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Suspect in Kibbutz Shooting Arrested

November 15, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM -- After a three-day manhunt, Israeli troops descended on a West Bank village Thursday and seized a Palestinian man they accused of orchestrating an attack on an Israeli kibbutz that left five people dead, including a mother and her two small sons.

As Israel pressed ahead with large-scale military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two Palestinians were killed -- one a teenage stone-thrower in the northern West Bank town of Nablus, the other a 37-year-old man who Palestinian witnesses said was shot dead by troops in the town of Rafah, at Gaza's southern tip.

The capture of Mohammed Naifeh, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, came after soldiers cornered him in a hide-out in the village of Shweike, outside the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm.

Israeli human rights activists helped broker Naifeh's surrender after he called them and said he wanted to give himself up but feared he would be shot as he emerged.

The Israelis took no chances. Naifeh was ordered to strip to his underwear to prove he was not wearing an explosives belt. Israeli authorities believe that Naifeh masterminded Sunday night's attack in Kibbutz Metzer, just across the border from the northern West Bank.

Such infiltration attacks have become common in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting more than two years ago, but have been almost unheard of on collective farms inside Israel.

Two alleged accomplices of Naifeh also were arrested Thursday, but the alleged gunman, identified by Israel as 19-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, remained at large.

Israel has launched a concerted campaign to capture militants it believes have carried out or planned attacks against Israelis. In recent days, it has sent large contingents of troops and armor into the heart of crowded Palestinian cities and refugee camps to pluck out wanted men.

In an unusual incursion deep into Gaza City, the largest in the Gaza Strip, tanks and troops arrested four Palestinian men before dawn Thursday, then swiftly withdrew. The four were accused of manufacturing weapons.

The Israeli troops came within a few hundred yards of the home of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas. The neighborhood is home to many other Hamas leaders as well. The Israeli push was interpreted as a warning to the radical group that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government would not hesitate to send troops into areas that had been largely off limits.

The Israeli sweep comes at a time when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction has been trying -- with mixed success, according to various Israeli media reports -- to persuade Hamas to consider abandoning suicide attacks inside Israel. But Fatah is linked to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which has carried out many attacks in the latest uprising and claimed responsibility for this week's kibbutz shootings.

Israel has been saying in recent days that it will maintain a heavy military presence in Palestinian cities for as long as it deems necessary to stave off a new wave of attacks.

Sharon, fighting to maintain the leadership of his conservative Likud Party in advance of general elections early next year, visited Israeli troops in Nablus and stressed the open-ended nature of their mission.

"No limits have been imposed on our operations," he said. "We are under no pressure, nor has anyone the right to bring any. It is Israel's full right to defend the lives of its citizens."

Israeli troops have encountered far less resistance in cities such as Nablus and Jenin than they did during an offensive last spring, and the casualty toll has been lower.

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