The question hung over the concrete rubble and twisted iron support rods, the ruined buildings where Palestinians said three young men were killed when the Israeli army demolished them this week.
Is the Israeli military taking advantage of a time when the world is not paying attention to what is going on here, when media coverage is focusing on Iraq, to step up its campaign in the occupied territories?
In the past week, while the world’s press focused on the UN security council and Baghdad, the violence has suddenly surged. In six days, at least 30 Palestinians have been killed in a series of Israeli operations, chiefly in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Nablus.
The dead have been a combination of unarmed civilians, armed militants, members of the legitimate Palestinian security forces and one a medic trying to reach a sick patient.
But this week’s violence was not a response to a suicide bombing or an attack by Palestinian gunmen in Israel.
Inside Israel, the situation has been at its most calm for months. There have been no suicide bombings. Nobody has been killed in a militant attack.
The Israeli army began this week’s offensive after four Israeli soldiers were killed when Hamas set fire to an Israeli tank guarding a Jewish settlement inside the occupied Gaza Strip.
Lior Yavne, a spokesman for B’Tselem, one of Israel’s most respected human rights organisations said yesterday: “As soon as it became clear to us that there were going to be elections in Israel followed by a probable war in Iraq it was very clear to us that these months would be very difficult in the occupied territories. One of the only things that can restrain Israeli policy in the occupied territories is international public opinion.”
The upsurge in violence has been so drastic it has attracted international attention. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, said in a statement yesterday he was “extremely concerned” at Palestinian deaths in Gaza. “Such indiscriminate use of force in civilian areas can never be justified,” he said, and urged Israel “to cease such actions which can damage any possible peace process in the region”. He appealed to all parties to refrain from any further violent action.
Even the US State Department was critical of this week’s Israeli military operations. “We remain very concerned about civilian casualties … especially among Palestinian children and young people,” said Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman. “These casualties continue to result from Israeli military actions.”
A week of bloodshed began when Hamas militants succeeded in setting fire to an Israeli tank outside the Jewish settlement of Dugit in the Gaza Strip with a massive explosive charge hidden by the roadside. Desperate attempts by the Israeli army to put out the fire could not save four soldiers trapped inside. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, promised Israel would “strike hard at our enemy Hamas”.
Six Hamas militants were killed in a mysterious explosion in the Gaza Strip. Hamas said they were trying to adapt a model aeroplane they had obtained from across the fence in Israel to carry explosives for use in attacks, and accused the Israeli military of booby-trapping the aeroplane and murdering the men. The Israeli army did not comment on their deaths.
The same day, Tayseer Khalil, a representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction that does not support attacks on Israeli civilians, was arrested by soldiers in Nablus. Palestinian gunmen fired on the soldiers trying to arrest him and four Palestinians were killed in the gun battle. Palestinian witnesses claimed the dead men were civilians, not gunmen.
Hamas activist, Riyad abu Zeid, was killed when undercover Israeli soldiers hiding in a vegetable van ambushed his car on the Gaza coast road. The Israeli army claimed the soldiers intended to capture Mr abu Zeid and opened fire when they saw him reach for his gun. Palestinians accused the army of assassinating him.
In the past the Israeli army has openly admitted a policy of assassinating Palestinian militants. “I can’t be certain,” said Mr Yavne of B’Tselem, “but I have noticed over the last few months the army has claimed a lot more people have been killed while trying to escape.” On the same day, 35 Israeli tanks and helicopters entered the Gaza Strip and soldiers demolished the house of Ahmad Ghadnour, another Hamas militant. Two Palestinians were killed in the gun battle as militants attacked the soldiers, one reportedly a suspected militant, the other a Palestinian policeman, legitimately armed under the Oslo peace accords.
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported that the Israeli army was starting a new offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and that instead of reoccupying the densely populated strip, as it has cities in the West Bank, it would stick to assassinations and raids.
Mohammed al-Mur became the eighth Hamas activist to be killed in three days when he was shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Yatta, near Hebron. The Israeli army said he had barricaded himself in his house and soldiers opened fire because they believed he was armed. But his uncle, Mahmoud, said the soldiers shot him without provocation. “He ran away and they shot him in the leg,” he said. “He carried on to another house. There, the soldiers shot him dead.” The same day the Israeli army swept back into the old city of Nablus, searching house by house for militants and arms caches.
On the bloodiest day of the week, 11 Palestinians died in an Israeli incursion into Gaza City. The dead included Mundur Safadi, a Palestinian medic shot dead as he accompanied his brother, Dr Ra’ed Safadi, who was trying to reach a patient with heart problems. According to Dr Safadi, who was injured, they were deliberately shot by a sniper.
