Bold kidnapping of Israeli is rooted in Gaza hatred

December 15, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP -- The kidnapping of an Israeli policeman Sunday was an act bred in these dusty streets of anger and despair.

Children here play the games of killers. In a garbage-strewn roadway for cars and donkeys yesterday, a knot of small boys rigged a booby trap for Israeli soldiers.

They set a tiny homemade bomb in the road, and with the self-conscious giggles of children, readied the trip-wire for an unsuspecting jeep.

The group that caught Israel's collective breath with the abduction of a 29-year-old policeman and a bold ransom demand is the offspring of such practiced hatreds in Gaza.

Hamas, a Muslim fundamentalist group bitterly opposed to peace with Israel, demanded the release of its ailing founder from an Israeli jail in exchange for Master Sgt. Nissam Toledano, a father of two.

Israeli security forces mounted an intense manhunt for the hostage around his home near Tel Aviv and in the occupied territories. More than 1,000 suspected members of Hamas were arrested for questioning last night, Israel Radio reported today.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hinted Israel would negotiate, but officials indicated they have had no further communication from the kidnappers.

The paramilitary border policeman was seized as he walked to work Sunday morning. His identity card was later delivered by two hooded men to the Red Cross, with a letter demanding the release of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 57.

"I have no doubt those who are carrying out this activity are those who want to kill Israelis, kill the peace process and the chance for peace," Mr. Rabin said yesterday.

In the neighborhood of Lod, near the Tel Aviv airport, Master Sergeant Toledano's family gathered behind closed doors in the two-story block apartment building where its lives. The family said nothing to the small clumps of neighbors and reporters who gathered outside.

Later some of those neighbors attacked nearby Arab homes, according to reports; the Toledano family appealed for calm.

In a grimmer, one-story concrete building coated with political slogans 40 miles south in Gaza, the family of Sheik Yassin also awaited the outcome of the drama.

Authorities allowed no one to gather: All of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank were under strict curfew, prohibiting residents from moving in the streets.

Three sons of the sheik and his wife sat in a dim room with a visitor who managed to avoid the roadblocks. They said they welcomed the kidnapping and the spate of shootings that has left four Israeli soldiers dead in just over a week.

"Now it's on equal footing," said Abdul Hamid Yassin, a 20-year-old auto body repairman. "They kill us, and we kill them. They kidnap, and we are able to kidnap."

The Gaza Strip is a bleak place strangling in enforced neglect. It was once a beautiful Mediterranean resort embraced by white beach and orange groves, but it was filled with Palestinian refugees who fled from Israel's creation in 1948 and virtually were imprisoned here for 44 years first by Egypt and then Israel.

It has long been stripped of its hope and charm.

There is little government, save for army patrols that seek to keep resistance from becoming widespread revolt.

This grim scene brought the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in December 1987. A few weeks later, Sheik Yassin in Gaza founded Hamas, which gradually turned to armed violence.

Hamas rejects peace negotiations with Israel. It is in a struggle for Palestinian public opinion with the Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which favors the talks.

Sunday's kidnapping "will increase the support for Hamas," Mahmoud al-Zahhar said. Dr. al-Zahhar, a Gazan physician, is said to be a leader of Hamas, though membership in the organization is still illegal, and he denies it for the record.

He spoke yesterday in a large, cold reception room, where he fielded telephone calls. Last night, after this interview, Dr. al-Zahhar, also was arrested by Israeli soldiers, according to a member of his family and Israeli reports.

Yesterday, he had proposed a compromise he thought might win the release of the Israeli policeman and Sheik Yassin. The policeman should be released promptly, he said, in return for a pledge by Israel to allow the sheik to be examined by three independent doctors. If they found him too ill to remain in jail -- a likelihood given his frail appearance and reported complications from 40 years of partial paralysis -- he would be released from the sentence of life imprisonment he began in 1991.

"This will allow both sides some victory. By releasing the sheik on humanitarian grounds, it would allow Israel to get out of its corner," he said.

The kidnapping prompted some in Israel to declare that it was time to remove the monkey of Gaza from Israel's back. Health Minister Haim Ramon, a close adviser of Mr. Rabin, said the country should consider pulling its troops out of Gaza.

Mr. Rabin publicly rejected such a move without a peace treaty with the Palestinians. To withdraw "will not bring terrorism to an end. On the contrary, it will increase terrorism," he said.

"I believe in negotiations on one hand, and war against terrorism on the other."

There are many in Gaza willing to take up his challenge. Between the shabby homes, the children who help fight that war set out booby traps for Israeli jeeps yesterday, and restocked their pile of stones.

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