Amid Israeli attack, tales of abuse

As Israel pulled out of some West Bank towns Thursday, Jenin, a center of Palestinian militancy, remained closed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From a rocky olive orchard above this West Bank village, Jenin and its refugee camp seemed placid Thursday. Almost nothing moved. A few Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled along deserted streets. Inside the camp, two burning buildings sent streams of smoke into a hazy sky.

But here in Burqin and several other nearby villages, refugees from Israel's 10-day-old invasion of Jenin and its camp spoke loudly and incessantly of horrors: a cigarette stubbed out on a man's skin, five young men executed in plain sight, mass burials by bulldozer.

Sitting down to relate her story yesterday, Atra Nijmi looked at a handful of reporters and burst into tears. Her words came in torrents as well. "They destroyed the house, they killed children and they killed boys," she said, the "they" being Israeli soldiers.

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"There's no water, nothing to clean clothes with," she continued. "The airplanes bombed, night and day."

Although Israeli troops withdrew yester- day from 24 villages in the West Bank, they remain in major population centers in their campaign to root out the "infrastructure of terror." In meetings in Israel today, Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to press Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw, but Mr. Sharon has made it clear the operations will continue until his government determines they are completed.

The Israelis acknowledge that they have faced bitter resistance in Jenin's refugee camp – hundreds of armed fighters who used rifles, grenades, mines, and in one case, a suicide bomber, to fight Israel's advance. But Israeli spokesmen also vehemently deny Palestinian assertions that a massacre has occurred there.

The Israeli military said that a final group of three-dozen Palestinian fighters surrendered in the camp yesterday morning, apparently solidifying Israel's control over the area.

Israeli officials say their soldiers operate with the utmost concern for civilians they encounter. "Strict orders were issued," says Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli military's chief spokesman. "Hold back the fire the moment you see or feel civilian families."

General Kitrey says Palestinian militants "have chosen deliberately the environment of civilian neighborhoods" to conduct their battles against Israeli soldiers. But civilians who have fled the camp say it is Israel that has moved beyond the pale in prosecuting what its leaders describe as a war on terror.

There is no way to corroborate the accounts now emerging from the Jenin refugee camp, in part because Israel continues to bar foreign journalists from the area, as well as from many other parts of the West Bank. Yesterday scores of reporters and television crews sought entry to Jenin, only to be turned away at Israeli checkpoints ringing the area.

Difficult to observe

Some who made it into the town were detained, and others found it nearly impossible to work in a situation where they feared arrest or worse. Michael Keating, a UN official who entered the town and was denied entry to the refugee camp, said by telephone that Jenin "is pretty smashed up – it's much worse than Ramallah."

That city, the cultural and economic hub of the West Bank, has been occupied by Israel soldiers since March 29. Israeli forces control most of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters.

Mr. Keating said UN and other humanitarian organizations were hearing reports of "a very traumatized population" in the Jenin refugee camp. That term aptly describes Ms. Nijmi, who fled the camp Wednesday afternoon and came to stay in Burqin.

Nijmi said the Palestinian cause had suffered another 200 "martyrs" in the camp. Israel estimates the Palestinian death toll at about 100.

In Israel's reckoning, the Palestinian dead are terrorists who have been killed resisting the advance of Israeli troops. Nijmi couldn't account for the 200, but said she and other bystanders witnessed Israeli troops executing five unarmed young men on Wednesday morning.

The young men had hidden in their homes rather than obey the orders of Israeli soldiers that men and boys come out for questioning. When the men were eventually discovered, the punishment for disobedience was death. She said the Israeli soldiers dragged the bodies away.

Nijmi also said the Israeli soldiers had buried 13 bodies at a hospital, five at a mosque, and 15 to 20 bodies in mass graves dug by bulldozers. She said she had heard nothing from her husband and teenage son since they were taken away by Israeli soldiers on April 3.

In the village of Rummane, men from the Jenin camp who have been detained and released by Israeli forces have made the local mosque their home. Amjad Khazem, a television repairman, holds up his arms as evidence of his experience.

Evidence of brutalities

Both wrists are encircled with welts and wounds, which Mr. Khazem says were caused by the plastic manacles Israeli soldiers used to bind his hands. Other ex-detainees cluster around to tell reporters about Israeli soldiers battering their way through houses, breaking furniture for no discernable reason, and using civilians as human shields.

Detained on April 5, soldiers manacled Khazem, stripped him to his underwear, and blindfolded him, he says. During repeated interrogations, Israeli investigators demanded to know whether he belonged to Hamas, which has been responsible for dozens of attacks against Israelis. Khazem says he is not a Hamas member, and repeatedly told the Israelis as much.

Moved from house to house, often kept on buses for hours at a time, Khazen says there was no food, no water, and no opportunity for him and his fellow detainees to relieve themselves. Denied access to a toilet, he said, he had no choice but to urinate on himself.

In one house, Khazem said he pulled down his blindfold and saw an Israeli soldier stub a cigarette out on the skin of a detainee who had ignored an order not to smoke.

After releasing Khazem on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers left him at a crossroads outside Jenin, shoeless and still wearing only underwear. For the first and only time in four days, they cut off the manacles.

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