tanks or jeeps and on others by hastily constructed roadblocks, or mounds of earth and trash. One ambulance was trapped inside the camp, and it was able to bring wounded only to the edge of the camp, where people on stretchers were moved to another ambulance. The medical workers did not drive the ambulance out of the camp for fear that the army would prevent them from returning. According to an international volunteer press release, “normal ambulance traffic came to a complete halt.”

International volunteers worked with Palestinian medical personnel to get wounded civilians to an emergency field clinic set up inside the camp and to hospitals in Nablus and nearby cities. The following incidents were witnessed and reported by international volunteers working with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS) and confirmed by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). These incidents took place during the first day of the invasion; that first day, over 80 people were injured and four killed, most of them civilians and many of them youths.

Two young men were shot dead and over thirty injured in the first hours of the invasion. A group of young men and boys was gathered at the entrance to the camp, attempting to fight off the Israeli attack with rocks. Their rocks were opposing guns, tanks and helicopters. Medical volunteers were called to the site where Mohammed Ahmad Natur and Ibrahim Ahmad Sheikh Khalil had been shot. One had been shot in the neck and the other in the chest. They were later declared dead. The Israeli occupation forces later declared that the two had been planting bombs on Market street. The volunteers who witnessed the murders witnessed no explosions or bomb squads in the area, and the army continued to use the road in question throughout the day. It is thus highly unlikely that there was an actual bomb threat.

The morning of the nineteenth also brought tragedy to a Palestinian family-to-be when an ambulance carrying a woman in complicated labor was attacked by two Israeli army jeeps. The jeeps drove into both sides of the ambulance, preventing it from moving, and then shot at it. The soldiers forced the ambulance to stand still for half an hour, using it as a shield against youth throwing stones. Using ambulances as human shields contravenes numerous international laws.

At 11:15 am, the military attempted to close the UN medical clinic by shooting
warning shots and percussion grenades at it. They also prevented patients
from entering the clinic. The army also closed the UN girls school in the camp, turning it into a temporary military base and bringing in generators and large quantities of water and food.

According to the IWPS press release, at 1:00 pm, “two ambulances were held up by several jeeps. According to the ambulance team they were detained for 30 minutes and someone with a bullet wound in the shoulder was beaten inside one of the ambulance.
The soldiers forced the ambulance personnel to undress his wound, which had just stopped bleeding. The ambulance was held until the family, with the help of the ambulance team and the IWPS volunteers, brought his ID card. After his ID was checked, the ambulance continued its way, only to be stopped by the next jeep on the road.”

The Israeli army’s official spokespeople did not publicly explain the terror inflicted on the people of Balata camp. The army website does not contain any information or even a press release about the invasion, and it has been completely absent from the international media. The invasion would be bad press for Israel were anyone to pay attention. Though one high level al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade activist was arrested during the operation, and three low-level fighters were killed, the most serious impact it had was to remind Balata residents of who has the upper hand in the conflict when it comes to brute violence.

Intimidation and humiliation constitute a large part of Israeli strategy in this regard. The IWPS report further states that “in several instances, soldiers drove through the camps cursing the residents' mothers and sisters in Arabic in what seemed to be an attempt to provoke the youth to throw stones. The volunteers have witnessed no armed resistance, only youth throwing stones and building barricades.”

It seems, too, as if Israel has gotten over its fear of wounding or murdering international peace volunteers. The murders of American activist Rachel Corrie and British photographer Tom Hurndall in 2003 braced the Israeli state and garnered the army significant negative media attention throughout Europe and other parts of the world outside of the United States. Israel’s renewed arrogance and fearlessness may be a result of the media spotlight on the recent Hamas electoral victory, and the resulting obfuscation of Israel’s acts on the ground in occupied territory.

What emerges in the shadows of this media spotlight is horrifying. A Dutch medical volunteer was one of four injured volunters, two Palestinian and two international, who were attacked by Israeli soldiers as they stood trapped between a building and a military jeep at the height of the reinvasion’s intensity on February 23rd during one of many inexplicable attacks. The building they were standing in front of had been set afire by the Israeli army, and the army prevented fire rescue teams from approaching it because they said they intended to set off more bombs inside it.

The press release describes the scene: “ At 2:00 without any warning shots [the medical volunteers] were fired at and a grenade was thrown at them from around the corner. According to the volunteers the shooting came from the direction of the alleyway where the Israeli soldiers were. A twenty two year old American student was wounded by shrapnel in the hand a twenty nine year old Dutch volunteer was wounded by shrapnel in the thigh and shoulder, Jirar Candola an ambulance driver with the UPMRC was shot in the arm and leg and Ihab Mansour, a medical volunteer working with the Palestinian scientific society, was shot in the head and taken away by the Israeli soldiers.”

"We were standing in the alley way, everything was quite when suddenly without warning we heard a big explosion and heard gun shots. I then saw Jarar and Ihab liying on the floor. Ihab wasn't moving,” said the wounded Dutch volunteer.

The rest of the day witnessed the deaths of more innocents. “19 year-old Ibrahim Saadi was shot dead while throwing a stone at the Israeli armored jeeps. 20 year-old Naim Abu Sarif was shot dead by a sniper while standing on the roof of his house.” Five camp residents were wounded on the 23rd, including a 36 year-old taxi driver who nearly died due to bullet wounds to his head and shoulder.

After blowing up the house that they had lit aflame, Israeli soldiers withdrew from the camp in the early evening, leaving behind them a trail of destruction, trash, damaged water and electricity infrastructure and indescribable human suffering.

An International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteer wrote of the funeral of two of the young men who were shot dead by Israeli forces, “That morning we watched the funeral procession of Ibrahim and Naim from a roof and when I saw those kid’s faces it was time for a long overdue cry. They were so young, so beautiful and I can’t get their faces out of my head.”

In the hours following the invasion, a local Palestinian ISM coordinator was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service. He was tortured in his three hour interrogation, during which he was accused of having connections to ‘terrorists’. The ISM is committed to non-violence in word and deed.

For more information on the Balata invasion, see