As Sharon Declares War Peace Groups Struggle


As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broadened his military offensive on the West Bank Sunday against what he called Yasser Arafat’s “terrorist infrastructure,” peace and human rights groups in the region were struggling to respond to the carnage on both sides of the green line. In Jerusalem, several Israeli peace groups announced they will march to protest what they called “Sharon’s war” Monday along the outskirts of Ramallah, which has been completely occupied by Israeli forces since Friday. Several hundred protestors demonstrated in Jerusalem Friday night.

The same groups have reported sending activists into Ramallah where they are working with Palestinian and international volunteers who are trying to provide medical services to the beleaguered Arab population there. Gush Shalom, a key peace group, reported a “huge shortage” of basic foods in the city, as well as “widespread looting of supermarkets and banks.” Scores of Palestinian men and boys have reportedly been detained.

At the same time, the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Mustafa Barghouti, reported that five of 22 Palestinian policemen who tried to surrender to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) were shot and killed near Ramallah’s center Sunday. Several ambulances which tried to reach the wounded were turned back by Israeli forces, Barghouti said.

The bodies of five other members of the Palestinian security forces were found in a Ramallah building Saturday morning. All five had been shot in the head under circumstances which, according to the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, suggested summary execution. The IDF denied the charges.

Also on Sunday, a U.S. reporter from the Boston Globe was also shot in the shoulder in Ramallah in an area apparently under the control of the IDF which said it was investigating the incident. The IDF had declared Ramallah a “closed zone” to journalists, a decree which drew sharp protest from the Foreign Press Association in Israel.

The latest incidents came after Palestinian suicide bombers struck twice Sunday. At a café in the northern Israeli port of Haifa, at least 16 people were killed when a bomber blew himself up, while, in a second incident a short time later, a second bomber attacked an office in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, close to Bethlehem on the West Bank. Four people were reported wounded, including one critically, and the attacker was killed in the blast.

The two attacks brought to five the number of suicide bombings since last Wednesday’s “Passover Massacre,” a suicide bombing which killed as many as 20 people at a Passover dinner in a Netanya hotel and sparked the latest escalation in Israel’s response.

Most of Israel’s retaliation was directed at Ramallah, and particularly on Arafat’s headquarters there, most of which were destroyed on Friday and Saturday. Sharon and other top Israeli officials have said they have no intention of hurting the Palestinian leader, but some 30 international volunteers, mostly from European nations, arrived at his compound Sunday to act as a “human shield” to protect him.

After the two suicide bombings yesterday, Sharon ordered the IDF to occupy Qalqilya, a town of 35,000 close to Netanya. In a speech to the nation, Sharon said Israel was “at war” with Arafat who he said was “an enemy of the free world” who headed a “coalition of terror.”

Peace groups have reacted with both anger and despair at Sharon’s offensive. “The occupation of Ramallah did not, and could not, put an end to suicide bombings,” Gush Shalom declared late Sunday. “On the contrary, it increased and exacerbated them, as witness the terrible bombing in Haifa.”

It said only the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza could halt the current “cycle of violence.”

On the Palestinian side, a group of well-known intellectuals and public figures, including Barghouti and former spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi issued an “urgent call to world civil society” Friday night warning that the current offensive was likely to lead to “disastrous consequences.”

It appealed for civil society groups around the world to “raise your voices to break the conspiracy of silence among governments that allows Israel, which enjoys the unlimited and unconditional support of the U.S., to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law with impunity.”

In a brief statement Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush blamed Arafat for the current wave of violence and called on the Palestinian leader–who, at that moment, was without power, water, or communication in his besieged Ramallah offices–to do more to stop the suicide attacks.

Other world leaders have called for Israel to immediately withdraw from Ramallah as was demanded in a resolution unanimously approved by members of the United Nations Security Council, including the U.S., in the pre-dawn hours Saturday morning.

Bush’s refusal to criticize Sharon or call for a withdrawal came under strong attack, particularly from Arab leaders who last week at an Arab League summit in Beirut for the first time pledged to normalize relations with Israel in return for its complete pull-out from the occupied territories.

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