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16 - 22 November 2000
Issue No.508
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Crushing the Intifada -- phase two

By Graham Usher

"I don't think the Israelis want to reoccupy Beit Sahour," says Munir Badra, one of its residents. "They just want it cleared of Palestinians." We were standing before the four-storied residence of Fathi Hanish, one of those gorgeous white-stone and pillared houses that dot this mainly Christian village next door to Bethlehem. Or rather it was his residence. Today the four floors are collapsed one on top of the other like so much papier mâché. Through the debris, you can see a candelabrum, swaying in the breeze. Behind this, there is an unmade bed and a fallen rocking horse.

An Israeli tank shell hit the house for the first time on 20 October. Since then, eight other houses in the neighbourhood -- and by the same means -- have been destroyed and 120 damaged, leaving 130 Palestinian families temporarily homeless and eight permanently so. A random trawl through the area proves these figures are anything but exaggerated: one house has had its roof blown off, another its garage doors blasted through and there is not a single wall on any home without a rash of bullet holes.

The neighbourhood's crime is to be within Kalashnikov machine gun range of Shdema camp (known locally as "The Crow's Nest"), an Israeli military base that squats in the heart of Beit Sahour. "According to the Oslo agreements, the camp should have been transferred to the Palestinian Authority two years ago. But the army refused to give it up," says Badra. "We now understand why." For the task of the crows today is to implement what Israeli military correspondents quite openly call the "first stage" of quelling the Palestinian Intifada, now in its sixth week. In the words of Issa Qamsieh, another Beit Sahour resident, the aim is "to push the village back" from bases like Shdema and the Jewish settlements by flattening any building that could be used by Palestinian fighters and punishing any community that has the temerity to host them.

That' s the first stage. The second comes a few minutes later. We are driving along Snieh Street, called habitually the "front-line," and Badra is reeling off a brisk history of Beit Sahour. "It's probably the main Christian village in the West Bank. According to one study, it has more Master Degrees per population size than any other village in the Middle East, including Israel. It was a bastion of Palestinian nationalism in the first Intifada. And, yes, it has been active in this one too."

Suddenly he stops, and brakes hard. Two dull thuds are heard in the distance. In the blue, cloudless sky we can see four helicopters. Then there is silence. People emerge from their houses and gardens onto the street. "That's a spotter plane," says Badra, pointing at a black speck in the azure. "That means they've [the Israelis] have targeted someone."

We follow the crowd along the edge of a field, and flow down a hill to within hailing distance of the military base. There are Palestinian soldiers and ambulances everywhere. And there is the gutted shell of a van, its doors blown out and its interior a mangle of metal, leather and blood. Beside the wreck there is a punctured cistern, endlessly cascading water.

Suddenly, a shot rings out, and the crowd surges back up the hill. Women cup their faces in terror. One soldier drags along the road the smoking carcass of one of the missiles that hit the car. Another man rests on a wall, his head in his hands, and a shirtsleeve soaked in blood. The helicopters have vanished. The assassination is over.

As what seems like the entire village streamed toward the car, we headed for Al-Hussein hospital in the sister village of Beit Jala. Amid a crowd of press, PA officials and distraught relatives, the rumours here are hammered into cold, terrifying facts. One of helicopters fired a missile into a civilian car, killing Hussein Abayat, seriously wounding his passenger Khaled Salahat and injuring 10 civilians, including a nurse and ambulance driver.

Two women, Aziza Danoun, aged 58 and mother of six children, and Rahma Shaban, aged 52 and mother of three children, had been behind the van. They were caught in a shock of shrapnel and died from their injuries. "I can't describe the state she was in; she was torn apart," said Naji Danoun, Aziza's 63-year-old husband.

As for Abayat, he was a lapsed leader of Yasser Arafat' s Fatah movement in the Bethlehem area, who had become newly active in the field in the heat of the uprising. Salahat was a popular activist in Fatah's " Shabiba" youth movement and a member of the Palestinian Authority' s General Intelligence Service.

In the immediate aftermath of the hit, the Israeli Army issued two statements. The first was that the helicopters "responded" to firing upon them. The second was that Abayat was on the way to conduct an "armed operation" and that the car was packed with explosives. Both statements were untrue. Abayat and Salahat had been visiting a newly damaged house just up the hill from Fathi Hanish's. And prior to the thuds from the helicopters Beit Sahour had been as quiet as the morning.

But the fact was that Israel was now implementing the "second phase" of "ending" the Intifada, a policy of executing in cold blood and with South Lebanese Army-like precision any leader, whether from Fatah or anywhere else, it deems to be in the van of the uprising. It was left to Fatah leader in Bethlehem, Salah Tamari, to state both the obvious and the consequence.

"What happened in Beit Sahour was a premeditated plan to assassinate a Fatah member. There was no provocation. There were no clashes. There was only the rekindling of an enormous rage. And that rage says those who kill our people are no longer going to get away with get it," Tamari said.

Related stories:
The cost of weakness
Genocide in slow motion 9 -15 November 2000
Hebron under siege 9 -15 November 2000
See Intifada in focus 26 Oct. - 1 Nov. 2000
Intifada special 19 - 25 October 2000
Palestine pages 12 - 18 October 2000

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