Sharon flouts ceasefire calls

12 April 2002

Two weeks into the most intensive Israeli bombardment of the West Bank since 1967, relations between Washington and Tel Aviv began to show serious signs of strain in early April. Following the deaths of eight Israelis in a suicide bombing near Haifa on 10 April, the US delivered an unequivocal message to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: 'Israel is to withdraw and to do so now,' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

The statement was the third US call for a ceasefire in as many days. 'I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel,' President Bush said on 8 April. 'I expect there to be withdrawal without delay.'

Israeli responses were equally blunt. 'It's our right to defend our citizens and there should be no pressure put on us not to do that,' Sharon said on 10 April while visiting troops near the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the Israeli offensive.

Frustration with Israeli intransigence has brought Washington closer to its European allies. US Secretary of State Colin Powell joined officials from the UN, the EU and Russia on 10 April to call for an 'immediate, meaningful ceasefire and an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, specifically including Chairman Arafat's headquarters'.

Despite its heavy rhetoric, Washington was criticised for not doing more to rein in its Israeli ally. The circuitous route followed by Powell on his mission to broker a ceasefire infuriated many Arab leaders. King Mohammed VI greeted the US envoy on the runway in Rabat on 8 April by asking him why he was not going directly to Jerusalem. Other Arab leaders were equally blunt. 'American credibility and prestige are collapsing very quickly,' warned Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. 'The crown prince made very clear [to Powell] that this continuing violence could gravely damage America's credibility and America's interests in the Arab world.' Anti-American protests have been widespread across the region, with some of the most heated demonstrations taking place in Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

.as the violence spirals

A pattern emerged during the Israeli offensive of occupations, searches, arrests and withdrawals, punctuated by fierce fighting in the West Bank towns of Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem and surrounding camps. The army said on 10 April that it had arrested more than 4,000 alleged Palestinian militants since it launched its offensive on 29 March.

Israeli forces adopted their most aggressive tactics in Jenin, where fierce resistance left 28 Israeli soldiers dead, of whom 12 were killed in an ambush on 9 April. Bulldozers were employed overnight to demolish dozens of homes in the camp to clear access routes for the troops, and loudspeakers were used to broadcast statements threatening bombardment by F-16 fighter jets. One of the last pockets of resistance appeared to have been flushed out with the surrender of over 300 Palestinian fighters on 11 April.

Medical workers said they had retrieved over 30 bodies from the rubble of houses in Jenin, and at least 100 Palestinians are understood to have been killed in eight days of fighting in the town. According to the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), more than 3,000 women and children have been left homeless by the invasion of Jenin. Throughout the West Bank, casualty figures have been hard to establish, with members of the International Red Crescent and other medical workers being refused entry to Palestinian areas by Israeli troops to collect dead bodies and transport the injured to hospital.

A few hours before Powell arrived in Jerusalem on 11 April, the Israeli army withdrew its troops from some 24 villages in autonomous areas of the West Bank. Hopes of a full withdrawal were dashed later in the morning when columns of tanks rolled into the town of Beir Zeit, the refugee camp of Ein Beit Elma near Ramallah and the village of Daharyeh near Hebron, as Sharon announced his attention to 'finish the job'.

Palestinian workers in Nablus warned on 10 April that they feared a massive Israeli bombardment was being prepared. In the first use of combat jets since the beginning of the offensive, F-16 fighters joined Apache helicopters to strafe the Old City and the neighbouring refugee camps of Balata and Askar.

Meanwhile, the stand-off continued at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where over 200 Palestinians had been trapped for a week. A suggestion by Christian leaders that the gunmen trapped inside the church be granted safe passage to the Gaza Strip was rejected by the Israeli army, one of the negotiators said on 11 April.

As the scouring of the West Bank continued, fears grew of a new front opening up on the Lebanese border. Israeli outposts in the disputed Shebaa region came under attack from rockets and mortar rounds, while Israeli warplanes conducted daily raids on suspected Hezbollah positions in Lebanese territory. Reports emerged of Katyusha rockets being fired on northern Israel on 11 April, and the Israeli army called for fresh reservists for possible deployment on the border.

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