Black Holes

In its hunt for a terrorist planning a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last month, the IDF roared through the Ein Beit-Ilma refugee camp near Nablus. They found the terrorist, but their operation wreaked havoc. A visit to a camp still in a state of shock.

A visit to Ein Beit-Ilma refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. We proceed from house to house through the holes made by soldiers in the walls of the rooms. From the home of the Yunes family, our hosts, we make our way to the Rajab family through the hole in the stairwell. From the Rajabs we go on to the Namruttis, this time through the hole in the bedroom wall. From there to the Taha family, now through the living room. "Let's go back to the street," says Dr. Ghassan Hamdan, director of Palestinian Medical Relief Services in Nablus, after we have passed dustily through half a dozen homes without having emerged into the street. "We are not soldiers," he says.

The neighborly relations in this shabby camp are now more open: You can ask a neighbor for salt without having to leave the house. Whole streets can now be traversed indoors, through the walls, one gaping hole after another. The Israel Defense Forces banged its head against the wall, so to speak, until its soldiers found the terrorist who planned to commit suicide, as well as his squad, which had already sent the explosive belt to Tel Aviv.

Along the way, the IDF killed a disabled man, half of whose body was paralyzed, though the IDF claimed he was armed with an M-16 rifle; demolished a five-story building, leaving five families homeless; damaged dozens of other houses around the demolished building; and made the many holes in the walls. One soldier was killed here, Staff Sergeant Ben-Zion Henman, from Moshav Nov, in the Golan Heights, and we are now standing at the spot where he fell.

The IDF was here for three days and four nights in mid-September. Hundreds of soldiers went from house to house, leaving destruction and terror in their wake, arresting many dozens of camp residents, before leaving in the early morning hours of September 21. A large-scale terrorist attack was prevented, and the refugee camp is licking its wounds and calculating the damage.

Dr. Hamdan says that last week's IDF operation was so brutal that it reminded him of Operation Defensive Shield five years ago. For three days and nights he did not sleep a wink. Together with his organization's medical teams and ambulances he tried in vain to get help to the many wounded and sick who were trapped in the camp. It is the month of Ramadan, but the fast was greatly extended in the camp. Hamdan explains that the residents are too poor to store food, and as a result there was a crying shortage of food and medicines. The water and power were also cut off in some of the homes, and it's not too hard to guess what was experienced by large families.

Some 6,000 people live in this most densely populated of the West Bank refugee camps, which is 500 meters long and about 500 meters wide, gray-brick houses stacked like little boxes on a hillside, home abutting home, and room for only one person at a time to pass through the narrow alleys, a straggling grid of electricity and phone lines above them, on the western slopes of the "terror capital," Nablus, which was once an economic capital.

Dr. Hamadan relates how he and his staff tried to enter the besieged camp to proffer help, bring in food and medicine, and take out the wounded, but were met with gunfire. One ambulance driver was wounded and an ambulance was hit. A field worker of Physicians for Human Rights, Salah Haj Yehya, is collecting the details for a report he is preparing for his organization. Members of the medical team were standing on the main street at the foot of the hilly camp as the first wounded individual, Muhammad Khaled, 17, lay bleeding in an alley. They could not get to him, and he died. The IDF claimed he was active in the military wing of the Popular Front; Hamdan says he was an innocent youth.

"We tried to talk to the soldiers," Hamdan says. "They told us to beat it or they would shoot us." The cries for help from inside the camp were desperate and urgent. Lacking an alternative, Dr. Hamdan instructed the medical volunteers inside the camp by mobile phone what to do with the wounded boy. When they told him that his pulse had stopped, his pupils were not responding and his head was becoming bloated, he pronounced him dead over the phone. The bullet entered the boy's back and slashed into his lungs. It was not until three hours later that the volunteers were allowed to move the body, by foot, outside the camp. Mamdan says that 18 people were wounded in the operation.

When Adib Salim, 38, fell bleeding in front of his home, members of the Medical Relief organization could not get to him, either. Salim had been paralyzed on the right side of his body since being run over as a boy, despite lengthy treatments he underwent at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. For his living, Salim walked around the camp with a wagon, dragging hand and foot, and selling lupine seeds for a few pennies to schoolchildren.

Salim was hit when he peeked. He stuck his head around the wall of his house, and though his brother Jihad told him to get back inside immediately, the soldiers were too fast for him: They shot him from a distance of a few dozen meters.

Salim fell at the foot of the memorial sign that bears a photograph of his brother Jamil, a Hamas activist who was killed here six years ago by an IDF missile. Salim lay on the steps of his home for almost half an hour before he could be removed. It was too late. The bullet had struck him in the head. Jihad, 28, a taxi driver who was not on the wanted list, was arrested. A nephew, Muhand, 21, was also arrested and has not yet returned.

With pain-smeared faces, the camp children play "soldier" in the alleys. Their weapons are plastic bottles and wooden pegs. Salim's only son, Muaad, stands in the alley, looking shell-shocked. Eight years old, freshly orphaned, he is not playing with the others. Muaad leans on a wall that is pockmarked from the soldiers' bullets, his eyes expressing sadness. We proceed carefully up the alley, avoiding the sewage that now flows through the camp, after the soldiers blew up the drainage pipes, and skirting the piles of uncollected garbage. Through a narrow door we enter the home of the Yunes family and immediately see the neighbor, Mrs. Rajab, through the hole in the stairwell. Muhammad Yunes, 16, was arrested during the operation, and his mother still does not know where he is.

In the fighters' footsteps, we enter the Rajabs' bedroom through another hole and find a stack of mattresses in a corner of the room. In the Namruttis' home, which we access through the hole in the Rajabs' bedroom, we find a baby's crib among the ruins. This is where the Namruttis live: five children and devastation. The soldiers smashed the marble working surfaces in the kitchen. A little girl is now washing dishes amid the ruins, and a pot of rice is cooking on the gas burner. Happy Ramadan, Namrutti family.

A heap of broken objects blocks the passage in the alley below: a home that was blown up, the home of the Masimi family. Among the ruins I find an Israeli archaeological treasure: a shattered black vinyl record, "Festizemer: The 1979 Children's Song Festival." How did this record get here? What use did the family make of it?

The major ruins are at the top of the alley. High on the hill was the home of the family of Ali Mabruk and his sons. Five stories planted on the hillside, now reduced to a heap of rubble. Eleven apartments were demolished here. The terrifying bulldozer that was brought in to demolish the large building sowed destruction in its path, too: The alley is narrow and the bulldozer is wide, and every house in its way was damaged. At the end of the path of destruction is the spot where the soldier Henman was killed.

The IDF Spokesperson's Office responds: "All the actions undertaken in Ein Beit-Ilma refugee camp were carried out by the Israel Defense Forces with the goal of preventing acts of terror and defending the citizens of Israel, and as proof of this, the operation under discussion indeed succeeded in preventing a massive attack in Tel Aviv.

"During the action, 50 wanted terrorists were arrested and dozens of others were detained for questioning; many weapons were confiscated, and bombmaking shops discovered. The activity even succeeded in recovering the explosive belt that had already been smuggled into Tel Aviv for use in the attack.

"During the course of the action against the terrorists, Staff Sergeant Ben-Zion Henman was killed. IDF forces killed the terrorist who killed Henman, as well as an additional terrorist, Adib Salim Ibrahim Ahmed. He was part of a band of three terrorists who in this case opened fire on our forces.

"During the latest action, the IDF destroyed the house of the head of the Popular Front in the camp, which was serving as a frequent point from which shots were fired and explosive devices thrown onto the forces operating in the camp."