Israelis may have planted fatal bomb

Commandos behind `grave mishap' that killed boys, sources say

November 24, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - An explosive that killed five Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip on Thursday had probably been planted there by Israeli army commandos to target militants who launch mortars into Jewish settlements, Israeli military sources said yesterday.

A senior army commander called the incident a "grave mishap" and said that such tactics are being re-evaluated. The source said investigators have found "serious fault" with the undercover unit that placed the device along a path near a school.

Israeli government officials declined to accept responsibility publicly but did order an investigation. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer expressed his "regret over the human tragedy" and "the loss of innocent lives."

The dead children were all part of the extended Astal family, one of the largest clans in the Khan Younis refugee camp, an impoverished and volatile community in the southern Gaza Strip that abuts the army-patrolled fence-lines guarding two groups of settlements.

Israeli politicians protested yesterday in unusually harsh terms how the army targets suspected militants, methods that include assassinations and leaving live bombs along paths.

"It's a residential area," said parliament member Yossi Sarid, head of the opposition Meretz Party. "What kind of bombs do you place in an area where school children walk by?"

Tensions ran high in Khan Younis yesterday as thousands of people marched in a funeral procession, holding up the five bodies draped with red-and-green Palestinian flags and shooting volleys of gunshots into the air.

Clashes broke out later, during which Palestinian police said a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier outside a local cemetery. In retaliation, a Palestinian militant fired a mortar into the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, damaging a home.

The deaths come just days before U.S. envoys are scheduled to arrive to push both sides into a cease-fire, and Thursday's incident will probably be brought up by Palestinian officials.

"It's unbelievable how insensitive it is to leave devices to explode on a road," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who said he plans to meet with the U.S. delegation Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "What kind of commanders do they have? What kind of anger allows them to do such a thing? It's all the more reason that we need the Americans here. We don't want to talk. Let them come and see for themselves what the Israelis are doing."

The five children - two pairs of brothers and a distant cousin - were killed as they walked to their boys school, which is sponsored by the United Nations. One of the youths apparently kicked the device, which was hidden under a bush in a tomato field.

The powerful explosion blew a crater into the ground and sent shards of clothing and books hundreds of feet. At first, Israeli and Palestinian officials thought the child had kicked an Israeli tank shell that had been fired by the army days earlier, but did not initially detonate.

But yesterday, Israeli officials conceded that an elite undercover unit had recently infiltrated the area, which is under Palestinian control, and planted a bomb along a dirt path that is used by militants to attack two nearby Jewish communities.

The Gush Katif settlement comes under daily gunfire and mortar attacks, launched from a field near the Abdullah Siam boys school, in the Khan Younis refugee camp. Ben-Eliezer said that the explosion "occurred in an open, uninhabited area from which firing had frequently been directed at Israeli communities and army positions."

But the children were killed about 200 yards from the school, along what they said is a path used by students every day, and within sight of an army watchtower that looms over the field and guards the Jewish settlers.

The dead children were identified as Mohammed Na'im Astal, 14; his brother, Akram Na'im Astal, 7; Aniz Idris Astal, 11; his brother Omar Idris Astal, 14; and Mohammad Sultan Astal, 12, a distant cousin.

The placing of such explosive devices is not a new tactic for the Israeli army, but it is not something members of the army typically discuss publicly. Sources said the devices are often equipped with triggers and set off by remote control to avoid killing unintended targets.

Israeli army sources said it is still possible that the device was a Palestinian mortar round left behind by militants, but they also admitted that that was unlikely.

Although the army has said it fired numerous tank shells into the area during clashes over the past two weeks, officials discounted that theory as well yesterday. They said that the shells are designed to explode upon impact and that if one failed to detonate when it hit the ground, it could not go off from being kicked.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor, from the Center Party, called the deaths "appalling and horrible" and added that if Israel is indeed responsible, "it cannot be accepted, and should be regretted even more. If it turns out a mistake was made, then the truth should be told and an apology should be made."

Israeli state-run radio, in an unusual move, urged yesterday that the nation's top rabbinical leaders send letters of apology and condolences to the families of the five children. The radio statement was read against a backdrop of sorrowful music.

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