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Ben Wedeman: Access to Jenin difficult

CNN's Ben Wedeman
CNN's Ben Wedeman  

NEAR JENIN, West Bank (CNN) -- The Israel Defense Forces said Thursday it was in full control of the refugee camp in Jenin and fighting had ended there. The town was the scene of the fiercest fighting Israel has encountered during its 2-week-old military offensive in the West Bank.

CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman and other international reporters have found it difficult to enter the camp. Wedeman reported Thursday from a village near Jenin.

WEDEMAN: It appears that most of that fighting has died down in Jenin. We were on a hillside overlooking the refugee camp that was once home to 15,000 Palestinians.

We did see Israeli armored personnel carriers and tanks essentially surrounding the camp. We saw puffs of smoke coming up. It's not clear whether those were explosions, fires or home demolitions because the Israelis have sent in bulldozers to destroy many of the homes. It is believed also what they're trying to do is create corridors within the camp, which is really quite narrow alleys, and therefore very hard for tanks and armored personnel carriers to go through.

We heard from the United Nations that as many as 3,000 residents of that camp have been made homeless. They've sought refuge in this town where we are -- which is right next to Jenin -- and also in the city itself.

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In Jenin, the Israeli curfew was lifted for just two hours. I spoke to people who went around the city during that period, and they told us there were very few people on the streets. There were some people queuing up for bread but very nervously indeed.

The curfew ended at 2 p.m. local time ... at which point the Israeli forces went through the streets with loudspeakers, calling upon the people to go back to their houses. In one case, they shot over the head of one man who was tardy in responding to their calls.

Another problem we've experienced here in Jenin is the fact that there's almost no access. In fact, we have no access whatsoever to the refugee camp. We have been trying for quite some time and in many different ways to get inside that camp because we need to know what has happened.

The Palestinians are reporting 500 dead. International relief sources are saying possibly as much as 200. So we would like to get in there and find out what's happening. However, every time we try, we run into Israeli soldiers who try to prevent us.

The question at the moment here is, why aren't we being allowed in? I've been in Bethlehem, in Ramallah and Hebron and other areas where the Israelis have entered. And there were, on paper, restrictions to reporters' access. But we managed to get in anyway, and we never really were thrown out.

In this case, we're hearing of other reporters -- in fact, the BBC had a crew. They were given the choice: Surrender your press cards -- which is essentially your passport to cover this story -- or surrender your equipment. They chose to surrender their press cards.

But the question that we would like to know and that we would like to direct to Israeli officials is why aren't we being allowed in that camp? We want to know what's going on.

CNN: When you ask that question to officials, what kind of response do you get?

WEDEMAN: They say it's dangerous, which we understand, but we know the risks, and we try to take appropriate protection. We don't have an armored car at the moment, but we still are accustomed to this sort of danger, so we are willing to go in there.

They're also saying that it's a closed military area. In fact, I'm in a closed military area right now, but that hasn't prevented me from reporting. The feeling is, is that they're hiding something -- there's something they don't want the world to see.

And until they let us in, the suspicion is going to mount evermore. So really, the time has come for the Israelis to allow the international media into those camps to see what's going on.

CNN: You talked about these thousands of people that have been displaced. Where are these people now? And especially if these homes have been bulldozed, where are they to go?

WEDEMAN: The refugee camp of Jenin is part of the city, but it's just a small part of the city. So many of them have gone into the city itself. They have relatives; they have friends. People take pity on them and allow them to stay in their houses.

In this village, there are a number of people who have fled the refugee camp as well. So really, they're spread out. They're just hoping that local people will take pity on them, and that seems to have been the case.

But the United Nations obviously would like to provide them with shelter, with food, with medical care. And it appears that task is being made rather difficult at the moment by the Israeli authorities.




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