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COLUMN ONE

The Death of a Semblance of Peace

Palestinian officer killed Israeli colleague, stunning both sides. In hindsight, their unraveling ties reflected the frailty of the Mideast process.

December 07, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASSIRA SHAMALIYA, West Bank — Early on the day that Nael Yassin, a Palestinian police officer, killed an Israeli partner, Maj. Yossi Tabjeh, everything seemed routine.

Their joint patrol through the West Bank town of Kalkilya began at 6:30 a.m. After shaking hands and exchanging greetings all around, Tabjeh and three other Israeli police officers mounted a bulletproof jeep. Yassin and three Palestinian patrolmen rode in another vehicle.

They drove in tandem through Kalkilya for 15 minutes, then returned to the outskirts of the town and stopped by a park. The Israelis sat inside their jeep, sipping coffee, Tabjeh on the front passenger's seat with his door wide open.

Suddenly, as he cried "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!), Yassin lunged toward the jeep and opened fire with his Kalashnikov automatic weapon. Tabjeh was mortally wounded. His driver floored the accelerator and sped away as Yassin continued firing.

Twenty-four bullet holes were punched into the jeep's side and back panels, but only Tabjeh was seriously hurt. None of the Israelis got off a shot.

The Palestinians say Yassin was provoked, that the Israelis made fun of him as he said a Muslim prayer and that he exploded in wrath. The Israelis deny that they taunted the Palestinian.

That was two months ago. Tabjeh's death Sept. 29 was noted in passing at the time, widely seen as an aside to the turmoil that quickly engulfed the region.

Yet a closer look and interviews with 20 people who were involved or who knew the men reveal that the slaying, the shock it caused and the sense that it seemed to come out of nowhere foretold the chaotic unraveling of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

When Yassin, the Palestinian, killed Tabjeh, the Israeli, a rare, promising step in cooperation between two peoples was destroyed.

Each man represented his family's hopes and plans for the future. And their work together in one of 10 joint security patrols mandated by a peace accord and encouraged by the United States was supposed to be the blueprint for the future of the Middle East.

Today it seems clear that the fragility of their working relationship mirrored the fragility of the peace process they were meant to be enforcing.

At the time, the shooting was as shocking and baffling as the violence and collapse of peace that followed. In hindsight, the strains were as obvious within the joint patrols as in the entire process of pursuing peace.

This is the story of Nael Yassin, a gregarious, hotheaded 25-year-old Palestinian who enjoyed posing Rambo-style for pictures and who worked as a police officer from the time he was old enough to join the force, supporting his widowed mother and two younger brothers.

This is also the story of Yossi Tabjeh, a personable, up-and-coming 27-year-old Jew who crossed the African desert as a child to emigrate from Ethiopia to Israel and whose success was an inspiration to a minority community badly in need of success stories.

The lives of the two men crossed tragically. Yassin is in jail and Tabjeh is dead, the first fatality in a raging conflict that has claimed nearly 300 lives.

A Success Story for Israel's Ethiopian Jews

Yossi Tabjeh was the apple of his family's eye, an immigrant success story for a people--Ethiopians--whose assimilation into Israeli society has been difficult. He overcame the discrimination and hardship in a way achieved by few of the nation's 70,000 Ethiopian Jews.

He excelled at everything, it seemed: at studies, where he got the top grades; as a paratrooper in the army, where he pushed the envelope and once, on a training mission, walked the more than 170 miles from Eilat to Tel Aviv; and, finally, in officers academy.

In addition to Hebrew, he spoke Arabic, Russian and English. In a day he taught himself to write Amharic, the Ethiopian tongue that he feared losing, his family says. He encouraged his nephews and cousins to study and to complete their military service as good citizens of Israel.

"He liked whatever he did, no matter how dangerous," said his cousin Zina, who is 24 and seems the most kindred spirit to Tabjeh. "He prided himself on going where it was hard and doing the best he could to the best of his ability. He wanted to be an example."

Tabjeh was just a boy in 1984 when he embarked on an arduous and treacherous journey from the famine-racked Ethiopian province of Gondar across the Sudanese desert, to eventually be airlifted to Israel. Many of the thousands of Jews who fled Ethiopia back then died along the way. With two older brothers, he braved criminals, sickness, ravenous animals and the harsh elements to reach safety.

"He was very strong," said brother Uri, 39. "Even then, he had such a will--he was so determined to come to Israel."

Tabjeh and his brothers, from the time they were young, heard their village elders speak of a Holy Land for Jews and of their cherished Jerusalem. Ethiopian Jews, thought to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, have been immigrating to Israel since the late 1970s.

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