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On 'High Alert' in Israel, While Waiting for Hamas

April 12, 1998|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who writes for the New Yorker and the Nation, is working on a book about Israel

JERUSALEM — The police and army are moving around town, stopping cars, patrolling heavily trafficked corners and crossings into the Palestinian east side. Army vehicles ply the city's roads. Traffic at the checkpoints goes nowhere, as Palestinians offer their documents up for inspection by skeptical Israeli soldiers.

We're on high alert, or, as one observer here said last week "real high alert." Men with their entire heads swathed in keffiyehs appear in a video promising to bring "sadness and horror" to Israel. The pretty blue lights that adorn the olive drab Israeli Army jeeps flash through the nights, and the chirr of helicopters punctuates meals being taken out of doors in the recently arrived and gratefully welcomed spring. As usual, we're waiting for Hamas.

It was a rare person who had heard of Mohiedin Sharif, the bearded Hamas bomber, before he turned up dead on March 29. But those few who knew of him were aware that this quiet electrical engineer was the shadowy and highly elusive figure to whom all the worst terror attacks of the past two years have been attributed. Sharif was the inheritor of the dubious mantle of Yehiya Ayash, the so-called Engineer, a bomb maker who was assassinated in January 1996, when a mobile phone exploded in his ear--killed by the Israelis, according to widely accepted reports.

No one in Israel celebrates when a terrorist is killed. People know what follows: retribution. No one here forgets that in revenge for Ayash's murder, a suicide bomber struck at a crowded Tel Aviv mall, and two bus bombs blew up on consecutive Sunday mornings at the opposite ends of Jaffa Street in the heart of Jerusalem, killing more than 50 people. Engineers may die, but the bombs keep on exploding.

For more than three months before his death, the Engineer II, as Sharif was called, had disappeared from Israeli intelligence radar. Wanted for two years, he'd been in hiding for most of that time. Then quite unaccountably, it transpired that a body found next to a car bombing site in Ramallah was his. The Israelis, who were allowed access to the scene by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which controls Ramallah, called it a "work accident," terror-expert lingo for injuries that occur when a bomb goes off before its time.

Everything was fine. Here in Jerusalem, we're used to work accidents. A few years ago, a would-be terrorist severely injured himself when a bomb he was working on went off early in an East Jerusalem hotel. Other bombs have exploded off-schedule in fields near town, sometimes injuring their makers, sometimes not. But when the Palestinian Authority subsequently announced that, upon autopsy, it seemed Sharif had been shot to death three hours before the car bomb went off, the news sparked a round of typically frenzied Middle East speculation. He was assassinated; but by whom?

Who killed Sharif? It is, so to speak, an explosive issue. Each party to the situation has its own theory, all based on practical politics.

There are three suspects.

The Israelis: If that's the case, it's business as usual--the Israelis have been getting rid of Israel's enemies and perceived enemies since the inception of the state, and before. In the case of Sharif, though, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied Israeli involvement, an unusually blunt denial if Israel were, in fact, responsible.

More often, such killings--as in the case of Ayash or Islamic Jihad head Fathi Shikaki--are followed by an Israeli wink and an Israeli nod. Since the message to the enemy is, "We can get you," the Israelis are usually only too happy to take responsibility for the violent death of their foes. The prime minister's unusual and direct denial has given pause to many who would normally suspect Israel on the basis of its track record and its solid motivation.

The murderer could also have come from among Sharif's own countrymen. One likely suspect is the Palestinian Authority, which is not gentle with its prisoners and has arrested more than 200 Hamas sympathizers in the past months. Hamas has claimed that Sharif was imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and killed by the Palestinian Authority at Israel's behest. None of these methods is unheard of in P.A. prisons, it must be added. It's perfectly plausible that the Palestinian Authority, on its own or at Israeli instigation, did away with this most-wanted militant. After all, the Netanyahu government has made P.A. toughness in dealing with terror a quid pro quo for further Israeli withdrawals from West Bank territory. What could be tougher than eliminating Engineer II? Motive established.

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