Arabs held in attack at Israeli university

Painter at the campus accused of planting bomb

August 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli security officials said yesterday that they had arrested a group of Palestinians from East Jerusalem in a number of attacks against Israeli civilians, including a bombing at Hebrew University last month that killed nine people, five of them Americans.

Officials of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, accused Shehada Odeh, 29, who worked as a painter at the university, of planting the bomb there. They said Odeh and four other East Jerusalem residents who were arrested belong to the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas.

The accusations are significant because Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have identity cards that allow them to travel relatively freely throughout the city and Israel. East Jerusalem residents' participation in attacks has usually been limited to helping Palestinians from the West Bank move about or procure cars.

Shin Bet officials, in a briefing for foreign correspondents, said they had also arrested 10 Palestinians from the West Bank city of Ramallah in the attacks. Authorities made the first arrests Saturday, officials said, as five of the men were involved in preparations for a bombing along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Authorities found and disarmed the bomb Tuesday.

A Shin Bet official called Odeh's actions "unique" and troubling. "Odeh could come and go from Jerusalem and the university without any problems," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement condemning Odeh and the other East Jerusalem residents in custody, saying that they "have exploited their freedom of travel within Israel ... in order to initiate, direct and perpetrate deadly terrorist acts."

Their link to Hamas, the statement said, "directly damages the trust given to residents of eastern Jerusalem, who could pay a dear social and economic price as a result of being alienated from the Jewish population."

Odeh lives with his wife, Huda, 26, and two children in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood near the Old City. In an interview last night, she vehemently denied the accusations against him.

"This is a product of the Israeli imagination," she said, holding their 3-month-old daughter. "The night of the bombing, he was in Ramot and he was painting."

Ramot is a neighborhood in West Jerusalem.

Samer Odeh, 24, said his brother had been arrested in the early 1990s, during the first Palestinian uprising, for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Now, he said, Mohammed "got up, went to work and came home."

"Hamas can't operate in Silwan," he said. "People here just want to work, earn money and buy things for their family. They are not interested in getting into trouble."

Israel's deputy internal security minister, Gideon Ezra, told Israeli radio that the suspects' homes in East Jerusalem should be bulldozed - a practice usually reserved for the homes of the families of suicide bombers from the West Bank.

Shin Bet officials said the first attack attributed to the group took place in February, when a bomb hidden in a case of soft drinks exploded in a Jerusalem supermarket. Injuries were minor.

On March 9, officials said, the group was responsible for a bombing at the popular Moment Cafe in Jerusalem, in which 12 people died, including the bomber. The Hamas cell carried out a suicide bombing May 7 at a billiard hall in Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv, killing 15. Other attacks linked to the group include two unsuccessful attempts to bomb a tanker truck, once at fuel depot near Tel Aviv.

Security officials said yesterday that Odeh, who worked at Jerusalem's Hebrew University as a painter for a private contractor, chose a cafeteria for a target and placed the bomb there.

The device, built around a fertilizer-based explosive, was smuggled in from Ramallah, security officials said. The night before the blast, Odeh climbed a fence at the university, hid the bomb in shrubbery and sprinkled it with perfume to hide the scent of fertilizer. He reported to work the next day, used his university identification card to walk past guards, picked up the bomb and placed it in a locker.

Officials said he later hid the bomb in a black bag, took it into the cafeteria and left it on a table, placing an Israeli newspaper atop the bag. He left the campus and detonated the explosive by calling a number on his cellular phone.

Seven people were killed immediately by the July 31 blast; two others died later. More than 80 people were injured.

A security official said the painting contractor called Odeh back to work at the university the next day to repaint the cafeteria.

A vice president of the university, Moshe Vigdor, pledged that the school will "continue to be a multicultural institution with a varied community, and will continue to work for coexistence in the spirit of pluralism and liberalism."

Odeh's wife said police arrested her husband early Saturday and searched the house, but never told them why.

She said her husband did not know about the bombing until he got home from work that day, and that he had condemned the attack.

"These were innocent people, and I'm sure the Israelis have people who want to live," she quoted her husband as saying.

An Israeli security official said most of the men arrested bragged about the attacks.

"Odeh was the only one who told us he was sorry."

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