Mideast reprisals escalate, spilling more civilian blood

Palestinian family, Tel Aviv partygoers among latest killed

March 05, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMARI REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - Safa'a Masri, 7, climbed into the back of his uncle's white Subaru yesterday afternoon, squeezing between his cousins for what should have been a routine ride home from school.

From inside the car, the passengers would have seen a garbage dump and an approaching pickup truck. At the precise moment the Subaru passed the truck on the gravel road, an Israeli tank perched on a hill fired a shell. It slammed into the side of the truck and destroyed both vehicles. A Palestinian woman and her three children died in the truck. Two children died in the car.

"I didn't see anything," said Safa'a, his face bruised and the white collar of his sweater smeared with blood. Dazed, he didn't know how he survived. "Pieces of glass just covered my head."

The Israeli army said its soldiers had fired on a car they believed was carrying armed Palestinian militants but instead killed the civilians. The army apologized for what it acknowledged was a mistake but made no apologies for a new wave of military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to retaliate for the deaths of 22 Israelis over the weekend.

By last night, Israeli troops had killed 20 Palestinians. Nearly half of them were civilians. At the edge of the Jenin refugee camp, soldiers opened fire on a Palestinian ambulance, killing a doctor and wounding three medics taking a wounded youngster to a hospital. The army said the ambulance had sped toward a military checkpoint, and soldiers fired out of fear it would try to run them over. When a bullet pierced an oxygen tank inside the ambulance, the vehicle exploded.

Early this morning, a man with an M-16 rifle opened fire on a restaurant in Tel Aviv, killing three people and wounding at least 31 at a bachelorette party attended by many Israeli professional soccer players, Israeli police said.

Police said officers and civilians apparently shot and killed the gunman, but they didn't immediately identify him. He apparently acted alone and tried unsuccessfully to throw a grenade, Tel Aviv's police commander said. He also stabbed people.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant Palestinian group, telephoned reporters in Ramallah and claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for Israeli attacks the previous day. The caller identified the gunman as Ibrahimi Muhammad Hassouni, from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said the army actions would continue indefinitely. "We have no choice but to increase military pressure in order to defend ourselves and our homes," Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday. "Our goal is to finally calm the situation together with the Palestinian Authority, to get the Authority to act against terror."

Both sides have stopped talking about peace initiatives and cease-fires and are warning that the fighting will only intensify.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israeli reporters that a "big blow" was needed to force the Palestinians to stop their terror campaign and return to negotiations. "In this present situation," he said, "it is either them or us."

Last night, Jerusalem residents heard Israeli warplanes as they bombed buildings housing the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem. No casualties were reported.

Militant groups once again vowed revenge for the civilian deaths. The Islamic Resistance Group, or Hamas, said Israel would "pay a heavy price for its aggression."

The four people killed in the truck included the wife and three daughters, ages 10, 13 and 14, of a Hamas leader, Hussein Abu Kawik. Palestinians accused Israel of trying to assassinate him; he was not in the truck when the tank shell struck.

"We are killing innocent civilians on both sides," said Amjad Alfar, 19, a computer engineer from Ramallah who passed by the vehicles moments after the tank fired. "But what happened here will clearly escalate the situation. We are really coming to a dead end. The guy they tried to kill was wanted by the Israelis, but his kids are paying the price."

Hundreds of Palestinians rushed to the wreckage, smoldering in front of a stately villa near the refugee camp in Ramallah.

Nida Mashal heard the explosion from her house but was reluctant to run outside, fearing the tank would fire again. Seeing no one else come to help, she approached the burning cars. A woman lay dead in the street.

Mashal said there were no survivors inside the truck: ."Pieces of people were everywhere."

Youngsters climbed over the wreckage and retrieved cassette tapes and schoolbooks.

The car stopped about 30 feet away. Mashal helped a paramedic pry the driver's side door open. Her neighbor Hamdoa Elyan pulled out the driver, Imad Masri, 34, and drove him to a hospital. "He was the only one in one piece," he said.

The dead were Arafat Masri, 16, and his cousin, Shaima'a Masri, 4. Five children under age 7 survived, going home bruised and shaken.

"It's a massacre," Elyan said.

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