Phone-bomb death blamed on Israel

Angry Palestinians march in Bethlehem after killing of militant clan's member

October 15, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT JALA, West Bank - Palestinians here and in neighboring Bethlehem marched through the streets yesterday, protesting the death of Mohammed Abayat and threatening to destroy the calm that descended here after the Israeli military withdrew in August.

Abayat, who belongs to a prominent Palestinian militant clan, had dropped his mother off at a hospital and walked outside to make a phone call Sunday night. He picked up the blue phone, only to have it explode the moment he put it to his ear.

Doctors from Beit Jala Government Hospital rushed out the front door, but there was nothing they could do for him.

Convinced the Israelis had assassinated Abayat, 25 - and had mistaken him for a higher-ranking militant in the same family - Palestinians marched through the streets in rage.

In one instant, a city from which the Israeli military had withdrawn in August and which had remained quiet ever since threatened to erupt. Palestinian police were out in force, flashing assault weapons and careening through crowds in the back of pickup trucks.

"Despite what the Israelis have done here, our mission is to keep it calm," said one high-ranking Palestinian security officer - who declined to give his name - as angry mourners paraded Abayat's flag-draped body through a crowd in Manger Square. "But there are always limits. It may become impossible for us to control."

The Israeli army declined to comment on whether it had targeted Abayat or had meant to kill his relative, Nasser Abayat, who commands Bethlehem's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed faction of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political party.

Israeli agents have booby-trapped cellular phones, cars and even hidden bombs in cemetery walls to assassinate Palestinian militants.

They have killed two other members of the Abayat clan in the past two years and exiled another to Europe. The latter was among the armed men who took refuge from Israeli troops in the Church of the Nativity.

The Abayat family is known around Bethlehem for terrorizing local businessmen and for attacking Israelis. An Abayat was responsible this year for killing a U.S. architect who frequently visited Bethlehem.

Israel does not usually acknowledge targeted killings carried out in clandestine ways, but typically it releases the dead man's dossier listing the accusations against him. That was not done in this case, raising the question that the wrong Abayat might have been killed.

Still, people throughout Bethlehem asked why Israel might kill a member of such a high-profile family in the one place where even the Israeli army has credited the Palestinian police with restoring order.

Earlier this month, Palestinian police arrested two men for shooting at a Jerusalem neighborhood across the valley, and residents rejoiced at being able to go back to work and school. They had hoped tourists might soon return to the holy sites.

Hours before Abayat was killed, Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that he might order troops to pull out of the West Bank city of Hebron, based on the successes of Palestinian police in Bethlehem.

But Israeli army officials, while admitting Bethlehem has been calm until now, hinted that troops might return. They said wanted militants have taken refuge there to escape the army's occupation of other cities.

Yesterday, Palestinians accused Israel of killing Abayat to provoke a response, which in turn would give Israel an excuse to send the army back into Bethlehem and proclaim to the United States that the experiment had failed.

"Israel is not interested in having quiet," said Sami Ta'amari, 19, who joined hundreds of people milling about the spot where Abayat was killed. "It was a crime what happened here, and this place might explode."

Yesterday afternoon, Palestinian police prepared for the funeral by blocking off streets leading to Manger Square. Stores closed in solidarity, and schools let students out early so they could participate. Thousands followed the body, hoisted above the crowd, through the streets with angry cries for revenge, the flags of various militant factions flying high.

At one point, armed men in Manger Square fired into the air and chased a member of a human rights group who had been outspoken against the Abayats. They beat a Reuters photographer and broke another journalist's camera.

Ibrahim Jabron, 33, sat on a bench outside the Beit Jala hospital, just a few feet from where Abayat had died, and cradled his newborn son, Odeh, who was suffering from a fever.

"I was optimistic that my son had been born when it was calm," said Jabron, a carpenter who until violence broke out two years ago had worked in Israel. No longer allowed to cross the checkpoint, he is unemployed.

"I wish that it will remain quiet," he said, as Odeh opened his eyes and smiled. "But after what happened last night, the situation will deteriorate again and get bad for everybody. I'm not optimistic anymore."

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