West Bank town a haven for radical Popular Front

Village where outlawed Palestinian organization plotted official's killing

October 26, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT RIMA, West Bank - This is a farming village with one main road, one general store and one common allegiance, to an outlawed Palestinian faction.

It is a hamlet built on ruins from the Iron Age and where goods are still bartered and wealth is still measured in jugs of olive oil. Israeli authorities say it also is the place where assassins plotted the killing of a Cabinet minister.

A political undercurrent runs through this scattering of houses. The sympathy is unstated but made obvious by the posters honoring the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, outlawed by Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

Here in this village almost hidden by olive groves climbing rugged hills, the Israeli army launched a 24-hour campaign that began Wednesday morning to hunt down men suspected of helping carry out the murder of Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi. Tanks rolled down the road, gunfire erupted from hovering Apache helicopters, soldiers rousted residents in house-to-house searches and commandos blew up three homes belonging to the families of alleged militants.

"We will live between the ground and the sky," said Ahmed Yousef Reheimy, a 73-year-old retired farmer propped up by a wooden cane atop the ruins of his house. The reasons his house was destroyed? One of his sons had been jailed and charged by Israel in helping blow up a car in Jerusalem a few months ago, and a son-in-law named Mahmed Fahmi Rimawi is accused of driving a getaway car for the PFLP killers of Zeevi.

Much of what happened during the operation, described by Israel as a large assault on a Popular Front stronghold, remains in dispute.

There was no evidence of a massacre by Israeli troops, as claimed Wednesday night by several Palestinian officials.

It appears that at least five people were killed. All were Palestinian police officers or members of Palestinian security forces. Israeli and Palestinian officials said a sixth fatality, a man reportedly shot in an olive grove, may have occurred, but his death has not been confirmed.

Israeli army commanders blocked Palestinian ambulances from entering during the siege. But Israeli army ambulances evacuated five wounded Palestinians and took them to Israeli hospitals. There were no Israeli causalities.

Col. Khamal Kadoumy, Palestinian security force commander for the region, toured the battered village yesterday and maintained that not a single shot was fired from his troops. "If there was a battle," he said, "then where are the losses on the Israeli side?"

But there was evidence that the Palestinians fired, too: Spent shell casings were in the municipal building stairway, where some of the defenders had been, and by sandbags near windows that gave gunmen a line of fire.

Kadoumy said the assault began when Israeli commandos dressed as Arabs arrived in two Ford sedans with green-and-white Palestinian license plates at a police post. He said three guards were killed outside their post, a small metal trailer at the edge of the village. Two security officers were killed in the town, one by the Municipal Building.

Dr. Bassem Rimawi, who lives in Beit Rima, said he saw one man lying dead under an outdoor cot. He said he found another man bleeding in an olive grove but was not allowed to treat him.

Residents said Palestinian gunmen took cover and shot from a vacant home, which apparently was firebombed by Israeli soldiers. Its owner, Yousef Alalem, 36, returned to his smoldering three-room house yesterday but was most upset by the 50 jugs of olive oil that had been destroyed.

"I want to continue living here," he said. He, like others, buys goods all year on credit and pays for his purchases after the fall olive harvest.

Israeli army Col. Yair Brantis described the events as a fierce gunbattle waged for hours between his troops and Palestinian gunmen. He said there were three heavy clashes, one near the police station. "We fired towards armed men or those that opened fire towards us," Brantis said. He denied that any wounded were abandoned.

Brantis described Beit Rima as a militant stronghold harboring gunmen responsible for 14 Israeli deaths on area roads in the past six months. It also is the home of Majdi Rimawi, who Israeli intelligence officials say is the PFLP leader who recruited men to carry out Zeevi's assassination. Israeli security sources told the Israeli media that he had been captured during the raid on Beit Rima.

Rimawi's mother, Ma'azouzeh Rimawi, sat in front of a friend's house yesterday across from the destroyed Reheimy home and described her son as a former political activist with the PFLP who spent time in Israeli prison during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s.

"Every mother worries about their sons and hopes they don't get hurt," said Rimawi, 62, believing her son was hiding in Ramallah. "Hopefully the accusations against him are false. He got married and became very responsible. I don't think he became involved in politics again."

Few villagers were willing to talk about militant groups, and all denied descriptions of their town as a stronghold. But posters of a PFLP leader, Ali Abu Mustafa, who was killed in August by an Israeli missile strike, were stripped across the sides of buildings - a tribute to the slain leader. Most of the physical damage here was limited to the destruction of three houses.

Reheimy said Israeli soldiers told him Wednesday night to evacuate his family. They placed dynamite that exploded with a blast powerful enough to blow clothes into the trees. The clothes were still there yesterday, fluttering like flags from the branches.

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