Arab's shadowy death mirrors Mideast

Case of slain militant shows acts and reprisals, web of broken promises

November 15, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Atef Abayat couldn't resist getting behind the wheel of his new Mitsubishi Pajero, its black leather seats still wrapped in plastic, and speeding down a winding road.

The Palestinian militia leader apparently wasn't worried that the $60,000 sport utility vehicle had been given to him by a Palestinian middleman who had purchased the car from an Israeli known for smuggling goods into the West Bank.

Less than a half-hour after Abayat, 30, climbed into the car, his brother Jamal beside him and a friend in the back, the Pajero blew up, killing everyone inside

Enraged Palestinians blamed Israel for an assassination and retaliated by shooting across a valley at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. Israeli tanks then moved into Bethlehem, sparking 10 days of deadly street battles.

Beyond sparking a series of attacks and reprisals that have become a routine part of this conflict, Abayat's death shows how the daily flare-ups are fueled and why they continue despite attempts by world leaders to quench them.

It also exposes the difficulties Palestinian leaders face in trying to fulfill promises to imprison militants intent on undermining the peace process, as well as the leaders' occasional refusals to act.

Abayat was wanted by Israel for his alleged involvement in the deaths of five Israelis in the past year, including two soldiers killed in fighting, an electrician shot on a road and a man slain as he was walking to pray at Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

Last month, Abayat allegedly shot and killed Sarit Amrani, a mother of three, near the Jewish settlement of Nokdim, southeast of Bethlehem. Palestinian police arrested him, but his family threatened his jailers and he was freed.

Palestinian authorities said they arrested Abayat again and repeatedly told Israeli officials and U.S. and European diplomats that he was securely behind bars. U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larson called an Israeli Cabinet member twice to tell him the Palestinian assurances were true.

Abayat's death provided conclusive proof that they weren't and sent embarrassed Palestinian officials scrambling for answers while trying to prove to the world that they are serious about reaching a peace settlement and cracking down on extremists.

The director of the West Bank National Security Court, Fathi Abu Srour, said he furloughed Abayat from his apartment-style jail cell a day before he was killed so he could attend a funeral. But in an interview, he described the suspected terrorist as a political prisoner, "a fighter and a Palestinian who was performing his duty."

How the vehicle exploded remains a mystery. Some Palestinians say their own leaders ordered the car to be booby-trapped, after deciding it would be better to have Abayat dead than in jail - an accusation that Palestinian officials call absurd. Israeli officials say a car bomb that Abayat had been preparing for a terrorist attack went off prematurely.

Palestinian officials are convinced that Israel killed him. The Israeli army has said that it carries out assassinations; up to 65 people have been victims, according to figures from the Israeli government and human rights groups. Officials have acknowledged some of the "targeted killings," when carried out by a sharpshooter or helicopter-launched missile.

But Israeli officials are far more secretive when other methods are used. The Israeli army has refused to say whether its forces killed Abayat.

However, within an hour of his death, the Israeli army faxed reporters portions of Abayat's intelligence file, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said that if the militant had been in jail as promised, "he would still be alive today."

The Abayat family is one of the largest clans in Bethlehem and makes up a majority of a ruling tribe known both for its loyal defenders of Palestinian nationalism and for mob-style thugs who shake down merchants for protection money.

Six Abayats have been killed in the past year, mostly in confrontations with Israeli soldiers. The death of Atef Abayat has left a leadership void, sparking infighting with another family in the Aida refugee camp across town.

Israeli leaders have demanded that Palestinian police dismantle militant groups before peace negotiations can begin. The West Bank security chief, Col. Jibril Rajoub, says that Palestinian officials, not Israelis, will decide who should be arrested.

Rajoub said 80 percent of the people assassinated are not on "wanted lists" that Israel gives the Palestinians and discounted their claims that his security forces refuse to arrest militants identified by Israel. But the Abayat case shows that the issue is far more complicated and links Palestinian leaders with the roving gunmen.

To ensure that it was safe to approach the Abayat home for an interview, the Bethlehem governor's secretary drove a reporter to the local militia office, where a machine gun-toting militant provided an escort.

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