A death the Israelis cannot ignore

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A death the Israelis cannot ignore

Tel Aviv pledges inquiry after its guns kill the first European in seven weeks of bloodshed

Special report: Israel and the Middle East

Suzanne Goldenberg in Beit Jalla, West Bank Friday November 17, 2000

Harald Fischer's neighbours spent yesterday morning picking up his shredded remains after the popular German resident was torn apart by an Israeli missile during an eight-hour bombardment of their snug West Bank town. Fischer, 67, a retired chiropractor from Gummersbach in North Rhine-Westphalia, has the tragic distinction of being the first European citizen - and first Christian - to die in seven weeks of bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza.

One Palestinian man was shot in the chest near Hebron yesterday and died as Israeli troops blocked an ambulance from reaching him.

After more than 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli shells, sniper fire and rubber bullets, Harald Fischer's death may be the first that sees Israel held to account. The government said yesterday it would investigate his death, together with Germany's military attache.

In this prosperous suburb of Bethlehem, Fischer's death had the rare power to shock a community exhausted by the nightly punishment inflicted by the Israeli tanks stationed on the next ridge, guarding the Jewish settlement of Gilo, which was built on land confiscated from Beit Jalla.

Scores of people gathered at the spot where he was cut down, marked by a circle of stones and a few straggly bouquets of flowers. As the sun rose in the sky, neighbours scrubbed his blood and scraps of his corpse from a home five metres away.

The crowds swelled later in the day when Orthodox priests in black robes jostled with Palestinian gunmen, German diplomats and doctors in white coats to carry Fischer's coffin to the local Lutheran church.

Fischer was married in the same stone building. He arrived in the mainly Christian town in 1981 with Lifegate, an organisation that works with the handicapped, and stayed, marrying Norma, a local woman, and raising three children. He left five children from a first marriage in Germany.

On Wednesday night, when the Israeli firing began, the Fischers huddled in their living room on the far side from Gilo. Two bullets pierced the wardrobe in the bedroom Fischer shared with his wife, which looks out on the apartment blocks of Gilo, and another landed in their daughters' room.

At about 11.30pm, Fischer left the relative safety of his home when neighbours called to tell him people had been injured down the road.

"He was never afraid," said his oldest son, Danial, 17. "He always used to tell us that he lived through the second world war."

On Wednesday night, however, Fischer appears to have taken a direct hit from an Israeli missile. The attack was part of an Israeli assault on five West Bank towns overnight, in what Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, has called retaliatory acts for gunfire from Yasser Arafat's Fatah tanzim militias.

The leader of the Beit Jalla tanzim, who is directing the fire against Gilo, was also outside Fischer's home yesterday. "We know we are hurting local people by firing from this area, but we have no other option," said the man, who would give only his first name, Mike.

He said his men operate in cells of six to 12 fighters, and are armed with M-16s and heavy machine guns capable of hitting Gilo, which is about 500 metres away.

The attacks - which have inflicted only minimal damage - have caused terror and outrage among Israelis who consider the settlement, built on land occupied since 1967, to be practically a part of Jerusalem. Their clamour is forcing Mr Barak to take ever harsher measures against the Palestinians.

Yesterday, he said he would take the punishment up a notch by blocking millions of dollars in tax revenue Israel is bound to transfer to the Palestinians - about two-thirds of the total revenues of the Palestinian Authority.

On average, Israel had been transferring 240m shekels ($60m) a month in collected tax revenues, including money withheld from the salaries of Palestinian workers in Israel, to the Palestinian Authority.

"Life today as a result of this fighting, in Palestinian society, in the West Bank and Gaza is much more difficult than it is here," Mr Barak told Israel Radio yesterday. "People are not working. Money isn't being transferred. Many other things are not getting there - all for security considerations and this will continue as long as necessary."

That message will go unheeded in Gilo, ringed by military foxholes and two lines of concrete barriers. Its low-rise buildings have relatively few bullet scars, but its residents bay for Palestinian blood.

Despite the devastation wrought on Beit Jalla and nearby Beit Sahour, where more than 120 houses have been hit by Israeli missiles and machine-gun fire, Mr Barak said yesterday the Palestinians could expect to be hit harder, and for many days to come.

That is precisely what they are dreading in Beit Jalla. "There has been so much suffering and we want to see it stop. We have never been violent people. I don't know why this has happened to us," said Fischer's widow, Norma.

"Enough is enough. This has to stop. We cannot live in fear every night and every day."

Ian Black in Brussels adds: Mounting violence in the West Bank left its mark in Marseille yesterday, where EU foreign ministers were meeting their Israeli and Arab counterparts for the Euro-Med dialogue.

Arab ministers, frustrated by the dominance of the US, urged the EU to drop its neutrality in the face of Israeli "aggression". But Germany's Joschka Fischer said Europe was committed to "supporting the legitimate interests of both sides".


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 17, 2000

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