‘Horrific beyond belief’

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East, Terji Roed-Larsen, is at the centre of the diplomatic row that erupted following statements from high-ranking UN officials accusing Israel of committing atrocities during the 29 March invasion of the West Bank. Comments made by Larsen after inspecting the wreckage of the Jenin refugee camp have embarrassed and angered the Israeli authorities. On Saturday Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he had “ordered all ministries to cut all contact [with Larsen]”.

While Larsen stated that “suicide bombers” are “morally repugnant,” he added that “Israel has lost all moral ground in the conflict.” He described the leveling by Israeli troops of what was one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps as “horrific beyond belief”.

Larsen is among several high-level UN officials — including the commissioner for Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), General Peter Hansen, and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson — threatened by the Israelis with what, in effect, is blacklisting.

“We saw [in Jenin] horrifying, horrifying scenes of human suffering,” says Larsen. “What I said in Jenin was a description of what I experienced when I was standing there in that pile of rubble which had been the heart of a refugee camp. I described what I saw. Any decent human being would have reacted the same way.”

The Israelis responded furiously, accusing Larsen of bias. The UN official, though, remains unapologetic, feeling “great relief” that there is now “an appointed fact-finding commission.” He believes that “all concerned should refrain from further comments on what happened on the ground and the implications of it until the fact-finding commission has come up with its report.” Of paramount importance, he says, is that the “international community, the multilateral institutions and bilateral donors now help the thousands of suffering people on the ground there.”

“I have not and am not accusing anyone of massacres,” Larsen has told reporters. “We do not have the full facts from Jenin. My primary criticism of the government of Israel is that it did not act adequately to respond to the humanitarian situation in Jenin.”

Israel’s brutal clampdown, he believes, will defeat its own avowed objective of long-term security. “Israel might have dismantled the physical infrastructure of terrorism but this is easily rebuilt. And meanwhile the mental infrastructure of terrorism is building up — the mentality of hate and confrontation — and this is very difficult to undo.”

“Amid the rage, despair and hopelessness that are felt on both sides it is all too easy for the people of the region to lose sight of one fundamental truth: there is no military solution to the conflict.”

The Palestinian Authority has suffered huge losses in revenues. Donor- supported projects have been ruined, several Palestinian National Authority ministries, including health and education, have been severely damaged and about 2,000 people, half of them below 15, are without a roof over their head. It is a matter of urgency, Larsen says, “to alleviate the sufferings of the civilian population [in Jenin] and in other refugee camps and cities in the West Bank.”

For the Israeli government Larsen’s comments could ensure him the status of persona non grata. He insists, though, that lines of communication are open. “My door and my telephone line will always be available to any representative of the government of Israel, including its prime minister,” Larsen said.

For 11 days Larsen had tried to obtain permission to visit Jenin camp. And when he was finally allowed to inspect the camp he realised the extent of the destruction. “The destruction was massive, the stench overwhelming,” he says, describing how he watched survivors digging through concrete with their hands in a desperate attempt to reach relatives buried in the rubble of their homes.

Events in Jenin represent a humanitarian catastrophe of tremendous proportions and the primary concern of the international community must, Larsen believes, be to ensure “everything possible is done to save the lives of civilians and reduce their suffering. Civilians in the camp are in desperate need of water, food, shelter, medical supplies and treatment. An emergency rescue operation is needed to find and remove the bodies from the rubble.”

With this objective in view he called for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1397, 1402 and 1403, and an immediate end to the Israeli military campaign in the West Bank. There are three essential requirements, he stresses — “a lifting of the curfews on the civilian population, full safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian workers and political and financial support for humanitarian agencies.”

An Ad Hoc Liaison Committee is scheduled to meet in Oslo next week to address the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians, its agenda underwritten by the belief that the living conditions of the Palestinian people and the rehabilitation of PA institutions are as important to the peace process as political dialogue and mutual trust. “A concerted international effort will be needed to underpin any possible cease- fire; to rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s security capacity and help both parties meet their security objectives.”

The economic implications of the current crisis cause continuing concern for the UN’s senior regional envoy. The cessation of all activity in the West Bank’s main centres of industry and commerce, Larsen warns, will cause more financial hardship in the near future. The West Bank, excluding Arab East Jerusalem, accounted for 55 per cent of total Palestinian GDP in 2001.

“In the West Bank and Gaza the movement of two million people has been restricted. Over 600,000 have been under 24- hour curfew for extended periods. This curfew poses a grave risk to the livelihood of the population.”