Two Israeli soldiers die in attack in Gaza Strip

May 21, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

EREZ CHECKPOINT, Gaza Strip -- Radical Muslims shot and killed two Israeli soldiers at the entrance to the Gaza Strip yesterday, putting to test the newly arrived Palestinian police.

It remains unclear if the police, who took control in the Gaza Strip Wednesday, will try to find and arrest the assailants.

Israel says they must do that under terms of their peace agreement. But such a move would alienate many Palestinians who still feel that attacks on Israel are justified.

"We shall take the necessary measures," the new police chief, Maj. Gen. Nasser Yusef, said cryptically.

Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was visiting Gaza yesterday for a 24-hour trip and met with police officials. He said later: "I'm very sorry this happened. We have to do our best to prevent and pre-empt this from recurring."

Those promises were too vague for many in Israel. Yossi Beilin, the deputy foreign minister and one of the architects of the peace agreement, complained, "The Palestinians did not react properly."

"What they have to do is . . . assure they are doing the utmost in order to disarm those people, to pursue them and to find them," he said.

But an Israeli commander on the scene, who gave his name only as Colonel Shaul, acknowledged: "We expected at the beginning, there would be a few hard days before everything gets together. [The police] are still getting organized."

In another incident yesterday, two Israeli garbage collectors driving a truck from a Jewish settlement remaining in the Gaza Strip were shot and slightly wounded, according to the army. Israel Radio reported that an Israeli was stabbed and slightly injured last night in Jerusalem.

Israel demonstrated its continued power over the autonomous area by ordering a nine-day halt on Palestinian traffic out of the Gaza Strip.

Gazans are already prohibited from leaving without severely limited passes. The order will strand those several thousand Arabs who have permits to work in Israel or passes to deliver goods, visit families, go to hospitals, or attend schools outside the area.

Israeli troops withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip this week as part of an agreement in which Palestinians will begin limited self-government there and the West Bank town of Jericho.

The attack occurred at a small guard post about 300 yards inside the main, fortified entrance to the Gaza Strip from Israel. Three soldiers were posted there, apparently to make a last check of papers of those entering.

According to an army spokesman, a Palestinian car approached the guard post from inside Gaza, turned in front of the soldiers, and opened fire. Two guards standing outside the small concrete shelter at the post were killed immediately. The third, who was inside the shelter, returned fire as the car sped away, the spokesman said.

The dead soldiers, ages 30 and 24, were army reservists serving their annual mandatory duty. They were the first killed since the transfer of duties in Jericho and the Gaza Strip the Palestinians.

The Muslim fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad, which has vowed to continue its battle against Israel, claimed responsibility in a faxed statement to a Western news agency.

Khalid al-Hindi, who works at one of the Islamic Social Centers in Gaza believed to be funded by Hamas, defended that tactic.

"It's the Palestinian right to struggle against all kinds of occupation," he said. "The settlers and the soldiers are occupation."

Israel insists that the agreement for Palestinian autonomy requires Palestinian police to exercise their new authority to prevent attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers who remain on the main roads and in Jewish enclaves.

After the attack, the PLO announced that joint Palestinian-Israeli patrols, agreed upon in the autonomy negotiations, would begin today. They already are under way in Gaza.

The police, brought from Palestinian army units throughout the Middle East, still appear unorganized. Less than half the expected 9,000-person force is here and on duty. The officers have received little if any pay. Most do not have beds; some are getting meals through the charity of local residents.

Even when they are organized, the duty Israel expects from them is a distasteful one for the forces who have spent so long considering Israel the enemy. The warm welcome they have received from other Palestinians may be quickly forgotten if they are seen turning over Palestinian attackers -- considered by many here to be heroes -- to the Israeli army.

"It's natural to keep up the attacks," said Yasir el-Kudwa, 31, who sells sweets in the Beach refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. "Those people will fight until they liberate Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the sea."

"The autonomy we have gotten so far is the result of our fighting and struggle," agreed Abdul Rahman Qurdi, 38, an electrical equipment repairman. "The only way to get the rest of our rights is by force."

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