YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

PLO Units Sweep Gaza in Hunt for Israeli Soldier


GAZA CITY — Palestinian police swept through the Gaza Strip on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, arresting at least 150 suspected activists from the militant Islamic organization Hamas in a desperate attempt to locate a kidnaped Israeli soldier.

In Israel, 50,000 people responded to a plea from Cpl. Nachshon Waxman's parents to show solidarity with their abducted son and offered prayers in Jerusalem's Old City at the Western Wall, a site holy to Jews as the last remnant of the Temple of Solomon.

As Israelis waited and prayed, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat resorted to the most extensive roundup of suspects he has ordered since taking over responsibility for the daily lives of Palestinians in Gaza in May.

Until Waxman's abduction, Arafat had carefully courted Hamas, an organization with a large following in Gaza. The sweep he ordered Wednesday night brought cries of outrage from Hamas leaders, who warned that they now feel free to use violence against the Palestinian Authority.

"We are going to defend ourselves by whatever means necessary," said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas political leader, in an interview at his home Thursday. Zahar said Palestinian police kicked in his doors at 1:30 Thursday morning and searched his house for an hour.

"Not even the Israelis did this when they were here," Zahar said, pointing with disgust at the broken glass blanketing his front step. "The Palestinian Authority has decided to side with the Israeli side and to stand against the Islamic side."

Zahar disputed the PLO's statement that it had arrested 150 activists. He said the number was between 200 and 300. Speaking in Gaza on Thursday, Arafat warned that he would "not allow any defiance" of his government's authority. His aides said he is determined to do whatever he can to locate the 19-year-old Waxman.

American Consul General Edward Abington visited the home of Esther and Yehuda Waxman to express concern for their son's fate. Esther Waxman immigrated to Israel from New York City in the 1970s, and Nachshon Waxman has dual Israeli-American citizenship.

Abington said he was visiting on behalf of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and had conveyed Christopher's assurances that "we are doing everything we can to try to see their son released unharmed and to convey to them what we have been doing to show our deep concern about this terrible incident."

The Iziddin al-Qassam military unit of Hamas issued a leaflet Thursday repeating its threat to kill Waxman by 9 p.m. today (11 a.m. PDT) unless Israel agrees to release Hamas leaders held in Israeli jails and dozens of other prisoners.

"The soldier will be immediately executed a short while after the deadline," the leaflet said.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a founder of Hamas and its spiritual leader, has been in Israeli prison for more than five years. He is said to suffer several medical ailments.

Speaking on Israel Television on Wednesday night, Yassin asked that Waxman's abductors not harm him.

"I advise in a situation like this not to harm the soldier and to treat him well, since killing has no point," Yassin said.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed Arafat's crackdown as a "start," but he said that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be gravely harmed if Arafat does not make a real effort to win Waxman's release.

"I see this as a fundamental test with far-reaching implications for the future," Rabin told Israel Radio.

Palestinian officials indicated that they too see the kidnaping as a test of their authority.

"I think the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Arafat, made a decision last night that it is necessary to save the peace process," Suffian abu Zaida, a PLO official in charge of Israeli affairs, told Israel Army Radio.

Los Angeles Times Articles