Mourners in Israel struggle for answers

Family funeral draws thousands as leaders warn of retaliation

March 04, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RISHON LEZION, Israel - A traumatized Israel buried the victims of a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem and a sniper in the West Bank as its leaders warned yesterday of retaliation.

Thousands attended the funeral for seven family members - a husband and wife, their two young daughters, two nephews and a niece - killed in the bombing Saturday night. "Let us hope that they are not victims for nothing," Rabbi Yosef Azran said at the grave. "Let's hope that this marks the end."

They were among the nine Israelis killed by the explosion outside a religious school in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Beit Yisrael. In addition, a Palestinian sniper opened fire about 6:30 a.m. yesterday at an army checkpoint north of Ramallah in the West Bank and killed seven Israeli soldiers and three Jewish settlers. It raised the number of Israelis killed over the weekend to 21.

Israel retaliated yesterday by bombing buildings at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah as well as police posts elsewhere in the West Bank. Four Palestinian police officers were reported killed.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his security Cabinet last night to discuss further retaliation, and it approved military plans for attacks on Palestinian targets, the Associated Press reported.

"Ministers approved an operational program presented by the army to apply constant military pressure on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian terror organizations," a statement said. "Its object is to halt Palestinian terror."

Early today, Israeli tanks rolled into the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, igniting fighting, with soldiers firing and Palestinians setting off explosives next to the tanks, witnesses said.

Israeli troops also moved into the Gaza Strip's Rafah refugee camp and demolished a building, witnesses said. Two Palestinian gunmen and one civilian were killed in the ensuing exchange of fire and several other Palestinians were wounded, doctors said.

The Israeli military said troops went in to search for tunnels used to smuggle arms under the border from Egypt. Soldiers exchanged fire with armed Palestinians, hitting several, the military said.

Last week, at least 23 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks on two West Bank refugee camps as the army opened a new front in this protracted conflict. Soldiers fought their way into the Balata and Jenin refugee camps for the first time to seize weapons, while Palestinians successfully targeted civilians in Jerusalem and soldiers at an isolated checkpoint near the settlement of Ofra.

The tactics employed by both sides have failed. Despite intensive Israeli bombing campaigns and invasions of Palestinian cities, militants find ways to attack. And Jewish settlers have not fled West Bank and Gaza Strip communities.

Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, blamed the bloodshed on what he called Sharon's hard-fisted policies. "We've reached the point of no return," Barghouti told reporters in Ramallah after his group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing and the checkpoint attack. "I call upon the Israeli public to oust Sharon's government. If he thinks that his Apaches [helicopters] and his F-16s will stop the uprising, he is kidding himself."

Yesterday, in Rishon LeZion, thousands of mourners prayed over Shlomo Nechmad, 40; his wife, Gafnit, 32; and their daughters Sharaz, 7, and Liran, 3. Also buried were the couple's nephews and niece: Shauli Nechmad, 15; Lydor Ilan, 12; and Oriah Ilan, 18 months.

They were laid side by side on an outdoor platform and draped with black blankets. Relatives restrained a wailing woman by each arm. "Don't touch me," she cried. "I want to see my sister. I want to see what the Arabs made of her."

Around her, stunned mourners jostled each other, then followed as the family was carried to the back of the pine-shaded cemetery for burial.

"I'm in pure fear," said family friend Yakov Bukris, 38.

The family was killed minutes after leaving a bar mitzvah for a relative who lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood.

Two rabbis and a politician said a few words at the mass burial as mourners clutched flowers.

"You are paying the price that Jewish people pay for trying to live here," said Cabinet member Nissim Dahan of the religious Shas party.

Azran compared Arafat to Adolf Hitler and the Palestinian Authority to the Nazi regime.

But the rabbi expressed a sense of frustration that the Israelis - its government and people alike - are unsure how to proceed.

"Our army destroys Palestinian houses and bombs their buildings," he said. "But what should we do when they kill innocent people in cold blood in the holy city of Jerusalem?" Noting the killing of the soldiers, he said: "They killed people with guns. They are not afraid anymore."

In Israel's capital, Sofia Yaarit Eliyahu, 23, and her son, Avraham, 7 months, were laid to rest. Four of the victims from the checkpoint and two others shot and killed in other attacks over the weekend were also buried yesterday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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