Awarta village terrorized as Israel hunts killers

AFP , Friday 1 Apr 2011

The small village of Awarta continues to be subjected to Israeli invasions and assaults in the aftermath of the Itamar settlement killings

Palestinian youths throw stones at Israeli soldiers during clashes in the West Bank village of Awarta near Nablus, Tuesday, 22 March 2011. (AP)

For the past three weeks, the hunt for the killers of a young Israeli family has been focused on one small West Bank town in what many consider an unjustified form of collective punishment.

Since the grisly late-night stabbing on March 11, which claimed the lives of a couple and three of their kids, one just a few months old, in the northern West Bank colony of Itamar, the army has virtually 'moved into' the village of Awarta, which is home to 7,000 people.

The latest raid was just a few days ago. Troops turned up after midnight, entering homes, ordering people outside into the cold night air and carrying away a score of men for questioning.

But while village elders say 300 men and boys have been arrested, interrogated, fingerprinted and their mouths swabbed for DNA, no one has yet been charged with the stabbings Israel alledged was committed by a Palestinian.

Around 40 of them are still in jail, prompting the villagers to complain they are being collectively punished for something they had nothing to do with.

Immediately after the murders, Awarta was put under curfew for five days and since then has been the target of repeated raids and arrests.

The army has refused to comment on the manhunt, although spokesman Captain Arye Shalicar denied allegations troops were focusing their attention exclusively on Awarta, a dirt-poor farming town where most of the residents make their living from olive orchards.

Villagers also allege the soldiers have beaten some of them and vandalised their property -- claims which the army refuses to comment upon.

Faisal Abu Qawari, an unemployed farmer, says his house had been raided no less than seven times.

On the first morning, the house, which lies down a narrow, tree-shaded lane, was hit by gunfire and tear gas, he says, showing pockmarks on the wall.

Four of his sons were arrested and two are still in jail.

Pulling back his upper lip, Abu Qawari shows a gap where two false teeth are missing after he was beaten by soldiers, he says.

Inside, cupboard doors are ripped off their hinges and the washing machine, which he saved two years to buy, is smashed -- fruit of one of the raids.

Perhaps the most galling, he says, was that soldiers ripped a poster with photos of his son and a nephew who were shot dead by soldiers in an olive grove last year as they searched for scrap metal.

The army eventually acknowledged it was a mistake, and Abu Qawari is now suing them for damages. That, he believes, is why he is being singled out.

Asaad Abdel Karim Lolah is a 70-year-old farmer living on the edge of the village facing Itamar which lies about two kilometres (just over a mile) away across a narrow valley.

Fifteen of his relatives have been arrested, including two of his sons who are still being held.

The village is full of fear, he says -- fear of the soldiers and of angry settlers, who marched on Awarta and stoned some of the houses a day after the killings.

And like others, Lolah says he sleeps during the day because at night they are afraid of more raids.

"The children are terrified of strange faces. I have to push them to go to school. Many of them wet themselves with fear."

Pointing to his olive trees down in the valley, he says he can no longer get to most of them, and went to the military authorities to complain.

But they detained him. "They tied me up and kept me for five hours," he says.

Residents say they are terrified of venturing down the winding road across the narrow valley between Awarta and Itamar for fear of being shot by settlers.

Hassan Awad, Awarta's deputy mayor, said 80 percent of the houses had been raided and 300 people arrested, all men and boys. Of that number, around 40 are still in jail.

The army, he says, has used ruthless tactics. When soldiers came to search the municipal offices, instead of waiting for officials to open the offices and storage cabinets, they simply smashed in the doors.

Villagers were unanimous in their condemnation of the gruesome murders, and insisted that none of them would have committed such a crime.

"No one in the village countenances the killing of children," said Awad. "Despite our political views, as Arabs and Muslims we do not believe in that."

Abu Qawari, who himself has lost a son, agrees.

"Even after everything that has happened, I condemn the murders," he says. "Whoever did it should be subjected the the harshest penalty."

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