Palestinian gunmen attack Gaza settlement, kill couple

Four hours of grenades and bullets stun residents observing Jewish holiday

October 04, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ELEI SINAI, Gaza Strip - The Jewish settlers who live in this community of squat homes amid sand dunes knew that their flimsy perimeter fence wouldn't protect them. A few weeks ago, community council member Avi Farhan had sent a warning letter to the Israeli army.

The 55-year-old army reservist who helped found this settlement nearly two decades ago pleaded for a new barrier, sunk into the soft ground in concrete and high enough to ward off climbers. It must be done quickly, he wrote, "before, God forbid, there is a danger and we berate ourselves for not doing enough."

Yesterday, residents were picking through the ruins of their homes, visiting injured neighbors at hospitals and paying last respects to a man and woman who were killed Tuesday night by two Palestinian gunmen. The gunmen, wearing military fatigues, had gone under the fence and embarked on a four-hour rampage.

Holiday, truce shattered

The result was a community shattered both physically and emotionally. Every resident had a story about cowering for hours in darkened rooms listening to gunfire and exploding grenades that turned a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Succoth into a night of terror.

The violence also destroyed a week-old cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, an imperfect truce during which both sides had restrained their use of force. But then came the attack here, and then a response by the Israeli army.

Israeli tanks and armored gunboats pounded the city of Gaza yesterday and, for the first time, tanks moved into Palestinian-controlled territory and destroyed police stations and guard posts, killing six Palestinians. Other soldiers cleared wide swaths of farmland around Elei Sinai to eliminate hiding places for gunmen

Israel also canceled plans to ease travel restrictions between Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and Israeli officials said they may resume targeted killings of suspected terrorists.

A security meeting between the two sides mediated by the CIA, scheduled for last night, was canceled.

`The reaction was terror'

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, addressing a Christian group Tuesday night in Jerusalem as the attack was taking place here, said he had given in to American requests to sanction a meeting between Israeli officials and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, only to be thanked with more killings.

"The world was happy," Sharon told the group. "Arafat declared a cease-fire, but the fire did not stop for one minute. The world demanded, they said it would be important if our minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Shimon Peres, would meet with Arafat. ... The pressure stopped. They met. The reaction was terror, and again terror, and again terror."

Hamas claims responsibility

The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack; it marked the first time during the year-old Palestinian uprising that a Jewish settlement has been overrun. Hamas has said it will not abide by Arafat's cease-fire agreement.

Arafat, clearly struggling to rein in radical militia groups while trying to rebuild his image as a peacemaker, condemned the assault and promised to "implement the cease-fire and put a firm and quick end to any violation from our side."

The attack on Elei Sinai came at a particularly bad time for Arafat. Despite almost nonstop shootings by Palestinian gunmen, Israeli had begun withdrawing tanks from around Palestinian cities and had eased travel restrictions. And President Bush had said Tuesday that a Palestinian state was part of the United States' long-term goals.

Arafat criticized

To salvage the truce, Arafat met yesterday with four Arab-Israeli members of the Israeli parliament and said he would be willing to meet again with Peres and even with Sharon to work out a more comprehensive peace plan.

But Israeli officials are particularly angered by Arafat's refusal to arrest militants. The Palestinian Authority detained a suspect Tuesday in a fatal shooting two weeks ago of an Israeli woman, but released him after pressure from militants on the street.

Yesterday, Israel demanded that Arafat go after the Hamas members who had planned the assault on Elei Sinai, a demand that would require Arafat to test his own popularity against Hamas'.

Sharon also asked the United States to put Hamas and two other radical groups operating in Israel on its list of terrorist organizations targeted in its war against terrorism.

Hours after Arafat promised once again to crack down on violence, armed militants opened fire on a crowd of Israelis in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, wounding two women.

Sharon found himself under pressure, too. Yedioth Ahronoth , Israel's largest newspaper, said, "Israel continues to play the fool" by engaging Arafat in discussions as violence rages.

Meanwhile, a settlers' council accused the prime minister of failing in his "promise to return the security of the citizens of Israel. The Sharon government projects confusion with a lack of decisiveness in the struggle against terror."

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