Palestinian delegate nearly killed in Gaza Shots into crowd kill man near him

March 19, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Shots fired into a crowd of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip yesterday killed a man standing near Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the Mideast peace talks.

It was further evidence how the language of bullets has replaced negotiation in a new storm of violence in the occupied territories.

Israel state television said the shooting was a failed assassination attempt on Dr. Abdel-Shafi. The Israeli military said that "local Arabs" were responsible.

Palestinians dismissed the claim and said that shots were fired from one of two Israeli military jeeps. Some reports said Israeli soldiers fired at youths throwing stones and their shots hit the crowd.

A spokesman for the army explained that Palestinians were blamed because "that's the only thing it could be.

"Everyone checked all down the line. We haven't found any soldiers that were involved in a shooting," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel.

"I know we have a version that is completely and totally different from what the Palestinians say."

Palestinian rejected the implication that militants opposed to the peace talks were to blame. Dr. Abdel-Shafi was in a large group in the dark and could not have been singled out, they said.

Killed was Yusef al-Gharib, 45, a teacher at a local United Nations school and a father of 10.

Dr. Abdel-Shafi said in a radio interview that he could not be certain soldiers fired the shots but that "the fire came from the direction" of Israeli jeeps.

The dead teacher joins a growing list of Palestinian and Jewish casualties from the violence that has prompted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to cut short his trip to the United States.

In the last three days, clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have left four Palestinians dead and more than 200 wounded, most of them from gunshots.

The conflict has grown steadily since Israel deported 415 Palestinians to Lebanon Dec. 17. In the last three months, 10 Jews have been killed by Palestinians, and more than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers.

The worsening situation has fed extremism. Right-wing Israelis have vowed to take matters in their own hands and have rampaged through Palestinian towns, smashing property and shooting at homes. The militant Palestinian group Hamas yesterday vowed to retaliate and escalate attacks. Israel's police chief has urged civilians to carry guns.

The Palestinian delegates have refused to accept the invitation tTC to the next round of negotiations April 20. Mr. Rabin hoped to go ahead with the other parties, but Syria reaffirmed yesterday that it will make no peace treaty unless the Palestinians are involved.

Each day of violence has increased the pressure on the Palestinian delegation to stay away. Palestin ians say Israeli soldiers shoot indiscriminately. They say yesterday's incident is further demonstration of that.

In an interview, Dr. Zakaria al-Agha said he and Dr. Abdel-Shafi went to attend a customary meal served on the third day after the death of their friend, who died of cancer.

There were almost 2,000 people at the meal in a large area set up for such occasions in the Rafah refugee camp, Dr. Agha said. After the meal, most of the crowd began to leave together.

"In front of the place there were Israeli military vehicles, two of them," he said. "Suddenly we heard gunshots from the side of the soldiers. There were many shots."

Mr. Gharib was standing about 15 feet away, he said, and slumped to the ground.

Mohammed Qudwa, head of the Chamber of Commerce in Gaza, said he was standing "centimeters" away from Mr. Gharib.

"I saw the light from the weapons of the military. They were about 100 [yards] from where we were standing," he said. Dr. Abdel-Shafi gave a

similar version on Israel army radio but did not assert that he had seen the soldiers fire.

"As we were getting into the car, they opened fire and a fellow was hit. This fire came from the direction where we were told the army was," he said.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces issued a statement saying an army patrol heard three shots, and came to investigate. When it arrived on the scene, the patrol found the victim. The statement said: "The incident was done by local Arabs."

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