Israel faces deadly tactics

Palestinian bomb destroys a tank in new level of violence

`Atmosphere of shock'

Officials suspect Hezbollah is source of explosive, method

February 16, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A roadside bomb in the Gaza Strip that destroyed an advanced Israeli tank was evidence that an Iranian-backed militia is aiding Palestinian forces and may mark a dangerous turning point in the violence here, Israeli commentators said yesterday.

The bomb's explosion ripped through the undercarriage of a Merkava 3 tank Thursday night, dislodging the turret, igniting the shells inside and killing three soldiers. The Israeli army said the bomb material and tactics came from the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

"The destruction of the tank is a turning point," said Efraim Inbar, a security expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "The Israeli army is for the first time in this conflict vulnerable."

For the Israelis, the loss of the tank means that armored vehicles can no longer roll into Palestinian villages with impunity. And it could mean the army will be more apt to open fire or plow through homes and fields to avoid roadside explosives.

Palestinian fighters have relied on guerrilla tactics against the formidable Israeli army, which strikes back with warplanes, helicopters and tanks.

Over the past 16 months, the Palestinians have been expanding their arsenal, but they still fall well short of sophisticated, modern weaponry.

Crude and inaccurate mortars are fired routinely into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip; last week, though, Palestinians fired rockets with a range of about five miles. Israel's capture of sophisticated arms aboard the ship Karine A, apparently from Iran, has added to Israel's concerns.

"The Palestinians succeeded in carrying out a very sophisticated ambush with a large explosive charge," said Ron Ben-Yishai, the military commentator for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "My only question is how, in 16 months of fighting, were they unable to destroy a tank before?"

A Palestinian group calling itself the Saladin Brigades, named after the Muslim warrior who drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem more than 800 years ago, claimed responsibility for Thursday night's attack.

In leaflets distributed in the Gaza Strip, the group said it had retaliated for the Israeli army's entry into three Palestinian towns Wednesday in which five Palestinians were killed. Israel launched that operation in response to the firing of the rockets.

Yesterday, the violence continued as the Israeli army sent tanks back into the Gaza Strip to search for other explosives. Palestinian officials said Israeli aircraft bombed an office of the Palestinian security forces, wounding more than a dozen people.

In the West Bank, the leader of an elite Israeli commando unit was accidentally killed when the wall of a house collapsed on him. Lt. Col. Eyal Weiss, of the Duvdevan undercover unit, had arrested a leader of Islamic Jihad while army bulldozers prepared to destroy the man's house. As the bulldozers did their work, the wall behind Weiss gave way and crushed him.

The loss of the tank generated the most comment yesterday.

Using tactics long practiced by Hezbollah, Palestinian gunmen hid in a field and opened fire on a convoy of civilian cars escorted out of a Jewish settlement by Israeli army jeeps.

Soldiers returned fire and called for a tank to block the road. The Merkava tank advanced on a dirt path until a bomb hidden in the roadway exploded under the vehicle.

The army said that the angle of the blast dislodged the turret, igniting a fire that set off thousands of rounds of ammunition and more than a dozen tank shells.

The Israeli press described the army as being in an "atmosphere of shock." The newspaper Maariv compared the loss of the Merkava to the loss of an F-16 fighter jet.

"This is not a repeat or even an introduction of Lebanon into the Palestinian conflict," Ben-Yishai of Yedioth Ahronoth said in an interview. "But it doesn't take a genius to know that the Hezbollah tactics worked, and the Palestinians will of course try to copy them."

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