Three teenage girls, holding the hands of five younger children, gingerly wait near the open space at the entrance to the Balata refugee camp at the edge of the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday afternoon. The ambulance workers gathered at the edge of the camp use a lull in the sporadic shooting to send them across. The girls had fled their home the previous day, along with several hundred other residents, and had stayed with family in another refugee camp. "Our little sister is in the hospital," explains 15-year-old Jamila. "She was hit by falling stones when the Israelis blew up the wall of our house." Suddenly a loud explosion goes off nearby. Bursting into tears, the girls start running toward the relative shelter of the camp's narrow alleyways.
"This is total madness," was the first reaction of the leader of Israel's left-wing opposition, Yossi Sarid, to the news that the Israeli army, for the first time since its partial withdrawal from the occupied territories in the mid-1990s, had entered the refugee camps in autonomous Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Sarid pointedly warned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he called "someone who got burned at Sabra and Shatilla," to be very careful in the camps.
An outright massacre like that carried out by the Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian Forces in the Beirut refugee camps in 1983, for which Sharon was found by an official Israeli inquiry to bear indirect responsibility, is not going to happen. But after two days of incursions, house-to-house searches and clashes in the Jenin camp and the Balata camp near Nablus, the casualty list is growing. By the onset of the Jewish Shabbat, Friday evening, at least 20 Palestinians had been killed and hundreds wounded. On the Israeli side the toll included one dead and dozens of injured. Balata camp was largely isolated from the outside world, with most entrances being blocked by the army and power, water and telephone lines cut.
Apart from the occasional tank and bulldozer, Israeli soldiers can hardly be seen in Balata. Their primary tactic is blowing their way through the walls of adjacent houses in the densely built-up camp, thus avoiding getting trapped in the narrow alleys. That is how Jamila's little sister was hurt, when a piece of wall fell on her. The search seems to be systematic, and every advance is covered by a new burst of machine-gun fire and occasional shelling. But the Palestinian resistance largely melted away on Thursday afternoon, when most of the militants that the Israelis are looking for withdrew.
Israel's defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said that the operation against the camps is meant to stop "waves of suicide bombers" by flushing the militants out and capturing their weapons, thus delivering a blow against the "terrorist infrastructure." According to Ben-Eliezer, the army has "lately received information that the camps have become havens for terrorists." The attacks are also in retaliation for a recent escalation in attacks on settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories by Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, many of whose leaders are believed to be in the camps.
The U.S. avoided criticizing Israel, although U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the Israelis to exercise restraint and avoid civilian casualties. Most other reactions have been more outspoken, with the U.N. and European countries demanding an immediate end to the operations in the camp.
In Israel, the army has been under increasing pressure to deal with the camps, where militants have indeed felt relatively safe. Earlier this year, when troops reoccupied the whole West Bank city of Tulkarem, most of the wanted militants escaped to the nearby refugee camp, which was left alone. Israeli commentators have speculated that the army's restraint was motivated by fears of a high number of casualties among its own soldiers if they had to fight their way in. The commander of the troops on the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, said that the purpose of the current operations in Balata and Jenin camps is to show the terrorists that they have nowhere to hide.
In Balata, at least, that strategy seems not to have worked. Leaders of the Palestinian militants maintain that they have evacuated most of the wanted people from the camp. "We knew two weeks ago that they were going to do this," says Hussam Khader, the leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in Balata, senior commander of its Tanzim militia and a target for the Israelis. "We had plenty of time to prepare our resistance." Friday evening his house in Balata was still occupied and his family held virtually captive by the soldiers. "My three children, my wife, who is pregnant, and my sister are all held in one room, where they have no electricity or water," he says worriedly.
Khader has taken refuge at the house of friends in Nablus, where he constantly receives visitors and phone calls. "That was the American consulate," he says as he puts down his phone, clearly pleased with the attention. "I also talked to the U.N. and the E.U." He says that the initial armed resistance against the Israeli incursion was mostly symbolic, "to show that we cannot be pushed around, as a way of lifting the spirits of all the Palestinians. But at one point we ordered our fighters to withdraw and they all got out."
The Palestinians say that most of their casualties in Balata are innocent civilians. "We fought but most of us got away, with our weapons," says a commander of the militants who lies wounded in the Rafidiyeh hospital in Nablus and is known as Abu Ahmed. "We held them off until they started using helicopters." He is proud of Balata's role as a hothouse for anti-Israeli activists. "We are all refugees, and we resist the Israelis more than anyone else. Now that they cannot catch us they are just demolishing our homes and our possessions." He says that if the Israelis are still there in two days' time he will go back and fight, despite his wounds.
The Israelis say they have killed at least one senior leader of the Hamas movement in the Jenin camp, but most of the victims have been Palestinian policemen. Khader is scathing about the role the Palestinian Authority played in Balata. "They are afraid. They just sent the Israelis a fax saying they oppose the incursion. Each service symbolically sent 10 men to the camp, just as a show, and they withdrew the moment it started." Khader admits he was worried when he learned the incursion was coming: "the Israelis are led by a crazy general, Sharon, who is responsible for Sabra and Shatilla."
Israel's invasion of the camps seems certain to lead to yet another bloody reprisal in what has become an apparently endless cycle of violence. Khader said the Israeli operations in the camps would not go unpunished: "There will be attacks on settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories and maybe even on civilians in Israel," he predicted. Khader advocates armed action against the Israelis, but says he wants it to be limited to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "I don't support the attacks in Israel itself, but not every Palestinian reasons like a politician when his own home is under attack," he says.
In Balata the Israelis are still working their way through the camp. One of the camp's inhabitants watches their progress from the corner of an alleyway. "Just a few moments ago about 30 soldiers with dogs stormed into that house on the corner," he says. "That is the home of Abu Rijali, a decent man who is not involved in anything."
An old beaten-up Fiat with a cracked windscreen screeches to a halt in front of a U.N. clinic. A teenager lies slumped in the front seat, bleeding from a chest wound. His mother, covered in blood, gets out of the car and wails at the medics "Help him, help my son, he got hit by a bullet, in our own home." The doctors decide that the youth has to be evacuated to a hospital in Nablus and calls in an ambulance from the Red Crescent.
"What are they doing to us?" the mother cries while boarding the ambulance with her son.