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Violent Death Hits Clan Again

A Palestinian gunman killed when a phone blows up becomes the latest member of family to perish, many in clashes with Israelis.

October 15, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The graveyard of the Abeiyat clan, carved from a raw and wind-swept West Bank hilltop, is filling up fast, and the latest arrival was in line with what has become a grim family tradition.

Mohammed Abeiyat, a 28-year-old unemployed laborer and part-time gunman, was blown apart by a booby-trapped public telephone in what nearly everyone in this dusty West Bank city believes was an attack carried out -- perhaps in error -- by Israel. Israeli authorities have refused to comment on the case.

A brother of the slain man, 26-year-old Moussa Abeiyat, said he was driving toward the hospital where Mohammed had dropped off their ailing mother shortly after 8 p.m. Sunday when, from only yards away, he saw a burst of blue-and-orange flame from the pay phone where Mohammed was standing. A shower of metal shrapnel rained against the car.

Another relative, Ismail Abeiyat, arrived at the scene a few moments later to see Mohammed lying bloodied on the ground, his entrails spilling out, the hand that had been holding the telephone blown cleanly off.

"It was as if he had been cut in pieces with a saw," Ismail Abeiyat said Monday at the makeshift funeral tent where men of the clan -- some of them grizzled elders bent over their canes, others young and hard-eyed, with pistols tucked into their belts -- sat in quiet rows, sipping bitter dark coffee and hand-rolling cigarettes.

The circumstances of Mohammed Abeiyat's death--involving the precision application of high-tech weaponry, by remote means and with gruesome results--eerily echo those of two of his kinsmen in the last 23 months.

The Abeiyats are a large and well-known clan in and around Bethlehem, almost as famous for their colorful nomadic roots as for the deep involvement of many family members in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian militia whose attacks have killed scores of Israelis.

The Israelis have hit back at the clan, and hard. Hussein Abeiyat, a senior leader of the then-nascent militia, was killed by an Israeli helicopter-fired rocket that slammed into his vehicle on a Bethlehem back road Nov. 9, 2000, in the early days of the more than 2-year-old Palestinian uprising.

His death marked the first in a string of "targeted killings" of Palestinian figures suspected of having or proven to have planned or carried out attacks against Israelis. The practice is denounced by human rights groups and Palestinians but defended by Israel as a necessary and lifesaving tactic.

Last October, cousin Atef Abeiyat, who had moved into a leadership position in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade after Hussein Abeiyat's death, was killed when an explosion shattered the vehicle in which he was riding. The operation was also widely believed to have been carried out by Israel.

In the interim, the Abeiyat family has been at the center of other key dramas in Bethlehem, where the clan settled several generations ago after countless years of nomadic herding of sheep and goats in the surrounding hills.

About two dozen Abeiyats were inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth, during the 39-day Israeli-Palestinian standoff last spring. One of them, 28-year-old Nidal Abeiyat, was shot dead by an Israeli sniper when he stepped into the church courtyard.

Four others from the family, all wanted by Israel, were sent into exile overseas as part of the deal that ended the standoff, and another four were banished to the Gaza Strip, relatives said.

By the clan's count, about 15 members have died in clashes with the Israelis over the course of the current uprising, and dozens have been jailed or wounded, they said.

But the death of Mohammed Abeiyat, buried Monday after a funeral that drew thousands of mourners, left many here convinced that this time, the violent passing of yet another of the family's sons had been a case of mistaken identity.

Although crude fliers posted throughout Bethlehem showed a black-and-white photo of Abeiyat posing in combat fatigues, crouching as he cradled an M-16 rifle, he was described by associates as a low-level player whose activities were confined to occasional shooting in the direction of the nearby Israeli neighborhood of Gilo. Throughout the conflict, those targeted for assassination by the Israelis have been far more senior figures in militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

By late Monday, Israeli television was citing unidentified military sources as saying that the killing had been the result of a blunder and that investigations were being launched by both the Israeli army and the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service as to how the wrong man came to be blown up.

Palestinian sources said the intended target might have been a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad group who had been frequenting the hospital in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala where Abeiyat had dropped off his mother just before he was killed.

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