Friday, June 02, 2006

[political-researchp] Bloglines - Ramallah rampage

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Ramallah rampage

Undercover Israeli troops hold the centre of Ramallah hostage in broad daylight, leaving a trail of injury and death in their wake, witnesses Erica Silverman

Palestinians ran for their lives, clinging to storefronts and ducking behind buildings as Israeli forces opened fire into the crowded city centre of Ramallah last Wednesday.

Businesspeople watched in disbelief as Manara Square -- a commercial and transportation hub -- was engulfed in flames amidst a massive gun battle sparked by an Israeli army incursion into the usually placid West Bank city. Young women, arms locked together, dodged flying bullets as swarms of young Palestinian men surrounded the Israeli vehicles, hurling stones.

Undercover Israeli soldiers from the elite "Duvdevan" unit entered a commercial building adjacent to Manara dressed as Palestinians to apprehend senior Islamic Jihad leader Mohammad Shubaki, accused of funnelling money to the organisation. Jihad has taken credit for eight suicide bombings inside Israel over the last 18 months. Shubaki and four other Palestinians were arrested, the Jihad commander released from Israeli prison less than a year ago.

Four Palestinians died in the Israeli operation, over 60 were wounded, including dozens of innocent bystanders. The four killed were identified as Milad Abul-Arayes, Jaafar Ahmed, Ghaleb Abdel-Qader and Ayssar Al-Qassem, a member of the Palestinian security forces. One Israeli soldier was lightly wounded by a rock hurled at his jeep, according to the Israeli army.

Egyptian officials denounced the raid, describing it as counterproductive to peace efforts. "We demand an immediate end to the use of disproportionate violent measures which are likely to deepen the chasm between the sides," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit.

The undercover unit was immediately identified after they arrived in two unmarked Palestinian cars and entered the building, according to eyewitnesses. One of the cars was stolen and set ablaze near the city centre. After apprehending Shubaki, the unit realised there was no way out. According to Palestinian security sources, Israeli forces entered Ramallah to provide backup for the unit. Over a dozen Israeli armoured vehicles invaded the city.

Israeli army spokesperson Captain Noa Meir said soldiers first used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to contain the crowd, but switched to live ammunition after gunmen began firing on them. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militants exchanged fire with the Israeli forces while masked Hamas snipers attacked from nearby rooftops. At one point, Palestinian police fired against the Israeli troops to try and protect civilians.

Mohamed Hawaja sat pale and exhausted amidst piles of broken glass and mobile phone covers from his shop near the entrance of the building. "Two soldiers dressed as Palestinians entered and then changed into military uniforms, with black masks, and gathered all the employees in the building," said 26-year-old Mohamed, still clutching the thick brown sack the soldiers tied around his head in the sweltering heat. A group of seven or eight masked soldiers in uniform proceeded to the Internet café on the fifth floor where Shubaki was chatting, followed by a rush of them, recounted Mohamed. It is common for "wanted" Palestinians to visit Ramallah during the day where they can blend more easily than in smaller West Bank towns.

Two employees from the café recounted that members of the undercover unit entered dressed as Palestinians and began using the Internet. The uniformed soldiers then entered the café to apprehend the militants. One female patron, Awatif, a 24-year-old NGO worker said, "I yelled to them -- 'I am a Jerusalemite' -- in Hebrew." The soldiers covered the heads of male employees and patrons, she continued, and "a spy, wearing an Israeli uniform and a mask pointed to the wanted men, and they grabbed them."

Employing Arabs -- Israeli or Palestinian -- for intelligence gathering and undercover operations has been a powerful tool used by Israel against Palestinians throughout the Intifada. Most arrests or targeted assassinations require an informant to execute, since wanted militants operate in secrecy and live in hiding. Using Palestinians as collaborators has been described as "dirty warfare," creating intense psychological pressure within closed cities such as Nablus.

General Meir Dagan, director of Israel's foreign intelligence service, Mossad, and a long-time associate of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has a history of clandestine operations against Arabs. Dagan took over the service in 2002 and has focused on undercover operations against Palestinians, at times controversially, and has increased agent recruitment dramatically since 2004. "Duvdevan" operations characteristically claim the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians. On 2 May the unit shot and killed a Palestinian woman and wounded her two daughters in Tulkarem while firing at a house in which an Islamic Jihad suspect was supposedly hiding.

President Abbas's headquarters, the Muqata, is only a short distance from Manara. "Israel is determined to stage provocations in a manner that will take us back to a cycle of violence," said presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudaineh. Indeed, the violence in Ramallah was the worst the city has faced since the Israeli army invaded four years ago at the height of the Intifada, barricading the late Yasser Arafat inside his presidential compound. Israeli forces often enter Ramallah to arrest militants whose names appear on their wanted list (about 400 Palestinians are listed), but usually they take place late at night or before dawn to avoid confrontations, even notifying Palestinian security forces as they enter the city to try and avoid clashes.

Palestinians question how the Duvdevan unit anticipated such an operation, conducted midday in the city centre, would not provoke a riot, leading to speculation about the political motivations behind the incursion and its timing. Ramallah, a cosmopolitan city with an educated middle class, is home to many Palestinian-Americans, unlike Gaza City, impoverished, religiously conservative, and isolated from the outside world by Israeli's control of Gaza's borders.

Despite the violence erupting in both cities, the "national dialogue" went ahead as planned in Ramallah and Gaza City on Thursday 25 May. President Abbas gave the Hamas government 10 days to accept the principles laid out in a document drafted by Palestinian prisoners that endorses a two-state solution divided on 1967 borders, and implicitly recognises Israel. If Hamas refuses to accept the principles, Abbas will call a popular referendum in 40 days to allow the Palestinian electorate to decide.

An official from the US Consulate in Jerusalem, speaking off the record, said the document does not fulfill the Quartet's baseline demands of ending armed resistance, recognising Israel and respecting previous agreements between relevant parties, although Abbas may amend the prisoner's plan to bring it closer to Quartet conditions before a vote, suggested the official.

C a p t i o n : Palestinians of the Abu Rish Brigades, an armed offshoot of the former ruling Fatah Party, brandish their weapons in Gaza


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