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Militant's Death Ends 6-Week Lull

Palestinian's shootout with Israeli army forces could complicate Abbas' efforts to reach a truce.

March 11, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops killed a suspected operative of the radical group Islamic Jihad in a predawn shootout Thursday in the northern West Bank, the army's first fatal confrontation with a wanted Palestinian militant in more than six weeks.

The killing could complicate efforts by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to formalize an agreement under which the main militant organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, would stop their attacks on Israel. Abbas, who will meet in Cairo next week with representatives of the groups, said Thursday that he still hoped a truce could be struck.

"God willing, we could have a [cease-fire] declaration," he told reporters in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli authorities, who identified the slain man as Mohammed Abad Halil, said he was a member of an Islamic Jihad cell based around the town of Tulkarm that takes orders from exiled leaders in Syria.

The leadership in Damascus, Syria's capital, had claimed responsibility for a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis and injured dozens.

Israeli authorities did not specifically implicate Halil, also known as Abu Hazneh, in the Tel Aviv attack. But officials said he had helped plant a car bomb near Jenin last month that was meant to be detonated when a bus full of Israeli soldiers passed by. Instead, the bomb was defused after it was noticed by a passing patrol.

According to army accounts and witnesses, an Israeli unit moved into the village of Nazlat a-Awasta, near the town of Jenin, around 3 a.m. and surrounded a house where Halil was staying.

Soldiers called on him to surrender. Instead he opened fire, killing an army search dog. That set off a prolonged shootout, and troops eventually called in a bulldozer to demolish the house, military sources said. Halil's body was found in the rubble.

Israel emphasized that Halil's death was not a "targeted killing" but occurred during an attempt to make an arrest. Israel says it has stopped such killings as part of a series of conciliatory steps after the election of Abbas.

"We would have much preferred to capture him and question him," said Capt. Yael Hartmann, an army spokeswoman.

The deadly raid was likely to increase the pressure on Abbas, who already is dealing with domestic grumblings over the delay in Israel's promised troop pullout from five West Bank cities and towns. The two sides held talks this week but have not resolved their differences over which areas will be handed over to Palestinian control.

After a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel scaled back military activity in the West Bank and Gaza and promised to actively pursue only militants who were planning an imminent attack.

But the Tel Aviv bombing prompted raids around Tulkarm and Jenin, resulting in more than a dozen arrests. Such operations were a daily occurrence before the relative lull that took hold around the time Abbas became president in January, and the raids frequently erupted into larger-scale fighting.

Meanwhile, in a sharp reminder of the threat to Abbas posed by infighting, a meeting of reform-minded members of his Fatah faction in the West Bank town of Ramallah was broken up by Palestinian gunmen. They fired into the air, shouted threats and smashed windows and chairs before retreating.

Abbas was not present, and no one was injured.

Organizers said they believed the gunmen were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade summoned by old-guard Fatah members seeking to stymie reform. The late Yasser Arafat sometimes used such shows of force by the militia, which is loosely affiliated with Fatah, to intimidate his opponents.

The last two weeks have seen a substantial slowdown in putting Israeli-Palestinian summit agreements into effect. Egypt has been trying to restore a sense of momentum.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz held talks Thursday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. Israeli officials said the two discussed prospective security arrangements on the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip after an Israeli pullout from Gaza scheduled to take place this summer.

The Bush administration also has been seeking, with limited success, to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward confidence-building measures meant to lead to a resumption of peace talks. Lt. Gen. William Ward, a U.S. envoy charged with fostering security cooperation between the two sides, formally took his post Thursday, and Israeli news reports said he might try to help break the deadlock over the delayed troop pullback.

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