Abducted Israeli policeman found slain 1,200 Palestinians have been arrested

December 16, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army has undertaken sweeping arrests of Islamic fundamentalists with the kidnapping and killing of an Israeli border policeman.

It hopes the arrests will bolster its old foes and Hamas' chief rival, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The bound body of Nissim Toledano was found yesterday in the desert hills outside Jerusalem by a Bedouin woman searching for her camel. He had been stabbed and strangled, most likely Monday night, according to Israeli Radio.

The kidnapping ended without the demanded release from an Israeli prison of the sheik who founded Hamas. But it may yet claim a higher ransom: the weakening of the Middle East peace talks.

The crime demonstrated the strength of opponents to the talks and raised the question of whether Israel is negotiating with people who no longer hold the power among Palestinians.

Security forces have swept into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past two days and arrested more than 1,200 supporters of Hamas, according to the government. It was the largest mass arrest since the start of the Palestinian intifada in 1987.

A source in the military acknowledged the purpose: "The Army is trying to strengthen those who support the peace process. They are trying to strengthen the Fatah [a PLO faction] at the expense of Hamas."

In a special address to Parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to continue the effort, saying, "Our intention is to carry on striking against the organizations and its members without mercy."

He said Hamas wants to "kill the peace process" and vowed again that "we have no intention of withdrawing from the talks" in Washington.

Peace talks began in October 1991 between Israel and Palestinian negotiators close to the Fatah wing headed by Yasser Arafat.

In frustration at the paltry progress, some Palestinians have embraced the call for armed struggle against Israel. That call comes most clearly from members of Hamas, local Palestinians whose religious asceticism contrasts favorably with the opulence enjoyed by some PLO leaders in Tunis, Tunisia.

The kidnapping and a recent spate of shootings claimed by Hamas have provoked a pained response from Israel, unlike the muddled and dragging peace negotiations.

"Hamas gained some prestige for being able to harm Israel," said Meir Litvak, a researcher at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Before the recent actions, Hamas was variously estimated to have 30 percent to 45 percent of the popular support in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fatah has had to rely on coalitions with some of the other PLO factions to muster a majority of support for the peace negotiations.

"This [kidnapping] might have weakened the Fatah camp. It's not going to help the peace negotiations," Mr. Litvak said.

The Israel army reached the same conclusion. The arrests of Hamas this week had less to do with investigating the kidnapping than with making a political point, a military source said.

"There's a concern that the extremists within the Palestinian camp will view this [kidnapping] as a victory, derail the peace talks and divert attention from the moderate camp," he said.

"It has to be clear that we are not going to let this go by. It has to be clear that there will be a price paid."

The arrests included Palestinian public figures who have advocated Muslim fundamentalism but have carefully stayed away from the violent acts carried out by Hamas.

But Israel's action has the potential of backfiring, by increasing the popularity of those who are detained and by encouraging moderates to carry out other acts of violence.

Moderates "won't be able to stand aloof much longer while the Palestinian public is being swept off its feet in a wave of sympathy for the religious Muslims who are risking their lives in the struggle against Israel," said Danny Rubenstein, an Arab affairs correspondent for the newspaper Ha'aretz.

"The intifada has started from the beginning again," Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahhar, an acknowledged leader of Hamas, told The Sun at his home in Gaza a few hours before he was arrested Monday.

The kidnapping and shootings that left six Israeli soldiers dead this month also have further alienated the Israeli public, bringing calls for less talk and more crackdowns.

Mr. Rabin urged the public "not to give way to panic and violence and anarchy in the country."

But a member of the opposition Likud bloc, former Foreign Minister David Levy, called the Hamas arrests too late. "Where were you? Why was it necessary to wait until this happened?" he demanded of Mr. Rabin on the floor of the Knesset.

Mr. Toledano, the slain policeman, was abducted as he walked from his home to the border police headquarters in Lod, near Tel Aviv, early Sunday.

The 29-year-old father of two apparently was killed at the spot where his body was found.

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