An Apache helicopter hovers over the ironically named "Pleasure Forest" between Jenin and this hilltop Palestinian village, several miles away. "That is where the soldiers made me and my children wait for two and a half hours without food or water," recounts Khitam Kamel, a 34-year old mother of 11, who fled the Jenin refugee camp last Tuesday, a week after Israeli forces launched their assault on the town. "What happened to us and to our people in the camp, I cannot tell you, it was terrible. Now I will gladly give the last of my children as martyrs until we liberate ourselves."
It's the kind of rhetoric often heard from people in the conflict. As an indication of the frayed tempers on both sides, though, it offers a stark warning of the difficulties U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to encounter during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas. Powell landed in Tel-Aviv on Thursday night, just as Israeli troops declared they'd finally broken the fierce resistance in the Jenin refugee camp, at a terrible price in lives and property. It was also less than 36 hours after Israel suffered yet another lethal suicide bombing, despite its "anti-terror" sweep through the West Bank. The secretary of state may want to talk politics, but attitudes on both sides have hardened yet again over the last couple of days, and the talk is of war, not peace.
"What is the government doing?" shouted an agitated Nissim Silvani on Wednesday in Haifa's Rambam hospital, where the Israeli minister of health, Nissim Dahan, was visiting the people wounded in the latest Palestinian suicide attack. Silvani's son was one of 18 people wounded in the attack on the Haifa-to-Jerusalem bus that claimed the lives of eight Israelis. "Why don't we just finish off the terrorists, why don't we do more?" Silvani asked the minister.
Dahan laid the blame on the international community's pressure on Israel to desist. "If there are more victims like these, the United States government, President Bush and also Colin Powell -- who want us to stop the operation -- will be held responsible," Dahan told the families of the wounded outside the operating room of the Haifa hospital.
On the eve of Powell's arrival in Tel-Aviv, Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, sounded uncompromising as ever, even though he acknowledged U.S. concerns. "They (the Americans) have problems in the region, that's true, but I informed them that our activity will continue -- and it will continue," said Sharon. His foreign minister, Shimon Peres -- who is considered a dove and claims to be a moderating influence in the government -- warned that the military operation could go on for another three weeks.
Israel did withdraw from some two dozen small towns and villages on the West Bank, as a gesture before Powell's arrival, but invaded some others. Sharon pledged to continue to occupy the main population centers, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah, until the job of rooting out the "terrorist infrastructure" was complete.
Despite this defiant tone, and maybe to soften Sharon up ahead of Powell's visit, the White House offered less stern words than in previous statements this week. "The president has, does and will continue to work directly with Ariel Sharon to achieve peace in the region," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. "The president believes that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace."
Powell, too, seemed to give Sharon some more leeway after days of urging Israel to withdraw "without delay." Speaking before leaving for the Middle East in Madrid, he said the Israeli redeployments were "inadequate," but he did not restate his demand for a speedy withdrawal. Instead he tried to caution the Israelis: "However long the Israeli incursions continue ... the problem will still be there of people who need to be brought into a negotiating process that will lead to peace," he said.
That negotiating process seems as far off as ever, with Israelis and Palestinians voicing diametrically opposed expectations of the visit. The Palestinians insist that the Israelis withdraw from the cities they occupied over the last 15 days before there can be any talk of a cease-fire. Even then, they are only willing to enter truce talks if there is a parallel political track that offers them a prospect of a state and further Israeli withdrawals. Powell has recently said that it may be time to enter political talks even before a cease-fire agreement. Sharon adamantly opposes that. Powell has effectively told Sharon, though, that the prime minister's strategy can't succeed: "No matter how effective the Israeli Defense Forces believe they are being right now in rooting out terrorism and going after the other targets they have set for themselves, when it's over there will still be people who are willing to resort to violence and terror," Powell said.
Bearing in mind what Khitam Kamel said about being willing to sacrifice her children after her experience in the Jenin camp, Powell may have a point. In the relative safety of the home of a Good Samaritan in Kufr Dan, she tells her tale. She was at her home in the center of the camp when the Israeli attacks started. While the assault itself didn't come as a big surprise, she says, the barrage of missiles that started raining down on the camp did. First the houses on either side of hers were hit, and finally a missile struck the back of their home, sending glass and plaster flying. Kamel and her husband picked up the youngest children and sought shelter with a friend in another part of the camp. "We had to leave everything behind -- we couldn't even take shoes for some of the kids." The other house was hit as well, the next day. She says she slept in three different locations in four days.
When they finally ran out of food and water for the children, Kamel decided to try and get out. "We had no water, no electricity, no food, no milk for the children, nothing -- we had no choice." The Israeli soldiers provided some assistance, offering water and chocolate; they searched some of the women's bags and arrested the men in the group. It took her about 18 hours to complete the journey from the camp to nearby Kufr Dan. Her husband and three of her sons are still in the camp; she hasn't heard from them since she and the youngest children left.
