Zeevi assassination shatters fragile peace hopes in Israel

Far-right minister shot down in hotel

October 18, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi, a far-right leader who advocated expelling Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was assassinated yesterday outside his hotel room by Palestinian gunmen. It was the first murder of a Cabinet member by Palestinians in Israel's history.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group based in Syria and whose leader in the West Bank was killed by Israel in August, claimed responsibility for the shooting. The group had vowed to target senior Israeli officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he held Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat personally responsible, and he hinted at a sweeping military response.

Sharon's security Cabinet demanded early this morning that the Palestinian Authority "immediately hand over the murderers ... and those that sent them."

If the Palestinian Authority refused, the Cabinet said in a brief statement, "there will be no choice but to view it as a state that supports terror and to act against it."

Shortly before dawn today, Israeli troops and armor entered Palestinian-controlled territory on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Jenin, according to the Reuters news service.

Israel, which has called the city a "hornets nest" of Palestinian militancy, has raided Jenin at least twice since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted over a year ago.

Palestinian officials and witnesses said today that eight tanks rolled about 2 1/2 miles into Palestinian-ruled territory on the southern outskirts of Jenin before stopping. An additional 12 tanks were reported still in an Israeli-controlled area north of Jenin.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

Reuters also reported that a diplomatic source said Israel knew who Zeevi's killers were and was preparing to give the names to the Palestinians.

Zeevi, 75, spent a quarter-century in the Israeli army, retired as a major general and was considered extremist even by the standards of Israel's right wing. As leader of the National Unity-Yisrael Beitenu party, he opposed all peace negotiations. In July he likened Palestinians working and living illegally in Israel to "lice" and a "cancer."

He was found by his wife, Yael, and an American tourist on the floor of a hallway outside his room in the Hyatt Regency hotel in East Jerusalem. He had just returned from breakfast and was not carrying the mini-submachine gun that had become a fixture at his side.

His killing was a dangerous escalation of violence and ended any hopes for an immediate negotiated end to the Palestinian uprising.

"Only despicable terrorists can dream of assassinating an elected official in a democratic state," Sharon told an emergency session of parliament yesterday. "Only a regime that wants to subvert the state of Israel and deeply oppose peace can give shelter and support to murderers of this kind."

He continued, "We want peace with the Palestinian people, but there will be no compromises with terror. Never. His legacy we will fulfill. May God avenge his blood."

Sharon announced a freezing of all contacts with Palestinian leaders and rescinded orders to lift military blockades around West Bank cities. He ignored pleas for restraint from the United States and Europe, which hoped to preserve the faltering peace process.

"From today everything has changed," Sharon said, borrowing from President Bush's remarks after the Sept. 11 attacks in America.

Palestinian Authority officials said last night that its security forces had arrested the PFLP's spokesman in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Ali Jarada, after he gave an interview to the Hezbollah militia's TV station in Lebanon, Al-Manar, claiming responsibility.

It was unclear last night what role, if any, Jarada had in the killing. Palestinian officials said the killer would be tried in Palestinian courts, a pledge unacceptable to Israel.

Zeevi was shot about 7:45 a.m. and pronounced dead about two hours later at Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital. There were no witnesses and no one heard the shots; the gun apparently was equipped with a silencer.

David Hocking, an evangelical Christian minister visiting Jerusalem from California, was taking a shower in a room next to the Zeevis' when he heard the Cabinet minister's wife scream.

"I opened the door and saw him lying there in pool of blood," Hocking said in an interview. "Somebody shot him at close range in the face. It was pretty ugly."

Zeevi had retired from the army in 1974. He wore dog tags around his neck listing the names of Israeli soldiers missing in action.

He earned his nickname "Gandhi" in his youth because of his shaved head and thin build. An avid student of history and archaeology, Zeevi kept a lion as a mascot at his army office in Jerusalem.

Monday, Zeevi had announced his party's resignation from the government, accusing Sharon of capitulating to the Palestinians by easing restrictions on them. The resignation was to take effect yesterday afternoon.

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