Muslims abduct Israeli, demand release of sheik Kidnapping caps weekend that left 4 dead, scores hurt

December 14, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Muslim fundamentalists added kidnapping to the arsenal of the Palestinian uprising yesterday, snatching an Israeli policeman on his way to work and offering to release him for their imprisoned leader.

Their deadline for the exchange passed last night. Despite a televised appeal from the imprisoned sheik, Israeli authorities said they had no further word from the kidnappers.

The bold abduction occurred well within Israel's borders, about eight miles from Tel Aviv, and capped a surge of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians and wounded at least 90 in street skirmishes over the weekend. Saturday night, an Israeli army reservist was killed and another gravely wounded in the second drive-by shooting in a week.

The incidents were further evidence of the increased use of guns in the Palestinian uprising. But the kidnapping was the most daring crime, with grave political implications.

The anti-peace Hamas group claimed responsibility for abducting Sgt. Maj. Nissim Toledano, 29, as he walked from his home to his base in Lod, near the Ben Gurion Airport, about 4:30 a.m. His yarmulke was found on the path where an apparent scuffle occurred.

About 11 a.m., two masked Palestinians entered the Red Cross building in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, and delivered a ransom letter claiming the abduction had been carried out by Hamas.

Hamas is locked in a struggle for Palestinian public opinion with the Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is supporting the peace negotiations with Israel. The kidnapping could boost the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians who cheer any blow to Israel, and endanger Mideast peace talks.

The letter to the Red Cross demanded the release by 9 p.m. local time of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, an ailing and handicapped religious leader who founded Hamas to fight Israel in 1988 at the start of the Palestinian uprising.

Sheik Yassin is serving a life sentence for having approved the killings of Palestinians alleged to have collaborated with Israel. The letter from the purported kidnappers said the Israeli officer would be killed if the deadline was not met.

In a bid to open negotiations, Israeli authorities sent reporters from the state-run television and radio stations to a prison near Netanya to broadcast an interview with the sheik.

The 55-year-old religious leader, appearing frail and speaking in a weak voice, appealed to the kidnappers to delay their threat and negotiate with Israel.

"Preserve the life of this human being until the authorities are capable to respond to the demand of the kidnappers," Sheik Yassin said in the broadcast on Israel radio's Arabic news service. He told Israel television: "The authorities must acquiesce. They must give into the demands. But I oppose the killing of the policeman."

Israel proclaims a tough policy on negotiations with terrorists but has been involved in numerous prisoner swaps. Sheik Yassin himself was freed from a 15-year sentence when Israel released 1,150 prisoners in May 1985 in return for three Israeli soldiers captured in its invasion of Lebanon.

Israeli officials were loath to acknowledge they would negotiate with Hamas yesterday. "We are just trying to get some sign that he is alive," said one official, who asked not to be named.

Israeli authorities said late last night that there had been no further communication from the kidnappers after the initial letter delivered to the Red Cross and an identical demand telephoned to the Associated Press in Jerusalem.

"There's nobody to talk to," said the official.

Sergeant Toledano holds a clerical job in the headquarters of the Border Patrol, a paramilitary police force whose responsibilities overlap with the army's in the occupied territories.

He usually walked to work in the morning in Lod, a mixed community of Jews and Arabs. Although he carried a pistol, no shells were found to indicate a gun had been fired, authorities said.

Responsibility for the abduction was claimed by the Isal-Din al-Qassam faction, a militant wing of Hamas named after an early Palestinian religious leader killed in a revolt against the British in the 1920s.

The same faction claimed to have carried out the drive-by shootings that killed three soldiers in a jeep last Monday, and to have killed a reservist in Hebron Saturday night. The fatalities brought to 13 the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict this year, more than in any of the four previous years of the Palestinian uprising.

That uprising, intended to drive Israelis out of land they seized in the 1967 war, began as a movement of civil disobedience. But the number of shooting incidents has increased yearly, and Hamas has led the cry to take up arms.

"Now that the stones did not go anywhere, it is the policy of Hamas to change stones for guns," said Raphael Israeli, a professor of Islam and Middle Eastern History at Hebrew University. "The pressure will grow on Israel to consider the intifada [uprising] a war."

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