They also included three young men killed when the Israeli army demolished two buildings, according to Palestinian witnesses, who said the men had evacuated the buildings when ordered to by the Israeli army, but returned too soon to a third building next door, which was also damaged. Accounts of how the three died differed – some said there was a second explosion at the building, others that a helicopter fired at them – but there was a smear of blood amid the ruins.
The Israeli army said the aim of the incursion was to destroy metal workshops it claimed were used by Hamas to build rockets to fire at Israeli towns. That evening Hamas fired three rockets at the nearby town of Sderot, injuring three Israelis.
The dead in the raid also included two Hamas militants and one from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who were killed in fighting, and three members of Palestinian intelligence, a legitimate security force, killed when their car was hit by machine-gunfire.
The same day in Nablus, 93-year-old Mustafa abu Safieh accused an Israeli soldier of shooting his son Nasser dead in cold blood. Mr abu Safieh said they were stopped and searched by soldiers, then told to move on. As they moved away a soldier killed his son. The Israeli said he was shot dead because he did not halt when ordered to.
A second Palestinian was shot dead throwing stones at soldiers, according to Palestinians. The army said he threw a firebomb. Also in Nablus, a Welsh medical volunteer, Anne Gwynne, 65, said an Israeli soldier deliberately fired at her and a Palestinian ambulance driver she was accompanying.
In Nablus, 61-year-old Ahmad abu Zahra and his 17-year-old grandson of the same name were shot dead while on the streets of Nablus old city during a curfew, according to Palestinian witnesses.
Yesterday two Palestinians were killed in attempted attacks in Gaza, both claimed by Islamic Jihad. One tried to throw grenades at soldiers, the other tried to break into the Jewish settlement of Dugit.
Tens of thousands joined the funeral of Riyad abu Zeid, vowing to avenge the 30 deaths. “Sharon, prepare the coffins,” they shouted. “Revenge is coming soon, in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.”
Israel divides Bethlehem with a wall of concrete, fear and suspicion
As you arrive from Jerusalem, the first street of Bethlehem, lined with old, carved limestone houses, is deserted. Where the tourists used to throng, the restaurants are boarded up. In a few months, a high concrete wall will run down the middle of this street, blocking a neighbourhood of Bethlehem from the rest of the city.
The inhabitants here, predominantly from Bethlehem’s fast-dwindling Palestinian Christian community, will be cut off from their city by a concrete wall guarded by Israeli army patrols. They will be allowed to cross into Bethlehem only through an Israeli army checkpoint, with permits the army can issue or withhold as it sees fit. They will not be allowed into Jerusalem, on the other side of the pocket of land they will be walled off in.
Amjad Awwad will be cut off from the mini-market he runs. His house is on one side of the street, the mini-market on the other. After the wall is built he will need the Israeli army’s permission to go to work and to go home again. But that is not his only worry.
“They told us if you want a doctor in the night the hospital will have to phone the Israeli government and arrange permission for him to be allowed in. If it’s a heart attack, we’ll die before they allow the ambulance in.”
After the wall is built, the Bethlehem municipality will even need military permission to send trucks to collect the rubbish. The wall is part of what has become known as Israel’s “Berlin Wall”, electrified fences and concrete walls the Israeli government is building around the West Bank to seal it off and stop Palestinian militants crossing into Israel.
Here, as elsewhere, the wall is not following the 1967 border but dipping deep into the West Bank. The reason it is slicing into Bethlehem, say Israeli authorities, is so Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish pilgrimage site inside the city, will be on the Israeli side of the wall, guaranteeing easy access for pilgrims.
For the 500 or so people who will be cut off from the rest of Bethlehem, the wall is a disaster. The order to build it was announced this week, while the world’s attention was on Iraq. The Israeli cabinet decision to include Rachel’s Tomb was made public on 11 September, the anniversary terrorist attacks on America.
No coincidence, says the Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, who will be cut off from his relatives by the wall. His son-in-law lives in the area that will be walled off.
“Why do they need the wall?” he asks. “That whole area around Rachel’s Tomb is already under full Israeli control under the Oslo Accords.”
The tomb is already surrounded by a concrete wall, and there are Israeli army guard-posts on top of the buildings around it.
“Why do they need it unless they have hidden intentions?” says Mr Nasser, suggesting the real reason for walling off the area is to force the people to leave, so the land can be annexed to Israel.
That sentiment is echoed by Dr Jad Issac, of the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, a Palestinian organisation that makes maps of Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories using satellite images it buys commercially. They show Bethlehem being surrounded by fences to protect new settlement suburbs of Jerusalem built in the occupied West Bank.
“There will be no room for Bethlehem to expand naturally,” Dr Issac says. “The population density will become so high people will start leaving freely. We will be forced to migrate.”