Wednesday, 17 October 2001

Gunmen assassinate Israel's tourism minister

17 October 2001

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

JERUSALEM — The Middle East was plunged deeper into crisis after a Palestinian group assassinated a right-wing Israeli Cabinet minister in a Jerusalem hotel early Wednesday. It was the first time an Israeli minister has been killed by an Arab terrorist. "The situation today has changed, and will never again be like it was yesterday," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told ministers at an emergency Cabinet session called after the murder of Rehavam Zeevi, 75.

Israel's tourism minister and leader of the National Alliance party was shot in the face at point-blank range outside his hotel room. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist group that is the second-largest faction of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, claimed responsibility. It said it assassinated Zeevi in revenge for Israel's killing of the group's leader, Abu Ali Mustafa. He died in a missile attack by an Israeli helicopter gunship at his West Bank office in Ramallah in August.

The United States condemned the killing and called on Arafat to rein in terrorists.

"Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must move now to find and arrest all those responsible for this act," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.

Sharon and left-wing opposition leader Yossi Sarid also said Arafat must immediately arrest those responsible or face serious consequences. "Only despicable terrorists can dream of assassinating an elected official in a democratic state," Sharon said at a somber session of the Knesset.

He added, "The full responsibility falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism, and as one who has not — to this day — taken even one serious step to prevent terrorism."

Israel reimposed a blockade on Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank. The blockade had been lifted 2 days ago as part of a truce Sept. 26.

Late Wednesday, a suicide bomber wounded two Israeli soldiers and killed himself on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip.

However, despite his accusation, Sharon appeared to rule out immediate military retaliation, giving the Palestinian leader a chance to follow through on his vow to apprehend the killers.

Zeevi and his seven-member party, angry at Sharon for new concessions to the Palestinians, resigned from the government Monday. Their resignation was due to take effect Wednesday. After the assassination, Zeevi's colleague Avigdor Lieberman said he would stay in the coalition.

Born in Jerusalem, Zeevi served in the pre-state militia that fought for an independent Jewish state. He was a career soldier, rising to the rank of major general. Zeevi served as adviser to several prime ministers before entering the Knesset in 1988 as leader of the ultranationalist Moledet Party. The party advocated the "transfer" of Palestinians, by agreement, from the West Bank and Gaza.

Zeevi was found mortally wounded outside the door of his room at the Hyatt Hotel by his wife, Yael.

The Rev. Andrew Hocking, a tourist from California, was staying in the room opposite Zeevi's. He said he went into the hall when he heard Yael Zeevi's screams. "I thought she was being attacked; that's what it sounded like," he said, adding that he did not hear gunfire. "I saw her kneeling over him, and he'd obviously been shot. Blood was everywhere. ... It was pretty obvious to me he was already dead."

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