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Israeli Attack Enrages Palestinians

Troops kill an Islamic Jihad leader in Hebron and destroy a possible bomb lab. The actions come as a cease-fire has all but broken down.

August 15, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The specter of a return to wide-ranging violence loomed larger Thursday after Israeli forces killed a wanted Palestinian militant and his associates vowed vengeance "like an earthquake."

The broken body of Mohammed Sidr, 26, was pulled from the rubble of a building in the West Bank city of Hebron where the Israeli army said he had holed up and exchanged fire with soldiers who had come to arrest him.

The building, which the army said served as an explosives laboratory, blew up after Israeli forces hit it with an antitank missile.

Sidr's organization, Islamic Jihad -- which had agreed to a now-tottering cease-fire by Palestinian militias -- promised retaliation.

"The army of occupation will pay the price, along with its soldiers and settlers," Sheik Bassam Sadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, said in a statement posted on a Web site that is closely connected to the group. "The response ... will come at the right time and the right place and will be very harsh."

"The response will be quick, like an earthquake and in the depth of the Zionist entity," an unidentified Islamic Jihad leader was quoted as saying on the Web site.

Thursday's shootout and threats of revenge were more evidence that the three-month Palestinian hudna, or cease-fire, declared on June 29 has all but broken down. Two Israelis and seven Palestinians, including two teenage suicide bombers, have died in the conflict since last Friday.

Radical Muslim groups such as Hamas say they respect the cease-fire but reserve the right to strike back if attacked. The groups say that Israel brings reprisals upon itself by pursuing and arresting suspected militants despite the cease-fire, which produced six weeks of relative calm before nearing collapse this week.

"The Zionist enemy started with the violations, and what the resistance will do is considered a natural response to the crimes of the occupation," Sharif Tahayneh, the leader of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank city of Jenin, said in a telephone interview. "The hudna cannot last while there is no commitment from the enemy."

But the Israeli government says that it must act to defend its citizens in the absence of progress by the Palestinian Authority in disarming extremist groups, as demanded by the latest Middle East peace plan, known as the "road map."

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz referred to Sidr, who allegedly organized attacks that killed or wounded many Israelis, as a "ticking bomb." Israeli security sources said he was planning an imminent attack, but they did not give details.

Political finger-pointing, and now the possibility of a renewed cycle of carnage, has paralyzed progress on the U.S.-backed peace plan. Israel has already put a freeze on restoring parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control, and the Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of acting in bad faith.

Mofaz and the head of Palestinian security services, Mohammed Dahlan, met Thursday night to try to inch the peace initiative forward.

Each side has appealed to Washington to pressure the other to fulfill its obligations under the three-phase road map, which envisions an embryonic Palestinian state by year's end, upon completion of the second phase.

But both parties remain stuck in the first phase -- disarmament of Palestinian militants and Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

The cease-fire provided breathing room for the two camps to try to resolve some of their disagreements. But a bloody confrontation between the Israelis and suspected Hamas members last Friday in the West Bank city of Nablus, which left four Palestinians dead, triggered the latest round of violence.

Israel's attempt to capture Sidr on Thursday was not its first. It struck at him with a missile in December 2001 but killed two boys, ages 2 and 13, who were in the car he was driving.

Sidr was the head of Islamic Jihad in Hebron, a city holy to both Muslims and Jews and a volatile area where Palestinians and Jewish settlers live in constant tension. Israel blames him for the deaths of 19 Israelis and two foreign observers.

Sidr was allegedly behind a December 2002 shooting spree inside a Jewish seminary near Hebron in which four students were killed while getting ready for a Sabbath meal.

The previous month, Palestinian snipers gunned down 12 Israeli soldiers and security officers on a narrow road leading to an ancient and much-disputed shrine in Hebron. The army identified Sidr as the organizer of that attack as well.

Israeli soldiers closed in on Sidr at a building in Hebron's crowded center in the early hours of the day. The military said it called out to Sidr to surrender but that he responded with grenades and gunfire, which troops returned.

After a standoff of several hours, the army launched an antitank missile, which triggered a chain of blasts inside the building, Israeli radio reported. Sidr's body was dug out of the rubble afterward.

"No doubt that the assassination of Mohammed Sidr will have its impact on the Islamic Jihad movement," Tahayneh said, acknowledging Sidr's importance to the group. "Sidr was symbol and a leader of the resistance in the Hebron area."

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