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For Israelis, Little Things Become Scary

A rash of recent kidnappings, stabbings and other assaults has many thinking twice before going for a walk or bumming a ride.

August 31, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

UPPER NAZARETH, Israel — The first to go missing was Eliyahu Gurel. A gang of kidnappers ambushed the 60-year-old cabbie, tied him up, then made wild ransom demands, including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli army commandos traced Gurel to an abandoned West Bank building a few days later and freed him in a midnight raid without firing a shot. Four Palestinians accused of kidnapping him are now in custody.

Oleg Shaikhet wasn't so lucky. Within a week of Gurel's rescue in mid-July, the studious 20-year-old soldier vanished while hitchhiking home. Trackers eventually uncovered his body in a shallow grave achingly close to his parents' apartment in this northern Israeli town. He had been abducted and shot in the head -- the victim, authorities believe, of a politically motivated murder.

As Israel struggles to cope with large-scale terrorist attacks such as the Aug. 19 suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus, a rash of kidnappings, stabbings and other assaults has left many Israelis feeling even more vulnerable.

This is a country where avoiding a ride on a bus, a visit to a sidewalk cafe or other crowded public spaces is already common practice. But the recent string of low-level attacks has deepened the mistrust between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and has made many residents nervous about daily activities once considered relatively safe -- going out for a walk, bumming a ride.

"You have to think of more angles of fear, new aspects," said Tel Aviv attorney Monica Barre, 49. "It's not only that you shouldn't get on a bus, you shouldn't get into a private car.... You don't know what to be afraid of."

For example, four youths attacked David Shiloh as he bicycled home near Jerusalem. He was taken to a hospital with a kitchen knife in his back, but survived.

In Tel Aviv, 24-year-old Amir Simhon was sitting on a seaside bench with his girlfriend when a knife-wielding Palestinian who had just terrorized a nearby restaurant ran past and stabbed him fatally in the neck.

Even her own living room in central Israel proved unsafe for 63-year-old grandmother Mazal Afari. On July 7, a Palestinian barged into her home and detonated a bomb, killing them both.

Boaz Ganor, an Israeli expert on terrorism, said that such attacks usually are not the work of groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which pour meticulous planning into high-casualty operations.

Some of the attackers may be affiliated with such groups, but their actions often seem amateurish in planning and execution. They are more likely to be what Ganor classifies as "personal-initiative attacks," launched by enraged individuals.

"In some cases, there is a personal motivation -- either they were arrested or another reason," Ganor said. In other cases, attackers lash out because of political frustration, perhaps disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership, a belief that "nobody else is doing anything, so I am going to show my patriotism and do something about it."

These attacks are common during lulls in more organized fighting, when angry individuals feel that it's time to take matters into their own hands. The current string of assaults began during the cease-fire declared by Palestinian militant groups at the end of June. A similar wave of violence broke out during the 1990s when the Oslo peace process was underway.

The temporary cease-fire is now off, but that has not spelled the immediate end of small-scale incidents. Since the Palestinian militias called off their truce Aug. 21, there has been at least one reported kidnapping attempt of an Israeli soldier and the revelation of another abduction plot.

In their olive-green uniforms, with weapons dangling off their shoulders, young Israeli military recruits are instantly recognizable and ubiquitous targets. The army routinely broadcasts alerts to its troops warning of kidnap threats, especially in the northern part of the country, where Arab and Jewish Israelis often live in close proximity.

Shaikhet, the young soldier, was aware of the warnings. But on July 21, the immigrant from Ukraine decided to thumb a ride home anyway from his base near Safed, by the Sea of Galilee.

"All soldiers hitchhike because it's the easiest way to get home," said Adam Shaikhet, Oleg's older brother. "He had his own personal weapon. He felt much safer."

Oleg called his mother shortly after he set off at 5:15 p.m. An hour later, somewhere around Beit Rimon -- less than 10 miles from home -- he disappeared.

Hundreds of volunteers turned out to search for him. His cell phone, dog tags and pages from a notebook were found in the ashes of a bonfire. His beret was nearby, which Adam Shaikhet is convinced his brother deliberately dropped as a signal to rescuers.

On July 28, Oleg's body was discovered buried in an olive grove less than 1,000 yards from where the beret had been found.

He had been shot in the head, from the back -- with his own gun -- his brother said.

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