Israelis hit Palestinian sites after lynching of soldiers

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Arabs see 'declaration of war'

JERUSALEM – The Middle East peace process lay in shambles Thursday after Israel launched unprecedented rocket attacks on Palestinian Authority facilities, including government buildings near Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office complex.

Palestinian officials, who reported that Mr. Arafat was not hurt, said the rocket attacks amounted to "a declaration of war" that made peace talks impossible. Mr. Arafat, cheered by crowds as he toured the complex after the attack, said the Palestinian quest for independence would continue.

"Our people don't care; they will continue their march to Jerusalem," Mr. Arafat said.

The waves of helicopter-launched attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip followed the lynchings of at least two Israeli soldiers who were seized Thursday morning by a Palestinian mob chanting "Death to the Jews" in the West Bank town of Ramallah. There were conflicting reports Thursday night over whether two or three soldiers were killed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday night that all of Israel was "horrified" by the killings. He called for the creation of a "national emergency government" that probably would bring the right-wing Likud party into a government coalition.

"I call on all the party leaders to be prepared to enter such a government and to put aside the things that divide us so that we can stand shoulder to shoulder to face these challenges," Mr. Barak said. "We may face tougher challenges in the days ahead."

A national unity government probably would include Likud leader Ariel Sharon, an extreme right-wing leader hated by the Palestinians and blamed for sparking the current crisis by making an unwanted visit to a site in Jerusalem's Old City that is sacred to Muslims and Jews.

Losing faith in Arafat

Mr. Barak said Mr. Arafat no longer appears to be a partner in the peace program. He said that the Israeli air force had not personally targeted the longtime Palestinian leader but had aimed attacks at the Gaza headquarters of the armed Palestinian militia responsible for many of the recent gunbattles.

Fighting continued into the early morning Friday.

The conflict has escalated sharply since rock-throwing Palestinian youths challenged Israeli forces in Jerusalem's Old City and other flash points two weeks ago. The violence has brought the Middle East to the brink of a full-scale war between the Israelis and Palestinians with the potential to draw in Arab neighbors.

Emergency diplomatic efforts were under way Thursday night to cool tensions, but international interventions earlier had succeeded only in slowing, not quenching, the violence.

The killing of the soldiers, who were knifed and beaten to death after about 2,000 people stormed the Palestinian police station where they were being held, prompted an immediate and furious response from the Israeli government, which had threatened to respond aggressively to any attacks on Israelis.

Explaining the immediate use of the military, Israeli Defense Forces Col. Rassan Gissin said the lynchings could not go unanswered.

"This was a premeditated heinous crime; you had an incited mob that was incited by Palestinian Authority official TV and radio, which was telling people, 'Kill Israeli soldiers, kill Israelis,' " he said. "The responsibility falls squarely on their shoulders. Something drastic had to be done to show them they have to pay a price for an act like this. This is a crime against any human civilized norm."

'Limited' response

He called the military action launched against sites in Ramallah and Gaza City "limited" and said attempts were being made to hold down the number of civilian casualties.

It marked the first time Israeli forces had launched a coordinated military attack on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian police, institutions that were created as part of the implementation of the Oslo peace accord that was supposed to end decades of conflict.

Palestinian negotiators – who concede there are no longer any negotiations – said the Israeli response amounted to a savage attack on an unarmed population.

"The international community must take action," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator. "They are shelling our towns; Israeli tanks may roll in. I think massacres may happen. We have to try to cover our children and protect ourselves from these helicopters and tanks. This is a war waged by the mightiest army in the Middle East against a civilian population."

A wrong turn

Israeli officials said the soldiers who were lynched were reservists who had made a wrong turn when they mistakenly arrived at a Palestinian police checkpoint in Ramallah and were taken into custody for questioning.

But Palestinians preparing to attend a funeral for a young man killed by Israeli gunfire the day before saw the Israeli soldiers being brought into the station and swarmed into the station, overpowering the local police.

Palestinian officials said the slain police were spies operating undercover and planning to set off bombs inside Palestinian territory.

Eyewitnesses to the lynchings described how the crowd seized the soldiers from the police and quickly killed them.

"I saw a big crowd in front of the police station shouting, 'Kill them,' and then they pushed through the gate; the police could not keep them out," said one man who wished to remain anonymous. "Ten minutes later, they had been killed, and everyone was running away. I saw five cars honking, and I think the body was in one of them."

Witness Elizabeth Khayyo said she saw the body of one of the Israelis being tossed from a second-story window after the mob stormed the police station.

"I saw many people in the street outside the police station chanting, 'Death to the Jews,' and I saw the soldiers brought into the police station, then the big crowd climbed the walls and got inside," she said. "The police did not shoot into the air, which might have scared them off."

After a brief interval, she saw a man appear on the second-floor window shouting, "God is great," and showing the crowd below the blood on his hands.

"Then two people came to the window and threw out the body of a man in his underwear," she said. "The people in the crowd had knives and iron bars. There was blood on the windows."

Television footage from the scene showed the crowd stomping on the soldier's body.

Mrs. Khayyo said three surviving soldiers were then taken from the station and forced to march toward the town square. Israeli officials said one of these three was lynched as well.

"It should not have happened," she said. "I've never been afraid like I am today. Of course the peace is dead – where is the peace?"

Almost as soon as the killings occurred, the people of Ramallah came to the realization that a strong Israeli response was inevitable – and probably already being set in motion.

The powerful Israeli military is known to strike back quickly when any of its men or women are killed or taken hostage, and Mr. Barak had publicly warned several days ago that "full force" would be used if any Israelis were attacked.

People made frantic phone calls across the West Bank, warning their loved ones to take cover immediately and not come out for any reason. Wild rumors spread – some said the soldiers' bodies had been mutilated in public; others said the soldiers were killed only after attacking the Ramallah police station.

In fact, Israel's response came within four hours, and Israeli officials said they informed their Palestinian counterparts that an attack was imminent in an effort to prevent civilian casualties.

First, Israeli tanks rumbled out of military bases and took positions on a hill overlooking Ramallah. Then helicopter gunships were deployed, and a number of rocket attacks were launched, first on the police station where the attack took place, then on nearby Palestinian Authority offices, and finally on a second police station.

There were four successive waves of helicopter attacks on the largely deserted city between 3 and 7 p.m. Palestinians said at least 20 people were injured in the raids. One rocket apparently hit the Voice of Palestine radio station building, knocking it off the air.

There were similar attacks on a Palestinian Authority position on the Gaza Strip.

When the violence ended shortly after sundown Thursday, attention was focused on ways to curtail the spreading chaos, which has brought the Middle East some of its most intense violence since the 1967 Middle East war.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had left Israel earlier in the day for crisis meetings in Lebanon, cut short his trip there and returned to Israel on Thursday night to resume his shuttle diplomacy between Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat.

"I appeal to all – leaders and citizens alike – to stop and think about what they are doing and what kind of tomorrow they want for their children," Mr. Annan said. "I urge you to opt for restraint."