Humanitarian Groups Being Denied Easy Access in West Bank

ROME, APRIL 21, 2002 ( A group of Italian Catholics were among the few foreigners who were able to help rescue people in the Jenin refugee camp in the wake of the Israeli troop pullout.

Three Italian youths helped to rescue a 20-year-old Palestinian who was buried for nine days under the ruins of his home. Three people were rescued alive Saturday, giving hope that others might still be alive. Israel pulled its forces out of the camp Friday as it scaled down its three-week offensive in the West Bank.

The Italian youths belong to the Pope John XXIII Association, a movement that assists marginalized people and promotes reconciliation.

Catholic volunteers have gone to Israel and the West Bank for a few days, to share in the life of the people as a gesture of peace. They have joined the Jenin camp refugees to help clear the debris.

“I just think what we are seeing here is a terrible human tragedy,” William Burns, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East, told Reuters in the camp’s flattened center.

As relief officials and human rights activists swarmed around the camp, an Israeli Arab doctor stepped on something that exploded, blowing him off his feet.

Writhing in agony and bleeding from the leg, Weal Omar, part of a delegation of physicians, was taken away on stretcher to an ambulance by shocked colleagues. The blast was a sharp reminder of the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance and booby-traps.

“It’s obvious that what happened here in the Jenin camp has caused enormous human suffering for thousands of Palestinian civilians,” said Burns, the most senior U.S. official to visit the camp since the Israeli withdrawal.

Burns called for aid agencies to be granted free access to the camp. He would not comment on Palestinian accusations that troops committed a massacre in what Israel has called a “nest of terror” and the launch pad for 23 suicide attacks.

“I think it’s vitally important, obvious to anyone who can see, to provide full and complete access to relief agencies so that they can do their work, so that they can get equipment and supplies here,” Burns declared.

“Human rights organizations were not allowed to enter; we have excavated with our hands,” a Catholic volunteer told the Misna missionary agency. “Even when there are earthquakes and natural disasters, the Red Cross International and humanitarian organizations are allowed to enter; sadly, however, Jenin survivors have been denied this privilege.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Simon Peres announced that his government is prepared to cooperate with the clarification mission that will soon be sent by the United Nations, given that “Israel has nothing to hide regarding the operation in Jenin.”

However, recently the Israeli government vetoed an initiative that Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, wished to implement in the area.