On West Bank, fear of 'dangerous precedent'

More than 1,000 males were temporarily removed from the Tulkarem Refugee Camp last week.

Removed from the spotlight, the Middle East's other war has turned crueler.

Last week saw the first mass expulsion of Palestinian civilians since fighting with Israel broke out more than two years ago.

Many Palestinians have been worried Israel would take advantage of the Iraq war to take harsher actions in the occupied territories. Israeli peace activists are calling this expulsion of between 1,000 and 2,000 males from the Tulkarem Refugee Camp an "extremely dangerous" precedent.

The army says the expulsion was largely for the good of the Palestinians, so they would not be harmed during operations, and stresses that it lasted only until the military activity in the camp was completed.

The three-day action ended with an announcement that troops had arrested Anwar Alian, an Islamic Jihad leader the army says was about to dispatch a suicide bomber against an Israeli target. An assistant of Mr. Alian was also arrested, along with 21 people the Israeli army described as "wanted."

"If I have to choose between a car bomb and 2,000 people being uncomfortable, I definitely prefer that they be uncomfortable," the commander of the operation, Col. David Menachem, told Israel's Y-net news service. Last Sunday, 30 Israelis were injured by a suicide bombing claimed by Islamic Jihad in the city of Netanya.

Tired, unshaven, and wearing dirty shirts and a fresh layer of bitterness, the men of Tulkarem Camp trickled back home Friday, two days after being forced onto a huge vehicle that, accompanied by jeeps, shuttled back and forth to another refugee camp, Nur al-Shams.

The Palestinians say they were deposited at the camp's entrance and warned not to go home until the army operation was over.

For the men, it was a new episode in a drama of expulsions, flight, and fear that has dominated the Palestinian collective memory since 1948, when many Palestinians were expelled by Jewish forces during the first Arab-Israeli war. In some instances, the Palestinians were told by troops to leave for only a few days, but were never allowed to return.

The Israeli government includes far-right ministers who espouse "transfer," a euphemism for expulsions of Palestinians. The idea has never been repudiated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, though he said last year that it was "not practical" because of international constraints.

Ramzi Hussein says that even though the Israeli soldiers told them the trucks were going to Nur al-Shams, no one knew whether to believe that. He said he thought they would be taken to Jordan.

Mr. Hussein said the operation started at 3 a.m. Wednesday. "There were three helicopters which dropped sound bombs. We felt the houses shaking. The soldiers announced on loudspeakers that all the men between 15 and 40 had to go to the UN school. Each person had to lift his shirt to show he did not have explosives. We crouched on the ground, and the soldiers one after another blindfolded us and tied up our hands. After an hour, they took off the blindfolds. They checked our identity cards using a computer. A Druze officer said to all of us: 'You are good people, but because one of you shot at us, everyone gets punished. If no one opens fire at us, this will not happen.' "

Mr. Hussein said he did not want to board the truck, but "they have guns, what could we do?"

Colonel Menachem, the army commander, said: "There was a possibility of keeping them all under arrest for three days or of inconveniencing them and sending them out of the camp on the assumption that they would be all right because of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. We were in the vicinity of the camp for several days and at no point was there any group of people who were left out in the street. They all found a place to go."

The Israeli human rights group B'tselem said the expulsion of the Palestinians was a violation of the Geneva Convention. B'tselem spokesman Lior Yavne said that since no women or children were told to leave, the move could not have been to protect the people in the camp.

Uri Avnery, a left-wing former Knesset member, termed the Tulkarem operation "an army exercise and test to see how the world, the media, and the Israeli public would react. And there was no reaction, which proves that it can be done. The people on the trucks could easily have been taken to the Jordan River bridges or to Nablus."

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