On her trip out she saw one body but no wounded people -- in contrast to reports of bodies littering the streets. There were scenes of enormous destruction, though. "On both sides of some streets, the houses have been half demolished by bulldozers or passing tanks. Others houses have been completely destroyed by missiles or explosives." Her own house has been completely destroyed, she has heard from neighbors. "If I have to, I will live in a tent on the spot where my house stood," says Kamel defiantly. Her family is originally from the area around Afula, just north of Jenin, and fled there in 1948. "We will not flee again -- this is our land, not the Jews'. We won't leave."
Some reports say that as many as 3,000 of the 13,000 inhabitants of the camp have been made homeless by the Israeli destruction. Peter Hansen, the head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is in charge of the Palestinian camps, said the situation was becoming "catastrophic" inside the Jenin camp. A spokesman added, "If field reports we are getting are accurate, we have a humanitarian disaster unseen before in the West Bank."
The widespread destruction is echoed in the story told by Samir Ibrahim, who also left the camp on Tuesday -- though he says he only saw two bodies on his way out, fewer than he had expected. Ibrahim was at home with a large group of relatives when the Israelis raided his house and took over the top floor as a military post. He and some other family members between the ages of 15 and 45 were ordered to turn themselves in to a group of soldiers for interrogation outside the camp. The men were, however, unable to find the armored personnel carriers (APCs) that were supposed to take them out. It proved to be the start of a strange odyssey through the half-destroyed and dangerous streets.
"The first group of soldiers we met ordered one of us to come forward very carefully. They made us all undress to our underwear and lie face down in the street," says Ibrahim. The group of 14 Palestinians was then ordered to walk to another location, where another group of soldiers held them up again. "These made us carry the body of an old man they had shot. A terrified boy who was with him told us they shot him because the old man had a big bag in one hand when he raised his hands, and they were afraid it contained a bomb." Finally they found the designated personnel carriers, and they were told to leave the body next to a mosque. Their hands were bound tightly with plastic wire, recalls Ibrahim; then they were blindfolded and, still in their underwear, taken to a large detention center near the village of Salem, outside Jenin.
In the day and a half he was kept there, the Israelis interrogated him once, Ibrahim says. "They asked me to be a collaborator. They promised money and other favors. I refused, of course." For most of the time, the prisoners were kept handcuffed, blindfolded, near naked and squatting in the open air, he says. Finally the Israelis let him and some others go, giving them some old army pants to cover themselves. "They kept my ID card, my money, everything," Ibrahim says.
The Israelis say they have made over 4,100 arrests during the operation so far. Many prisoners have been released after just a few hours to a few days. Israeli commentators say that among all those people, investigators have found just six Palestinians whom the security services consider "heavyweight terrorists." Some 100 others may be less directly involved in violent acts against Israel.
Khaled Zakarini, from the town of Qabatya, near Jenin, has also just been released from the Salem detention center. He was not as fortunate as Ibrahim, though. He wasn't even given trousers, and had to walk in his underwear to the nearest village. "There the mosque called for the people to donate clothes, and that's how we finally got home," he recounts.
The Israelis invaded Qabatya, a town of some 20,000 people, almost a week ago. Mayor Kassem Allawni expresses astonishment at the Israeli incursion. "They came in from four directions, with some 100 tanks, APCs and bulldozers, while we hardly have any weapons here in this town." The Israelis left again on Thursday morning, as part of the pre-Powell visit withdrawal.
Zakarini says the town harbors few fighters. He himself, though, is a member of Arafat's "presidential guard," Force 17. He was stationed in Jenin, and got wounded during Israel's first incursion into the town in December last year. He proudly lifts his shirt to show three scars from bullets on his back. When the soldiers arrested him, they knew exactly who he was.
"I was interrogated three times in three days," says Zakarini. "They called me a terrorist, saying that Force 17 carries out attacks against Israelis. I said that I only joined because of the salary, but they called me a liar and hit me and kicked me," he says. His body, though, shows no signs of beating.
Though Qabatya may not have been a hotbed of resistance against the Israelis, the town bears some signs of fighting: Bullet holes riddle a couple of walls downtown; two schools have sustained some damage, with gates blown off and part of a perimeter wall destroyed. In some quarters of the town, dozens of houses have holes in them.
"I asked them to be gentlemen and just let me open the door," says Ismail Abu Rub, standing in the demolished hallway of his house in the old part of Qabatya. The soldiers, who had entered his house through one of his walls, also blew up his front entrance, though. The door is just a bit of twisted steel now, and his corridor wall lies in the neighbor's living room. Under the rubble, an antique fridge is buried. On another soot-covered wall, a hole shows where the Israelis entered another neighbor's house. "They went through 50 houses like this, blasting from one to the other," says Abu Rub, "and it's not as if there was any fighting. They made us wait in the street, at 2:30 in the morning."
Mayor Allawni says it is too early to estimate the total damage. In many places the water mains, electricity and phone lines have to be repaired. "With the assistance of our friends abroad, we built some things up here over the last couple of years, infrastructure and schools, a future. Why should we now spend a lot of money on repairs? With the situation as it is, the Israelis can be back any moment."