Tuesday 30 April 2002

Talks continue on ending Ramallah standoff

By Matthew Kalman

30 April 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Bush administration was still working early Tuesday to finalize a deal to free Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a month-long Israeli military siege at his headquarters. Meanwhile, the standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem dragged into a fifth week. Also, Israel rejected a bid from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to allow fact-finders to investigate the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. Israeli officials want military veterans on the United Nations panel so they will understand what Jewish troops experienced.

Arafat, penned up at his offices by Israeli tanks and troops, could go free as early as Tuesday. Israeli officials on Monday said he could leave his bullet-riddled compound and travel in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza territory immediately.

"Arafat can go where he chooses," Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said. But Arafat said he would stay at his compound until Israeli forces left Ramallah. Those forces were not expected to pull out until six men wanted by Israel were transferred from Arafat's complex to a Palestinian prison in the West Bank city of Jericho.

The six men are to be kept under observation by U.S. and British monitors, under the Bush administration plan designed to get Israel to release its stranglehold on Arafat and withdraw troops from Ramallah.

Four of the six Palestinians are wanted for carrying out the October assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. A fifth heads an extremist group believed to have plotted the murder. Another is an Arafat aide accused of smuggling arms from Iran.

Jericho is the only West Bank city to escape major destruction in Israel's month-long offensive.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. monitors in Jericho will be security officials but not military personnel. U.S. and British officials say they are still choosing wardens to oversee the prisoners. Britain will provide the bulk of the personnel, who will be drawn from a pool with policing experience in war zones such as the Balkans and Northern Ireland.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the wardens would be unarmed. "Prime responsibility is on the Palestinian Authority to ensure the physical security of the facility and the personal security of our wardens," he said.

In Ramallah, some residents were preparing to celebrate once Arafat emerged from his compound, most of which has been razed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers.

"If Arafat is free and the Israelis withdraw, that means we have won a great victory and there will be a party, a big party," shopkeeper Taher Odwan said.

In related matters:

The Bush administration tried Monday to mediate an end to the standoff between Israeli troops outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and an estimated 200 Palestinians inside, many armed.

U.S. officials were hoping gunmen in the church would reconsider an earlier offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said they could go into exile or face trial in Israeli courts.

A Palestinian official said 18 civilians in the church would be allowed to leave soon. On Monday, an Israeli sniper killed an armed militant in the church garden.

Israel made fresh incursions in the West Bank city of Hebron and in the Gaza territory in search of the Palestinians who attacked a Jewish settlement. The army said it killed four militants, including one of the men involved in the settlement attack Saturday in which a 5-year-old girl and three other Israelis were shot to death by Palestinian assailants dressed as Israeli soldiers. Palestinians said the Israeli army killed at least eight people in Hebron and that some were civilians.

In Gaza, Israeli troops blew up tunnels believed to be used by Palestinian militants smuggling arms.

Israel voiced new objections to a U.N. fact-finding mission that is to report on its military assault on the Jenin refugee camp.

The camp was the scene of the bloodiest fighting during Israel's incursion in the West Bank. Israel vehemently denies Palestinian claims that scores of camp residents were massacred by its forces. Both the U.N. envoy in the Middle East and Secretary of State Colin Powell have said they know of no evidence of a massacre.

The U.N. and Israel argued over the mission since April 19. Israel wants military officials on the team who are familiar with urban warfare, and it insists the mission be limited to finding the facts only.

Contributing: Barbara Slavin in Washington and wire reports

Monday 1 April 2002

Killings of 'collaborators' rise

April 1, 2002

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

BETHLEHEM — Palestinians turned their guns on each other Monday when 11 men suspected of collaborating with Israel were executed. The executions came as Israel intensified its crackdown on West Bank cities it called "nests of Palestinian terror." Late Sunday and Monday, Israeli troops moved into Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem and the villages of Al Khader and Beit Jala. The killings of alleged collaborators, as Palestinians call them, have — like the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians — reached a new peak. Israel's incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas have unleashed an extraordinary wave of Palestinian anger at other Palestinians suspected of helping the enemy.

"Every time Israel attacks us, the crazy militants look for scapegoats and they are usually fellow Palestinians," said Osama Barakat, 41, a Palestinian shop owner in Bethlehem. "It doesn't make a difference if these people are guilty or not. This killing is out of control."

The corpses of eight Palestinian men were discovered early Monday in Tulkarem, a West Bank city. Witnesses said two masked gunmen entered a Palestinian intelligence building where the men were being held and summarily shot them. Their bodies were then dragged outside into the street.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said its gunmen had murdered them.

The bullet-riddled bodies of two men were found in a side street in Qalqilya. The discovery was made as Israeli troops seized control of the town with about 60 tanks and several hundred infantry soldiers.

Local residents said the two men had been held in a Palestinian jail for a year on suspicion of collaborating with Israeli authorities.

A man was fatally shot in Bethlehem after he was accused of sending intelligence to Israel by e-mail. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said it also carried out that killing. The group also had claimed responsibility for the deaths of two suspected collaborators in March in Bethlehem.

The past month has seen a dramatic increase in the number of suspected Palestinian collaborators killed. In March, 10 were killed. In comparison, 24 suspected collaborators died from the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 to March.

Analysts suggest the number of murders rose because Palestinians feared that the suspected collaborators might have been rescued when Israeli troops moved in.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat described the killings as "very, very unfortunate," but he did not condemn them.

He said the Israeli actions were undermining the ability of the Palestinian Authority to maintain law and order in the territories.

"It shows that (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is destroying our ability, destroying the Palestinian Authority," Erekat said. "I don't want to justify such things. These things are not justifiable, honestly. That's the result of what Sharon is doing. Where is our authority today amid all these tanks and all these attacks?"

To most Palestinians, a collaborator is considered a betrayer to the cause of Palestinian independence and statehood.

"There is absolutely no greater crime against the Palestinian people," said Sana Madani, 21, a student in Nablus. "The people are worse than dogs. They deserve to die."

The crime is considered so great that some accused collaborators are tried or killed without evidence. Many Palestinian lawyers refuse to defend an alleged collaborator for fear of reprisals.

"People are convicted and killed without any of the standards of international law," said Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in Jerusalem. "They are sometimes caught, tried, convicted and killed in the same day."

While collaborators are considered pariahs in Palestinian society, Israeli security officials see them as a necessity.

Government officials credit collaborators — "Israeli agents" — with helping them locate and assassinate dozens of suspected Muslim militants since the Palestinian uprising started. They also say collaborators give them information on the location and strengths of Palestinian militias.

"Israel would not be as successful in hunting down terrorists if we did not have the participation of (collaborators)," said an Israeli security official who goes by the name Abu Issa. "These men have become our eyes and ears in the territories."

In exchange for their information, Israel pays collaborators up to $120 a week. That's more than double the amount most Palestinians earn in a month. They also are offered loans, employment, housing, building licenses and government identification cards. All of these are nearly impossible for many Palestinians to obtain because of Israel's control over the area.

On Monday, Israeli troops remained in Ramallah, where Arafat was surrounded in his headquarters.

The chief of Arafat's Fatah faction in Lebanon threatened to launch attacks against U.S. interests if the Palestinian leader is harmed by Israel.

"If one hair on the head of Arafat is harmed," Sultan Abul-Aynayn told the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, "the U.S. had better protect its interests around the world. I mean what I am saying."

Contributing: Jack Kelley in Washington