Monday, 28 August 2000

Israelis killed in raid on Hamas leader

Three soldiers believed to have died from friendly fire; target flees

Monday, August 28, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

Nablus, West Bank -- A botched raid on an Islamic militant's hideout ended yesterday with three Israeli commandos dead, apparently by friendly fire, and Palestinian officials upset about Israel's handling of threats to peace between the two peoples.

The target of the late-night Saturday raid was Mahmoud Abu Hunud, a fugitive at the top of Israel's most-wanted list, blamed for two 1997 bombings that killed at least 21 Israelis and injured hundreds.

Mr. Abu Hunud, a leader of the militant Hamas group, which is adamantly opposed to any peace deal with Israel, fled the shootout into Nablus, a nearby town under Palestinian control. There, he surrendered to Palestinian security forces for medical treatment and was being kept under heavy guard yesterday in a Nablus hospital.

Despite their failure to capture Mr. Abu Hunud, for whom they had been searching for years, Israeli officials praised Palestinian security forces and said his detention proved the effectiveness of Palestinian-Israeli security co-operation.

"It doesn't matter under whose custody he is," Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, told Israel radio. "He's out of commission."

A senior Palestinian security officer said the Palestinian Authority had no intention of handing Mr. Abu Hunud over to the Israelis.

Israel's military chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, set up a special commission of inquiry to find out what went wrong with the ambush and how the three Israelis were killed.

"There is a basis to believe that there was a serious operational error, which led to one of our units mistakenly shooting at their comrades," he said yesterday morning.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak also said it was possible the three Israelis had been killed by friendly fire.

"When three of our best sons are killed, it is hard to talk of success," said Israeli Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, "but the operation has saved the lives of dozens of Israelis."

The Palestinians did their best to distance themselves from the botched operation.

"What the Israelis have done is a mistake that they committed on their own initiative, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority," said Colonel Jibril Rajoub, the top Palestinian security official in the West Bank. "They paid the price."

The area of the shootout is jointly controlled by Israel and the Palestinians, with ultimate security control in Israel's hands. Col. Rajoub suggested that it is time for Israeli forces to move out for good.

"It would have been more appropriate to have given the information to the [Palestinian] police to tackle the issue peacefully and without bloodshed," he said.

But Gen. Mofaz said Israel is not about to cede its West Bank operations.

Mr. Abu Hunud, 33, was tracked down late Saturday night by commandos from the crack undercover Duvdevan unit, who surrounded a relative's house in the village of Assireh al Shamalia, north of Nablus. But he apparently saw them and opened fire, launching a fierce gun battle that left him wounded and the three Israelis dead.

Palestinian security officials said he suffered at least three bullet wounds. His mother, Fatmeh, visited him yesterday and said he was in good condition.

Mr. Abu Hunud has been on the run from Israeli and Palestinian security forces since escaping from a Palestinian jail in 1996. He became commander of the Hamas military wing in 1998 after his predecessors were each assassinated by Israeli soldiers. He recruited suicide bombers and planned the attacks in Jerusalem in 1997 that sparked a major crisis in the peace talks.

Since then, he is believed to have been planning major terror attacks on Israeli targets. He managed to evade a nationwide search by never sleeping in the same place twice and rarely returning to his home village to see his parents.

Mr. Abu Hunud's younger brother, Mustapha, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Nablus, said he saw the attack from the start.

"We didn't even know Mahmoud was in the village, and we were very surprised," he said. "We had always thought that he was in Iran or somewhere else abroad. He apparently came to the village [Saturday] night to see my parents. Someone tipped off the Israeli security forces, who arrived immediately."

According to Mustapha, Mr. Abu Hunud was hiding in a house belonging to a relative. The Israeli commandos scaled a house opposite and waited on the roof.

"At around 9:15 p.m. I heard shots," Mustapha said. "When I looked out the window, I saw dozens of Israeli soldiers. Some of them were panicking, crying and shouting. I saw them carrying some of their own soldiers, who were bleeding. I left my house and people told me that Mahmoud had opened fire at the soldiers."

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Abu Hunud's escape from the soldiers was being celebrated by Hamas supporters, who consider him a hero of the Palestinian resistance.

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