In West Bank, destructive cycle of violence, blame and violence

Suspicious troops kill two men, one unarmed

January 08, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NABLUS, West Bank - The hunt by Israeli soldiers for Ibrahim Atari, a Palestinian militant, ended yesterday with Atari being shot to death in a flower garden.

His body was left slumped on a pathway. Soldiers also shot and killed one of his friends, an unarmed curtain-hanger named Abdel Qassas, who the army said was hiding behind a shrub.

The circumstances remain in dispute. Palestinians say the two men were arrested and then executed; the Israeli army says Atari was shot after threatening soldiers with a pistol and Qassas aroused suspicion by trying to avoid capture.

They are two of 16 Palestinians killed during army raids that have lasted nearly three weeks and caused more than 200 casualties, all in a city that the Israeli army considers a capital for violence and that Palestinians say has been radicalized by the army's occupation, including the repeated raids.

"The occupation is the cause of all the problems," said Mahmoud Aloul, the Palestinian governor of the city, whose 22-year- old son was killed by soldiers in 2000. "How can we calm the street when it is bleeding?"

Aloul called on the Israeli army to vacate the city so he can regain control and rein in militants; Israeli officials say that every withdrawal has cost Israeli lives. And those are the familiar, circular arguments that are part of the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock created by more than three years of violence.

Nablus, the largest Palestinian city on the West Bank, is a bastion of militancy that has produced a steady stream of suicide bombers, most of them from two refugee camps. Since April 2002, Israeli soldiers have stormed the city 10 times and kept the 180,000 residents under stifling curfews.

Though other Palestinian cities have become relatively quiet, the Nablus region remains a significant threat to Israel, army officials say. The most recent suicide bombers who carried out missions in Israel - a woman who killed 21 restaurant patrons in Haifa in October and a man who killed four people last month in a suburb of Tel Aviv - came from villages near Nablus.

A senior Israeli army commander in Nablus said in an interview this week that his troops have captured or killed 18 suspected suicide bombers on their way to carry out attacks since October, including one on Tuesday wearing a bomb belt.

"Nablus is the hottest and the most dangerous town," said the commander, who spoke on the condition he not be named. "Most of the suicide bombers, most of the bombs, most of the ammunition, is in Nablus."

The officer added, "That is why the people in Nablus are suffering. When there are a lot of alerts, the people of Nablus suffer more. When there are fewer alerts, the people of Nablus suffer less.

"Nablus could have been a beautiful city. All the world could have come to see it. But the Palestinians prefer to be terrorists."

A regiment of 31 tanks and hundreds of soldiers entered the city late last month, after receiving reports that four suicide bombers were preparing to leave.

The military presence has since been scaled back, and the army commander said most of the people killed in the past three weeks were combatants. Palestinians describe 13 of the dead as civilians, including a 5-year-old boy, and a man killed during a funeral procession.

This raid has been particularly harsh, reducing dozens of buildings to rubble. Most of the damage is in the Old City, where Palestinian gunmen take advantage of the maze-like covered alleys that make it difficult for the army to maneuver.

Rather than patrol passageways wide enough for only one person, the army this time simply bulldozed or blew up buildings suspected of harboring militants.

Soldiers came to Hajam Haj Mohammed's stone house several days ago before dawn. Mohammed, his wife and five children were given a few minutes to leave.

The soldiers were searching for tunnels leading to cisterns apparently used by militants to store arms. Mohammed's house was a series of large, vaulted rooms surrounding an outdoor courtyard. In the middle, a long tunnel went three stories down; Mohammed said it was used for human waste.

Soldiers blew it up, wrecking most of the house. Mohammed salvaged some of the furniture, piling it in his living room, leaving barely enough space for one person to maneuver.

Yesterday, during a rainstorm that flooded many of the city's streets with sewage, people cautiously ventured outside their homes. Children in the Balata refugee camp huddled at corners and waited to confront soldiers with stones.

West of the city center, Mustafa Qassas, 32, mourned the loss of his brother, Abdel, who he said had been with Atari, in Atari's bedroom, when soldiers burst in about 3:30 a.m. looking for the wanted militant.

Qassas said the two men were bound and taken to the garden outside, while he and 10 other occupants of the building were stripped, blindfolded and taken out another entrance to the main street.

One man, Qassas said, screamed, "Help me." A neighbor, Raieq al-Assi, 37, said he also heard a man yell, "Please, please, it's not me," followed by a volley of gunshots.

Residents collected 15 bullet casings and put them in an ashtray. Several more were found near where the two men were killed. A wall next to the pathway was pockmarked with 13 bullet holes.

The Israeli army denied that account. Officials said Atari pulled a pistol as troops tried to arrest him outside the house, and was shot and killed. The army said initially that Qassas was shot as he tried to escape, then said he was shot while hiding behind a bush.

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