UN warns of West Bank 'horror'

A high-profile UN mission to investigate human rights abuses in the Mideast may begin today.

Amal Azzeh considers herself lucky compared with many of the approximately 300,000 Palestinians who have come under renewed Israeli army occupation.

The Azzehs, who live in Beit Jubrin Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, had stocked up on food before Israeli tanks conquered the area nine days ago and the army put the camp under a strict curfew. Her brother, Yunis, who lives outside the camp, did not. "He does not have enough bread to eat, and you can generalize that this is the case for much of the population, especially for people who have children."

Amid mounting charges by human rights groups of abuses by Israeli troops, UN human rights chief Mary Robinson plans to start a Middle East fact-finding mission as early as Tuesday evening or tomorrow, her spokeswoman said yesterday. The mission, which is pending Israeli approval, includes former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and South African businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. The mission's mandate includes reporting on suicide bombings, and it will also examine human rights in the West Bank, which is currently under assault by Israeli troops.

UN officials yesterday described a situation of "pure horror" in northern West Bank camps, with strafing from Israeli helicopters, corpses piling up and ambulances and food trucks being barred by the army.

"There is a humanitarian disaster in the making," says Richard Cook, West Bank field director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Israel launched the incursions after a devastating series of suicide bombings, including one on Passover eve in Netanya that killed 27 people at a religious gathering. Diplomatic pressure from the US has failed to slow the assault, and Israeli army officials say it is dealing a blow to "terrorist infrastructure" through arrests of those involved in attacks and the seizure of weapons. About 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested, with 261 of those previously wanted by Israeli security forces, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday.

Army officials say that care is being taken to avoid harming civilians, but that Palestinian fighters deliberately "operate from within large population centers and therefore cause innocent civilians to be drawn into the line of fire."

Concern over the plight of Palestinian civilians is heightened by Israel's track record of causing, in the view of human rights groups, many avoidable deaths of civilians by using excessive force, and its failure to complete investigations against troops for alleged misuse of weapons. The fact that it has barred reporters and human rights field workers from the areas it invaded is also fueling concern.

Six human rights groups gathered in Jerusalam Sunday, including Amnesty International, Israel's B'tselem organization, and the Palestinian LAW organization and said that based on the limited information they could garner, the civilian population is being greatly harmed. One group, the World Organization Against Torture, called for European economic sanctions against Israel.

Jessica Montell, director of B'tselem said: "There are very severe allegations from refugee camps, many of which cannot be verified. But there is a great deal we know: large-scale casualties, very severe interruptions of medical treatment to the injured, tremendous suffering to the civilian population, torture of detainees." The prime minister's office declined to comment on B'tselem's allegations, based on reports from soldiers, that interrogators at the Ofer army base are breaking the toes of Palestinians.

Ms. Azzeh, speaking as shooting resounded nearby, says camp residents have had no chance to buy food. The only break in the curfew came when it was lifted Saturday for two hours. But, she says, soldiers shot and wounded several people during the break, and residents rushed home without the much-needed supplies.

Medicines have also run out, Azzeh says. On Saturday, a girl in the camp had an epilectic fit, she said. Only with the intervention of foreigners did they manage to get medicine – after a two-to-three-hour delay. "This is a small thing," she says. "The suffering here in general is that you cannot breathe the air. If there are tanks nearby, you can't even look out the window. You may get shot."

Peter Hansen, director of the UN agency that operates in Palestinian refugee camps, amplified the criticisms of the human rights groups yesterday, saying of the Balata and Jenin camps in the northern West Bank: "We are getting reports of pure horror – that helicopters are strafing civilian residential areas, that systematic shelling by tanks has created hundreds of wounded, that bulldozers are razing refugee homes and that food and medicine will soon run out. In the name of human decency the Israeli military must allow our ambulances safe passage to help evacuate the wounded and deliver emergency supplies of medicine and food."

On the only occasion where ambulance access was officially permitted, the vehicle was shot at, UN officials say. They add that bodies are piling up in the corridors of Jenin hospital and are strewn in the streets of the refugee camp. Additionally, the operating theater at the hospital has run out of oxygen, and the supply of medicines is about to run out.

Raanan Gissin, the spokesman for Sharon, says troops must inspect ambulances because Palestinians have used them to transport weapons. "This slows down their movement, but the Palestinians have only themselves to blame," he said.

Israeli army officials add that soldiers do all they can "to prevent harming innocent civilians and provide them with necessary humanitarian assistance." The officials said that the army has supplied food, water, and medicine to cities in which combat is taking place and that it facilitates humanitarian aid by international organizations "when circumstances allow."

Gissin accused human rights groups of allowing themselves to be manipulated to serve the Palestinian cause. "We are seeing a recycling of lies," he said. "Every time the Palestinians have a problem, they get these tendentious reports to be issued," he said.

David Kimche, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, said: "Unfortunately the statements by the human rights groups won't have a big effect. What can have impact is what the United States is saying and doing."

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