Israel’s War on the Refugee Camps and the Palestinian People

Following the collapse of final status negotiations at Camp David (July 2000) and Taba (January 2001) several Israeli commentators stated that violent confrontation and war was preferable to accepting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their places of origin inside Israel. (See BADIL Bulletin No. 5). These apocalyptic statements of more than a year ago now appear to be a growing reality on the ground. For Israel’s political and military establishment, the death of more than a thousand Palestinians since September 2000, and perhaps thousands more, as well as the mass destruction of Palestinian property is a price that the establishment appears willing to exact to try to impose a solution on the Palestinians that preserves the Jewish character of the state (i.e., Jewish demographic majority and Jewish control of refugee lands) and avoid having to live together with Palestinians, including refugees, on the basis of equality.

Over the last 24 hours Israel has continued to escalate its war on Palestinian refugee camps and the Palestinian people. Massive military attacks from the ground, air, and sea on refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank overnight and this morning have resulted in extensive damage, deaths and injuries. As of this morning Israeli military forces have attacked and entered the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem and the adjacent Nur Shams and Tulkarem refugee camps, leaving thousands of refugees exposed to the dangers of heavy machine-gun, tank and helicopter gunfire. 6 Palestinian casualties were reported by noon time.

One week after Israel began its latest military assault in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps, 72 Palestinians have been killed (Palestine Red Crescent, as of 12 a.m. 6 March) and nearly 500 Palestinians have been injured, the majority from live ammunition. The number of Palestinians killed over the last seven days is well above the monthly average of Palestinian killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada.

Israel’s latest attacks on Palestinian refugee camps have also caused extensive damage to refugee shelters and UN installations. According to UNRWA, the attack on Balata camp left more than 130 refugee shelters badly damaged or completely destroyed. Prior to the latest escalation, Israeli forces had destroyed more than 350 refugee shelters in the Gaza Strip and heavily damaged the shelters of nearly 4,000 refugee families in the West Bank.

UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including schools in Balata and Jenin camps, have also suffered heavy damage due to Israel’s use of the UN installations to stage military attacks on the camps, and aerial bombardment of official Palestinian institutions in densely-populated civilian areas where the schools are located. On 5 March UNRWA’s Al-Nour Rehabilitation Centre for the Visually Impaired, the only institution of its kind in the Gaza Strip, was heavily damaged for the fifth time.

According to Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, “The only thing that could have been damaged by such a raid was the blind school because the police headquarters had already been hit five times. Under the terms of international conventions Israel has a duty to safeguard UN installations and personnel. Such bombing raids in heavily populated civilian areas, next to a school flying a UN flag that is brightly lit at night, are totally unacceptable.” An appeal for urgent international protection released today by the Palestinian Ministry of Education highlights the fact that 435 children, among them 150 school children, have been shot and killed, and 2404 injured, since September 2000. Among the most recent cases are two children shot in their school yard in Jenin on 6 March, and five children killed in Ramallah on 4 March, when their parents’ cars were hit by guided missiles.

Since the beginning of the latest escalation in Israel’s war on the camps, the Israeli military has also routinely denied the UN, the Red Cross, and the Palestine Red Crescent, humanitarian access to the refugee camps in contravention of international law covering the protection of civilians during conflicts. Dr. Khalil Suleiman, the Director of the Red Crescent emergency services in Jenin was killed on 4 March, when an Israeli tank shell hit the ambulance as he was trying to evacuate a young girl from the Jenin refugee camp. The ambulance caught fire and four other rescue workers were injured. Israeli military forces prevented UNRWA from making a delivery of urgently needed medicines, food, blankets and tents to the refugee camps, despite repeated interventions by the United Nations.

The latest round of military attacks on Palestinian refugee camps, which are considered to have an exclusively civilian and humanitarian character, even in the context of the presence of individual combatants within camp (Fourth Geneva Conventions, Protocol I, Article 50), comes on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s declaration to wage war on the camps and the Palestinian population. According to Sharon, "It won't be possible to reach an agreement with [the Palestinians] before [they] are hit hard. Now they have to be hit. If they aren't badly beaten, there won't be any negotiations. Only after they are beaten will we be able to conduct talks." (Ha’aretz, 4 March)

The unlawful military assault on the refugee camps also comes as an increasing number of Israeli commentators writing in newspapers and speaking on television news programs, are openly calling for targeted military attacks on the civilian Palestinian population. According to a military expert from Hebrew University, who has close contacts with Israel’s ‘security establishment’, for example, Israel should take “deterrent action in the framework of which thousands and even tens of thousands of Palestinians will be killed.” (Yerushalayim, 1 March).

Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Israel has gradually increased the severity of its military attacks on the Palestinian people, in the same way that is has created so-called facts on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories through land expropriation and settlement construction. The invasion of Palestinian-controlled civilian areas, including refugee camps, and aerial bombardment by Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets have become a ‘regular’ occurance warranting no more than “dismay”, “concern” and other empty words with no practical importance or follow-up from the international community and top UN officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. The latest attacks on Palestinian refugee camps are part of this consistent pattern of escalation.