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Wrong Road Leads Reservists to Death

Attack: Failure to turn off toward army base takes car into Arab territory, where soldiers are seized.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The fatigue-clad reserve soldiers on their way to military service drove a Mazda sedan with Israeli civilian plates. Nothing out of the ordinary to the troops who waved them through the last Israeli checkpoint on the road to Palestinian territory, apparently figuring they would turn right to an army base.

But Vadim Nourjipf, a 33-year-old newlywed Russian immigrant, and Yossef Avrahami, a 38-year-old toy salesman and father of three, didn't make the turn.

It was a bright, breezy morning and they may have picked up a hitchhiker--possibly another soldier. Maybe they were talking. Maybe they were nervous driving through the West Bank after two weeks of riots that had left more than 95 dead, most of them Palestinians.

They drove past the red sign warning that they were entering territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

It was a mistake that landed them in the hands of a Palestinian mob thirsting for revenge and ended in a public lynching that shocked even the blood-soaked Middle East.

The soldiers were members of a transportation unit, part of the nearly 2,000 reservists who have been called back for service since the explosion of violence began Sept. 28.

"You know the kind of guys, noncombatant reservists with potbellies," said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Ranaan Gissin.

Down the road in Ramallah, Palestinian mourners were gathering for yet another funeral. Khalil Bader, a 26-year-old member of one of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's special-forces units, had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers the night before. He was to be buried with military honors after the Muslim noon prayers in Ramallah, and tempers were simmering.

The Israeli soldiers apparently meant to circumvent the Palestinian-controlled city to get to their military base at the Jewish settlement of Beit El. Instead, they turned left, toward Ramallah.

"This is the fatal mistake that cost them their lives," said Amos Harel, military correspondent for the daily newspaper Haaretz.

A mile down the road, the soldiers ran into a Palestinian police checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah.

As with nearly everything else that has happened in the last two weeks, what comes next is disputed by Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli army says that Palestinian police stopped the soldiers, suspicious of their intentions. Israeli soldiers don't drive into Ramallah by themselves in the best of times. What were they doing here on a mean day like this? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asserted that Palestinian police took the soldiers at gunpoint to their headquarters in Ramallah.

Palestinian officials say that the soldiers drove into town and that police rescued them from the car, ushering them into the police building.

Either way, they didn't make it home alive.

A rumor spread quickly through the streets of Ramallah that police had captured undercover soldiers posing as Arabs to track Palestinian militants--despite the fact that the prisoners wore Israeli army uniforms.

For years, Israel has operated undercover units in the territories, and one of them, the Duvdevan, bungled two raids in the West Bank in August. In the first mission, Duvdevan soldiers shot dead an elderly Palestinian man who fired toward the soldiers in the night, thinking they were outlaws attacking his home. In the second, the Duvdevan shot three of its own soldiers during an attempt to capture a leader of the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

On Thursday, hundreds of civilians, some of them armed, surrounded the police station chanting, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," and, "We want to break their legs. We want to gouge their eyes."

Around this time, Nourjipf's wife of a week tried to call him on his mobile telephone.

"Vadim?" she said when someone picked up.

But the answer was in a language she didn't understand. The telephone disconnected.

The Israeli army was tipped off that some of its soldiers--the first reports said four--were being held at the police station. Officers frantically phoned their Palestinian counterparts, demanding that they save the men. The Palestinians did not respond, Israeli officials say.

Thirteen Palestinian police officers were injured trying to keep the mob at bay, according to Palestinian officials.

Outside the police station, the throng overturned the soldiers' car and burned it.

The mob swelled with mourners from the Palestinian funeral. New rumors spread that the police were sneaking the prisoners out the back door, and the frenzied masses rushed the station.

Police reinforcements were called in, but the mob overran them and made it to the second floor, where the soldiers were being held.

Scuffles could be seen through the upstairs window before a young Palestinian held up his blood-covered hands triumphantly to the cheering crowd below.

The attackers then tossed one of the soldiers out the window, staining the front of the building with his blood. The crowd set on the body, stomping it and beating it with broken bars.

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