UN Warns of West Bank 'Horror' ; A High-Profile UN Mission to Investigate Human Rights Abuses in the Mideast May Begin Today

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Amal Azzeh considers herself lucky compared with many of the approximately 300,000 Palestinians who have come under renewed Israeli army occupation.

The Azzehs, who live in Beit Jubrin Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, had stocked up on food before Israeli tanks conquered the area nine days ago and the army put the camp under a strict curfew. Her brother, Yunis, who lives outside the camp, did not. "He does not have enough bread to eat, and you can generalize that this is the case for much of the population, especially for people who have children."

Amid mounting charges by human rights groups of abuses by Israeli troops, UN human rights chief Mary Robinson plans to start a Middle East fact-finding mission as early as Tuesday evening or tomorrow, her spokeswoman said yesterday. The mission, which is pending Israeli approval, includes former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and South African businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, a former leader of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. The mission's mandate includes reporting on suicide bombings, and it will also examine human rights in the West Bank, which is currently under assault by Israeli troops.

UN officials yesterday described a situation of "pure horror" in northern West Bank camps, with strafing from Israeli helicopters, corpses piling up and ambulances and food trucks being barred by the army.

"There is a humanitarian disaster in the making," says Richard Cook, West Bank field director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Israel launched the incursions after a devastating series of suicide bombings, including one on Passover eve in Netanya that killed 27 people at a religious gathering. Diplomatic pressure from the US has failed to slow the assault, and Israeli army officials say it is dealing a blow to "terrorist infrastructure" through arrests of those involved in attacks and the seizure of weapons. About 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested, with 261 of those previously wanted by Israeli security forces, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday.

Army officials say that care is being taken to avoid harming civilians, but that Palestinian fighters deliberately "operate from within large population centers and therefore cause innocent civilians to be drawn into the line of fire."

Concern over the plight of Palestinian civilians is heightened by Israel's track record of causing, in the view of human rights groups, many avoidable deaths of civilians by using excessive force, and its failure to complete investigations against troops for alleged misuse of weapons. The fact that it has barred reporters and human rights field workers from the areas it invaded is also fueling concern.

Six human rights groups gathered in Jerusalam Sunday, including Amnesty International, Israel's B'tselem organization, and the Palestinian LAW organization and said that based on the limited information they could garner, the civilian population is being greatly harmed. One group, the World Organization Against Torture, called for European economic sanctions against Israel.

Jessica Montell, director of B'tselem said: "There are very severe allegations from refugee camps, many of which cannot be verified. But there is a great deal we know: large-scale casualties, very severe interruptions of medical treatment to the injured, tremendous suffering to the civilian population, torture of detainees. …