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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST

Israeli Undercover Team Seizes up to 8 Lynching Suspects

Mideast: Agents use TV footage to track down Palestinians believed to have taken part in public slaying of two soldiers. Meanwhile, both sides appeal for calm.

October 19, 2000|REBECCA TROUNSON and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JERUSALEM — Less than a week after an enraged Palestinian mob killed and mutilated two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Israeli undercover agents have captured as many as eight of the men believed to have taken part, security officials said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders had vowed that those involved in lynching the soldiers, who made a wrong turn into the Palestinian city last Thursday and were subsequently seized by a crowd of frenzied young men, would be arrested and brought to trial in Israel. "We will settle accounts," Barak said the day after the attack.

Many of the detained men--who, according to some reports, included one seen raising his bloodied hands from the window of the Ramallah police station--were identified from a series of gruesome images shot by an Italian television crew and aired repeatedly in Israel and around the world.

The disclosure of the men's arrests came as Israel and the Palestinians warily watched each other for signs of commitment to a U.S.-brokered agreement to end three weeks of violent upheaval. At day's end, the verdict was mixed, and it was not yet clear how news of the clandestine Israeli mission might affect efforts to restore calm.

Sporadic fighting broke out Wednesday at flash points across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, keeping tensions high. But each side also took preliminary steps to fulfill parts of the deal reached Tuesday at an emergency summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik.

In Gaza, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement calling for a halt to "all that could lead to tension and violence" and pledging to try to calm the unrest that has left more than 100 dead--nearly all Palestinians or Israeli Arabs--and thousands injured in the worst fighting here in years.

The statement, repeated through the day on Arabic-language radio stations, followed a pledge by Barak that Israeli troops also would try to avoid casualties and stop the spiral of violence. The parallel appeals for calm were specified under terms of the deal reached Tuesday.

Barak's office expressed satisfaction with the Palestinian statement but noted that it was not made directly by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

With a relative dip in the violence here--for the first time in days, no deaths were reported--Israel on Wednesday began to ease the closures it has imposed on Palestinian cities and villages. Some Israeli troops and tanks pulled back from positions immediately adjacent to Palestinian towns, and the Gaza International Airport was allowed to reopen.

But even as he ordered the army to implement the cease-fire, Barak repeated fears that the Palestinian leadership might not be ready to embrace peace.

"I am sorry to say that I am not convinced at this time that we have a partner for the difficult and courageous decisions needed for peace," he said in a speech in northern Israel.

But the day's most dramatic news was the revelation that undercover agents of Israel's security services had captured some of the men believed to have taken part in the Ramallah attack. One security official said arrests of other participants would soon follow. The official and several others interviewed requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

In a brief interview, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh confirmed the arrests but declined to provide details, other than to deny speculation that Arafat's Palestinian Authority had cooperated with the operation.

"We are doing this ourselves," Sneh said.

Underlining the extreme sensitivity of the timing--the Sharm el Sheik meeting was hours old, with a cease-fire not yet in place--the arrests were not reported in official Palestinian media.

A senior Palestinian official, who briefed Arabic-speaking reporters in Ramallah on Wednesday, said he was not aware of the arrests, but if they occurred, the Palestinian Authority was not involved.

In an interview Monday with Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Ramallah police chief Kamel Sheik--whose officers were unable, or many Israelis say, unwilling, to save the soldiers from the mob--described the slayings as the Palestinian Authority's "greatest failure."

Sheik also said they amounted to a personal humiliation for him and his force, though he blamed Israel for failing to prevent the soldiers' entry into the heart of Ramallah.

Any hint that the Palestinians may have cooperated with Israel in making the arrests was likely to be explosive.

Equally explosive was the question of how the men were detained.

Hussein Sheik, a Palestinian militia leader in the West Bank, said Wednesday that if Israeli security forces had entered Palestinian-controlled Ramallah to abduct the men, Palestinians were likely to react with fury.

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