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Crowd Assaults Arafat as He Tries to Pray for Slain Activist


JERUSALEM — Islamic militants publicly humiliated Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on Thursday, physically assaulting him as he attempted to pray over the body of an activist assassinated Wednesday in a car bombing.

According to eyewitnesses, thousands of enraged mourners at the Omari mosque in Gaza City jostled Arafat so roughly that they knocked his trademark black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh from his head, then pushed him out of the mosque into a rainstorm.

"Arafat is a collaborator," the protesters yelled at the man who for decades has been the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. "Get out of here, Arafat. Get out! You are not our leader! We are the people, and we reject you!" they shouted as soon as the PLO leader entered the mosque.

Arafat's bodyguards reportedly were unable to protect him from the crowd. His aides refused to comment on the incident, and the Voice of Palestine, the Palestinian Authority's radio station, omitted it from news reports Thursday night.

Both officials of the Palestinian Authority and leaders of Islamic militant organizations in the Gaza Strip have publicly blamed Israel for the assassination of Hani Abed, 35, a known member of the Islamic Jihad. Abed's car blew up Wednesday in the southern Gazan city of Khan Yunis as he opened the trunk. Abed had been arrested many times, both by Israel and the Palestinians, in connection with attacks on Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

"This is not just a belief, this is the truth," said Freih abu Medeen, the Palestinian Authority's minister of justice, when asked in a telephone interview whether he believed Israel was responsible for Abed's death.

"This is the first bullet in this dirty war the Israelis are beginning," Medeen said. He said a new cycle of violence between Israel and Islamic extremists is likely to begin as a result of Abed's assassination.

Medeen cited a report two weeks ago in the British newspaper the Observer saying that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had authorized an assassination campaign against leaders of the militant organization Hamas in the wake of Hamas' bloody bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are rival Islamic groups, but they share the goal of attacking Israeli targets and undermining the Israeli-PLO peace accord.

"This is the Israeli style. They have used it many times before," Medeen said. "The Israelis waited only for President Clinton to leave, and for the regional economic conference in Casablanca (Morocco) to end." Clinton toured the region last week as Israel and Jordan signed a peace pact, and the first-ever regional business conference involving officials and business people from both Israel and the Arab states ended Tuesday in Casablanca.

In Gaza on Thursday, both the PLO and Islamic organizations declared a general strike to protest the killing. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaflets vowed to seek revenge for the assassination.

Israeli officials did not deny the accusations.

"I am not saying that Israel did it," said Uri Dromi, head of the government press office. "But people such as Mr. Abed should know that they cannot commit terrorist acts and expect to walk away from it." Privately, some officials said it does not hurt for Islamic militants to believe Israel was involved, whether it was or not. A series of attacks by Hamas on Israelis last month shook the nation and raised questions about the effectiveness of the security services.

"We shouldn't be surprised if the Israelis were involved, because this is a secret war, a war conducted in the shadows, and you must use special means to respond to terrorism," said Yonah Alexander, a specialist in international terrorism at Tel Aviv University. Alexander noted that Israel carried out a campaign of assassinations in Europe in 1972, after the PLO's Black September faction murdered 11 Israelis at the Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Even liberal Parliament member Dedi Zucker, chairman of the Knesset's constitution, law and justice committee, said there are limited instances when a state may be justified in killing its opponents.

"The rule is that a state is not an agent of revenge," Zucker told Israel Radio on Thursday. But he added, "I see the possibility, and again it must be very rare, that a democracy can deviate from its norms and then immediately return to them."

But Palestinian sources said Thursday that some Islamic militants suspect that the Palestinian Authority may have been involved in Wednesday's assassination. There are several Islamic Jihad organizations in Gaza, not all of which are allied with the PLO. Abed belonged to one that opposes the Palestinian Authority.

The Islamic groups pose the most significant challenge to Arafat's authority in Gaza and in the West Bank town of Jericho, and threaten to undermine negotiations with Israel to extend self-rule throughout the West Bank. Arafat has tried unsuccessfully to incorporate Islamic militants into his government.

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