According to information confirmed by Palestinian and Israeli sources, the Israeli occupation army has invented a special method for its house-to-house searches currently conducted in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps located in the northern West Bank. “Walking through the walls” is the new Israeli way in which the army tries to protect its soldiers from the determined Palestinian resistance in the narrow allies of the camps.
“Walking through the walls” means knocking holes in and tearing down the walls of Palestinian civilian homes in order to enable Israeli soldiers to move safely from one Palestinian home to the next. “Palestinian refugee shelters with their simple block-construction are well suited for this purpose,” explained an Israeli military correspondent yesterday. Asked whether this would not have terrible consequences for the civilians living in these homes, the correspondent confirmed that, “Yes, of course they suffer a lot.” (Israeli TV, main news program, 28-2-2002).
Contrary to Israeli news reports which hold that the majority of the civilian population of the Balata camp has heeded an Israeli call for evacuation, Palestinian sources have stated that most of the some 20,000 residents of the camp have remained in their homes. By noon of today, the number of civilian injuries in Balata camp caused by the use of explosives inside homes and helicopter gunship shelling is increasing rapidly, with some two dozen women and children already reported hospitalized.
The current Israeli attack on Palestinian refugee camps started in the evening of 28 February with a night raid of Balata refugee camp (Nablus) by paratrooper units supported by some 30 tanks and Apache helicopters. One Israeli soldier was killed in the early stages of the raid, several others have been injured lightly. Subsequent Israeli attacks have targeted Khan Younis refugee camp (Gaza Strip) and Jenin refugee camp (West Bank), and today, ground raids and house-to-house searches were launched also in the Jenin camp. 13 Palestinians (6 in Balata camp and 7 in Jenin camp) have so far been killed in this latest Israeli assault; more than 150 persons have been injured.
Israel’s government and its right wing supporters have identified the Palestinian refugee camps of Balata, Jenin, Nur Shams (Tulkarem), Khan Younis and Rafah (Gaza Strip) as “hotbeds of terrorism.” They declared that the current military assault will “signal to the Palestinians that there is no safe haven, not even in the refugee camps.” However, criticism of the current military operations can be heard from some Israeli politicians, the media, and even from among unnamed army sources, who caution that the action resembles previous Sharon-led incursions into camps during the Lebanon war (an allegation to the 1982 massacre in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Yossi Sarid, Meretz), warn of further escalation, and demand an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the camps. Israeli peace groups are mobilizing for a demonstration in Jerusalem on Saturday, 2 March, demanding an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.
Palestinians have been outraged by Israel’s attack against the refugee camps, which are operated by the United Nations (UNRWA), and protected under international law (e.g., the Fourth Geneva (Civilians) Convention and the two additional Protocols to that Convention). According to Article 50 (Protocol 1), the presence of individual combatants within a civilian population, including refugee camps, does not deprive the population of its civilian status and protection. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention requires that civilians be treated humanely at all times and shall be protected against acts of violence. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that no person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed, and categorically prohibits any form of "collective punishment."
The first massive Palestinian response came yesterday afternoon (28 February) in form of a gun-shooting attack against the Israeli colony of Gilo (Jerusalem), after Fatah resistance fighters declared that the shooting on Gilo will not stop until the Israeli army withdraws from Balata refugee camp. A 15 year old boy was shot dead by live ammunition in his home in al-Khader village (Bethlehem). The gunfire exchange plus Israeli helicopter shelling of Aida refugee camp and the town of Beit Jala continued throughout the whole night, resulting in minor injuries and damage in Gilo and the Palestinian communities.
As of noon today, the Israeli raids in Balata and Jenin refugee camps continue, despite a call on the Israeli government by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for an immediate halt to the attack. The High Committee of National and Islamic Forces in the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories has called for massive popular demonstrations against the Israeli raids on refugee camps. Demonstrators will urgently call upon the United Nations and representatives of foreign governments in Palestine to provide immediate international intervention and protection.
For more on the protection rights of Palestinian refugee camps, see: BADIL Occasional Bulletin No. 6 (May 2001).