Unearthing the bombers: Weakened Palestinians vow revenge

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 28-Jun-04 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: The New York Times

Mourners carry aloft the bodies of several Palestinian militants, during a funeral, in the West Bank town of Nablus, Sunday, June 27, 2004.
NABLUS, West Bank Palestinians clogged the streets on Sunday, chanting "revenge, revenge," in response to Israel's killing of seven militants. Red-eyed men, rifles dangling from their shoulders, exchanged hugs. Palestinian flags, hastily raised following the departure of Israeli troops, fluttered from the clock tower in the Old City.

Mass Palestinian funerals and ominous warnings of future attacks have been fixtures throughout the past four years of Mideast violence. And with great regularity, the Palestinians have delivered on those threats, often within days.

But over the past few months, the Palestinians have been repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to unleash a threatened "earthquake" against Israel.

Israel's operation on Saturday killed three senior leaders of Palestinian factions responsible for much of the anti-Israeli violence. It was the latest in a series of raids that have eliminated Palestinians on Israel's most-wanted list, including the leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Yet the Palestinians have not carried out a suicide bombing in three and a half months, the longest stretch between such attacks since the violence began in September 2000. No Israeli civilian has been killed since the shootings of a woman and her four daughters in the Gaza Strip on May 2.

Palestinians are still attempting attacks, and Israel attributes the relative calm to a combination of factors, including good intelligence, its West Bank separation fence and simple luck. Palestinian factions acknowledge they have been weakened, but say they will strike back.

"If may take us time to reorganize and rebuild, but that doesn't mean we have been stopped," said a leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus, who gave only his nom de guerre, Abu Islam. "Our response is coming."

Israel claimed its latest military success on Saturday when soldiers killed the seven wanted Palestinians, who had been hiding in a narrow tunnel beneath a house in the maze-like casbah, or Old City, in Nablus.

The effort was set in motion on Tuesday when Israeli security forces arrested three young men from the Nablus area who were suspected of planning a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. The forces also found a bomb in a taxi that was heading out of Nablus, the military said.

An interrogation indicated the plot was orchestrated by the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus, the military said. And on Thursday, hundreds of Israeli troops entered the city and sealed off the casbah, imposing a strict curfew and conducting house-to-house searches.

The main target was Nayef Abu Sharkh, one of the most important figures in Al Aksa, a group linked to the Fatah movement of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Israel's military passed out leaflets with Abu Sharkh's photo, which read, "You can help the citizens of your city by preventing the activity of this terrorist who is hiding like a terrified rat."

Israel did not announce any arrests on the first two days of its operation, while sporadic exchanges of gunfire claimed the lives of several Palestinians.

But on Saturday, the Israeli forces found Abu Sharkh, apparently by accident.

A group of soldiers encountered two armed Palestinians, shooting one to death and chasing the other into the hideout beneath a home tucked deep inside the casbah, the military reported.

The soldiers hurled hand grenades and smoke grenades into the tunnel, and shortly afterward, a suspected militant emerged from the other end of the passageway, which was attached to a neighboring house, the military said.

The troops called for anyone inside to come out, and when no one responded, the soldiers tossed more grenades into the passageway. All inside were killed.

The dead included Abu Sharkh, along with Jaffer Masri, a local commander for Hamas, and Fathi Bahti, a leader of Islamic Jihad, who was known as Sheik Ibrahim.

Israel accused Abu Sharkh of orchestrating multiple attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed 23 people last year in Tel Aviv.

Nablus residents flocked to a small stone house on Sunday to see the tiny hiding space beneath a tile floor. The men had been laying on dirt and stones, remnants of an earlier house that served as the foundation for the present one.

"Our dear brothers were in the tunnel for 72 hours, drinking only water and eating dates," said Abu Islam, the Al Aksa leader.

Al Aksa, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have carried out the vast majority of attacks against Israel in recent years, and Nablus, the largest West Bank city, has been a stronghold for all the groups.

The Palestinian leadership has condemned many of the attacks by these groups, but it also harshly denounced the Israeli action.

"This savage and ugly crime, which targeted a number of Palestinian freedom fighters after a four-day siege on Nablus, signifies that Israel is continuing its plan of killings and assassinations," Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, said in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Agence France-Presse reported.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, told Israel radio that the army raid was a "pinpoint" strike against the "infrastructure of terror in Nablus."

Israel pulled its troops out of the center of Nablus early Sunday, but said it would continue with its operation there.