West Bank still a battleground

Three Israelis were killed late Saturday, maybe by friendly fire, during a West Bank raid.

While their leaders board airplanes and meet in palaces to talk peace, the routine of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues on the ground.

And where there is war, there are errors that add pointlessness to tragedy.

This time, the dead are three Israeli soldiers who were killed in the West Bank late Saturday night, possibly by friendly fire. In other cases, the dead are Palestinians - innocent of any involvement in attacks against Israel - who make fatal mistakes in a violent environment.

The three Israeli soldiers, and a fourth who was wounded, were trying to arrest a suspected leader of the militant anti-Israeli group known as Hamas. The suspect, Mahmoud Abu Hanoun, escaped and later turned himself in to Palestinian authorities.

A week ago, a 13-year-old boy named Mo'in Talakhmen left his home outside Hebron to pick figs. According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, he stepped on ammunition abandoned by the Israeli Defense Forces and became the third Palestinian child this summer to die from leftover ordnance.

On Aug. 16, Israeli forces mounted another nocturnal operation in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abdullah, a US citizen and the patriarch of an accomplished family, apparently fired shots from his rooftop in an attempt to discourage a burglary. In the moonlit darkness, soldiers fired back and killed him.

Despite great strides toward a workable peace between Israelis and Palestinians and dramatic decreases in the amount of killing, it bears remembering that the lands that will likely become the new state of Palestine remain battlegrounds.

Yesterday, Palestinians accused the Israelis of mounting a policy of attack and intimidation in the West Bank. But as indications emerged that the three soldiers may have been killed by their own comrades, Israelis turned inward and began to ponder how the loss would affect their sometimes beleaguered military.

"It could be that a portion of those killed and the wounded were harmed by fire from our forces from a serious and painful operational mishap," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.

The raid that killed Mr. Abdullah and last night's operation strike some Palestinians as an attempt to "reoccupy" territories over which Israel has relinquished some control.

Abdullah lived in the village of Surda, near the main West Bank city of Ramallah, and the apparently botched raid took place in Assira al-Shamaliyeh, which is outside the city of Nablus. Palestinians run and police the cities, but administer only civil affairs in the two villages. As part of their phased withdrawal from lands they occupied in 1967, Israelis maintain responsibility for security in much of the West Bank, meaning that they can police villages such as Surda and Assira al-Shamaliyeh as they see fit.

Saturday night's operation involved hundreds of soldiers, some from an elite undercover unit, and at least two helicopter gunships.

"Israel is using a policy of military force and occupation to attack the people," says Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank. "I think this will raise tensions in the occupied territories. This will not help the peace process."

The peace process has withstood much more violent outbursts than the events of the past two weeks. But just as Israelis accuse Palestinians of using indiscriminate violence for political ends, Palestinians accuse Israel of using its security forces to send messages at the negotiating table.

At the moment, Israelis are warning Palestinian leader Arafat not to go ahead with an announced plan to declare a state by Sept. 13. The Israelis insist that the emergence of Palestine should take place within the context of an overall peace agreement between the two sides.

Mr. Barghouti argues that the Palestinian police, often working in concert with Israel, have all but shut down anti-Israeli terrorism. "It's been quiet for two years. We have used all our means to reach this point - no bombs - so why do [the Israelis] have to do that?" he asks, referring to the raids.

"If anyone thinks the war against terrorism is over, he does not understand the situation," an unnamed spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces told reporters in explaining the reasons for the raid.

Avraham Tamir, a former senior IDF and government official, says that Israel and mainstream Palestinians share a commitment to clamp down on violent extremists. "They're fighting us and in some way the [Palestine Liberation Organization] - they don't want the peace process and they declare they'll continue ... terrorist activities."

Palestinian Legislative Council member Abdel Jawad Saleh finds the extent of Palestinian cooperation with Israel "degrading."

"It's not mutual if it's not reciprocated," he says, arguing that Israel has not abided by negotiated timetables for withdrawal or kept its promises to stop the expansion and construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Tamir says that irregularities appear to have marred the recent operations. In Surda, as Abdullah lay wounded, Israeli officials reportedly delayed the approach of an ambulance. "That shouldn't have happened," Tamir says.

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio that a large quantity of chemicals, possibly to make bombs, were found in the house where the raid took place.

The man the Israelis wanted to capture is Abu Hanoun, allegedly a Hamas member and the mastermind behind two suicide bombings in 1997 that killed dozens of Israeli civilians. Those attacks followed the assassination of a Hamas bombmaker by Israeli security forces.

Abu Hanoun, who was wounded in the shootout managed to escape and later surrendered to Palestinian authorities in Nablus. He may join hundreds of Hamas members being detained by Arafat's security forces.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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