Tuesday, 3 October 2000

Violence, death toll climb in Mideast

Israeli army uses helicopter gunships, missiles against civilian Palestinian targets

Tuesday, October 3, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

GAZA CITY -- It was the moment 16-year-old Shadi Abu Dakka had been waiting for since his best friend was killed four years ago.

In 1996, Israeli soldiers shot Khaled Khattib dead as he tried to remove the Israeli flag from the top of a lookout post at the Netzarim army base in the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday, Mr. Abu Dakka scaled the same flagpole and succeeded in removing the flag bearing the blue Star of David. But before he could replace it with the green, black, red and white colours of the Palestinian flag he was carrying, an Israeli sniper shot him in the leg.

"I fulfilled my dream and the wish of my best friend, Khaled," Mr. Abu Dakka said as he lay in the orthopedic ward at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "Every time I passed near that base, the only thing I could think of was how to bring down the Israeli flag. There is no reason why an Israeli flag should be hoisted on Palestinian land."

He said he knew the risk he was taking and was prepared to sacrifice his life yesterday, the fifth day of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have left more than 50 people dead.

"I knew I could be martyred and I was prepared for that," he said. "Before me, five other kids tried to climb the 15-metre-high fence surrounding the lookout post, but they were all shot and wounded.

"When my turn came, the soldiers shot in the air at first, but I was not deterred. I continued climbing, carrying the Palestinian flag on my back. Although I was wounded in the leg, I tore down the Israeli flag and then quickly replaced it with the Palestinian flag. I jumped down and hid among some concrete barriers while the Israelis continued shooting. Then my friends came and rescued me."

His friends say they have appealed to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to give the youth an award.

Mr. Abu Dakka was one of the lucky ones. Hours later, the Israeli army used Apache helicopter gunships to fire missiles at Palestinian buildings and vehicles near the Netzarim base, killing two people and injuring about 50 more.

The helicopters were deployed for the first time Sunday in what Israeli army operations chief General Giora Eiland described as "a demonstration of the firepower at our disposal."

At least 10 people were killed yesterday, including three Israeli Arabs and one Israeli soldier, who was shot in the head at Beit Sahour near Bethlehem. Voice of Palestine Radio reported hundreds injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Arafat are to meet in Paris tomorrow with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an effort to quell the violence.

Mr. Barak, who asked Israeli-Arab leaders last night to meet with him this morning for urgent talks, said all agreements and negotiations with the Palestinians on a long-awaited peace deal would be "shelved" until the current violence ended. "But it is too early to eulogize the peace process," he added.

Mr. Barak said Mr. Arafat was responsible for the violence and should order his officers to end their gun attacks on Israeli positions, but the Palestinian leader shrugged off the call.

"Stop shooting our soldiers, our old people, our youths, our women," Mr. Arafat said.

Yesterday, young Palestinian Fatah activists and police armed with automatic weapons joined stone-throwing demonstrators in clashes with Israeli troops in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem and Hebron. Israeli cars were stoned and set ablaze at various points throughout the West Bank and an Israeli man was shot dead south of Nablus.

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