Israel takes conflict to Arafat turf

Israeli forces kill Palestinian security officers, in hunt for suspected terrorists.

He wondered whether to try to kill them.

In the early hours of Friday morning, a Palestinian intelligence officer named Mahmoud Sabra looked out of a window in his home. Five Israeli soldiers in combat gear, faces darkened with camouflage paint, were at the top of his street. They seemed to be on a reconnaissance mission.

Mr. Sabra figured an Israeli force was about to invade his town and grabbed his M-16 assault rifle. He left his wife and two children and headed out into the moonless darkness.

A few hours later, the Israeli raid was over. Sabra escaped. But six Palestinian police and security officers were dead, as many as eight people were wounded, and at least four were under arrest. When the Israelis rolled out of Salfit, some of the soldiers made the victory sign.

The raids were conducted in three other parts of the West Bank Friday in what one Israeli general said was the biggest sweep in 15 months. These raids may come to typify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following Israel's declaration Thursday that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had become "irrelevant," Israeli forces are increasingly seeking to arrest Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks. Israeli officials say that Mr. Arafat is unwilling to curb the terrorists in his midst, so Israel must. Its forces have repeatedly entered areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), seized suspects, and withdrawn. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested.

In a televised speech yesterday, Arafat called for an end to all violent acts, especially suicide bombings. It remains unclear what effect Arafat's call may have. Following the speech, Israeli officials immediately stressed the need for Arafat to arrest militants.

The Salfit incursion has been the bloodiest in recent days, but it also puts on display some of the anomalies and contradictions of this conflict. The Israelis either sought to arrest, arrested, or killed Palestinian officers who had spent the week rounding up the local members of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. The organization has been responsible for most of the terrorist attacks on Israelis over the past 15 months and Israel has long demanded that the PA imprison Hamas's militant members.

Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad members populate most of Israel's wanted lists, Palestinians in Salfit say that none of the 12 men the Israelis were apparently seeking in the town belonged to either organization. Salfit is a stronghold of Arafat's Fatah faction.

The Israelis counter that it should come as no surprise that members of Fatah or PA security forces moonlight as terrorists, but the arrests feed Palestinian speculation that Israel's true ambition is to undermine Arafat.

And while Israel claims that it is on the side of civilization and that the Palestinians embrace terrorism, Salfit residents say that at one point Israeli soldiers lined them up as a civilian shield to dissuade Palestinian gunmen from firing.

The sequence of events

At about 3 a.m., the Israelis cut off Salfit's electrical power supply. According to yesterday's edition of Israel's Haaretz newspaper, an elite Israeli naval commando unit participated in the raid, buttressing assertions that Israeli special forces led the assault.

An Israel Defense Forces press release says its forces provided "advanced notice" to Palestinian security forces about the raid, requesting that townspeople stay in their homes, "before the entry of IDF forces into the [village]." A Palestinian officer who gave his name as Lt. Abu Sufian says the call came at 3:15 a.m., shortly after the power was cut.

Sabra says he saw the reconnaissance team not long after midnight. Haaretz also reports Palestinian sources saying the raid effectively began at 2 a.m., with soldiers infiltrating the town before the arrival of tanks and helicopters.

Israeli forces reached Sabra's house around 3 a.m., he says. As the Israelis searched the house for him, one soldier told his wife: "Your husband has killed many people." Then the Israelis moved her and their two children out of the house before a bulldozer demolished it.

All of the men killed belonged to Palestinian security forces; the Israelis say the men were shot while firing on their forces. As often happens following such raids, Palestinian security officials assert that some of them were executed after being disarmed by Israeli soldiers.

At about the time that the Israelis were tearing his house down, Sabra, still evading Israeli arrest, took up a position overlooking the house of Rezeq Shaaban, also a Palestinian intelligence officer.

When the shooting began below, he joined in. "This is PA land," he explains. "If anyone comes in we have to shoot; we can't just sit and watch.... It's self-defense."

According to Rezeq's older brother Isam, Rezeq hustled his wife and two children out of the house as soon as he heard the Israelis approach.

Moments later, gunfire broke out. Isam's other brother and Rezeq's wife were injured by Israeli fire, says Isam. Rezeq ran along to the next building and began firing his Kalashnikov at the Israelis, who were deployed throughout the area.

Isam surmises that Rezeq didn't last long, but it took a while for the shooting to die down. When it did, Isam says, the soldiers forced him at gunpoint to show them Rezeq's body, and remove his brother's jacket. The soldiers were probably worried that Rezeq was not yet dead or that his body was booby-trapped with explosives.

Civilians as shields?

Isam and other townspeople say that the soldiers kept them under guard in a field below the Shaaban family houses. When Palestinian gunmen began shooting at the Israelis from a hillside, these people say, the soldiers lined them up to act as a civilian shield that would make the Palestinians stop firing. They did.

By press time, the IDF had not replied to repeated requests for comment on these assertions.

Both Rezeq and Sabra, as intelligence officers, had helped detain Hamas members during the days preceding the raid. Some 15 Hamas men are being detained in Salfit, although PA security officials would not allow them to be interviewed.

"I just don't know what [the Israelis] are doing," says a Palestinian National Security officer who gave his name as Lt. Col. Abu Kifah. "They pressure us to arrest people, and yet they come to kill those who make the arrests."

Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the IDF, sees no contradiction in Israel seeking to detain Palestinian security officers. "If they carry out orders in their capacity [as members of the] intelligence or security services or whatever, it doesn't mean that they don't engage at some time in attacks against Israel. That's part of the reality."

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