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West Bank in Turmoil After Assassination
Mideast: Missiles from Israeli gunship kill longtime Arafat associate Mustafa Zibri. Amid gun battles that continue after nightfall, tanks roll into a key Palestinian town.
By TRACY WILKINSON Times Staff Writer
August 28 2001
AL BIRAH, West Bank -- In a major escalation of the Mideast conflict, Israel assassinated a senior Palestinian leader it accused of terrorism and made good early today on threats to invade a key Palestinian town south of Jerusalem.
Amid fierce gun battles, Israeli tanks backed by helicopters charged into the town of Beit Jala in one of the deepest Israeli incursions yet into Palestinian territory. Israel said it acted to stop gunmen from shooting on a Jewish neighborhood and hinted it would take up permanent positions--a first in 11 months of bloodshed.
The Palestinians had opened fire in retaliation for the slaying Monday of one of their leaders, Mustafa Zibri. He was killed when Israeli helicopters fired missiles through the windows of his office on the third floor of an apartment building in Al Birah that was full of American and Palestinian families.
Zibri, 63, was the highest-ranking Palestinian slain in years. His death took Israel's controversial policy of hunting and killing Palestinian militants to a new level.
In a rare criticism, Washington accused Israel of "inflaming an already volatile situation" with the slaying and questioned the targeting of a building occupied by American civilians. None were injured.
Israel charged that Zibri, widely known as Abu Ali Mustafa, was an explosives expert who presided over an organization attempting to kill Israeli citizens in mortar and car bomb attacks.
He was one of five top leaders in Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. He headed the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction within the PLO, and had returned from exile in Syria just two years ago. The PFLP opposes the landmark Oslo peace accords, which Arafat signed with Israel in 1993, and its military wing has claimed responsibility for several recent bombings in which no one died.
"His hands are soaked in blood, and his resume is full of scores of Israeli victims," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Even though none of his recent alleged attacks killed anybody, it was just a matter of time before one did, Gissin said. "There will be no immunity for anyone involved in terrorism."
The killing also sends a message to Arafat, suggesting that the lines protecting Palestinian political as opposed to military leaders are fading, analysts said.
As news of Zibri's death spread, thousands of Palestinians, most of them enraged and some weeping in shock and sorrow or firing guns in defiance, poured into the streets and refugee camp alleyways of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They vowed revenge and warned of a dangerous escalation in violence that has already claimed more than 700 lives.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority declared that Israel "has opened the gates of total war" and accused the Bush administration of giving Israel a "green light" to kill Palestinian leaders.
Later Monday, in what they called "initial revenge," gunmen from Zibri's faction shot and killed a Jewish settler rabbi driving in the West Bank--the eighth Israeli killed by Palestinians in two days. And Monday evening, Palestinians in Beit Jala, a PFLP stronghold, opened fire on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on Jerusalem's southern outskirts.
Israel fired back with heavy weapons. After an intense gun battle that raged for hours, it launched an invasion into the mostly Christian village at about 2 a.m. Residents saw tanks drive through the center of town and take over five buildings. Churches and mosques issued calls to defend the town. One Palestinian policeman was reported killed and an Israeli civilian in Gilo injured.
Israeli tanks and infantry also were entering the southern part of the Gaza Strip, which has been the site of intense fighting and arms smuggling, demolishing houses as they went, witnesses and the army said.
Hard-line members of Sharon's government have demanded severe punishment of Beit Jala because of regular shootings aimed at Gilo, which Israel considers a part of Jerusalem but Palestinians regard as an illegal settlement.
The army said early today that the operation is limited and will last only until the shooting stops--which is unlikely. If the troops stay in Beit Jala, which is adjacent to Bethlehem, traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus, their presence will represent the most significant reoccupation of Palestinian territory since the Oslo agreement.
Zibri was sitting at his desk when a U.S.-made Israeli combat helicopter fired one precision-guided missile through the window of his office's northern facade. Ten seconds later, another crashed through the western window. He was killed instantly.
The missiles flew through the windows with minimal damage, but the devastation inside the office was complete. The desk was in pieces, an armchair soaked with blood lay in a heap, the dead man's business cards were scattered among glass shards and rubble that covered the floor.
"We could only know him by his clothes," said Saed, an aide who would not give his last name. He said Zibri did not come to the office regularly and tried to vary his movements to evade possible Israeli attacks. But in the end, he said, Zibri did not believe that Israel would target a political leader.
At least three other party associates or bodyguards were injured, as were an 18-year-old Palestinian woman and her mother who lived downstairs. About half the 50 or so residents of the building are American citizens. None was hurt, but they were badly shaken.
The building in Al Birah, a suburb of Ramallah, is on a street about two blocks from Arafat's sprawling headquarters. Arafat was in Gaza City on Monday.
The neighbors portrayed Zibri as a short, graying man with a bad heart who had trouble mounting the stairs to his office. But Israel said he was an "archterrorist" whose demise will save lives.
Neighbors in a Daze After the Attack
Members of three Palestinian American families who live in Zibri's building were in a daze after the attack.
Ghada Daas, 33, who moved to the West Bank from Springfield, Va., three years ago, was at home with her three daughters when the missiles hit upstairs in a deafening blast. The building shook.
"This is unacceptable. I have children, my neighbors have children, we are civilians here!" said the former bus driver for Virginia's Fairfax County school district.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Leila, was emerging from her bedroom when the power of the blast shattered her windows, throwing glass over her pink bedsheets and Winnie the Pooh posters. She grabbed her 2-year-old sister, Haneen, and ran.
"We all started screaming and running," Leila said. "I knew it was the yehud [Jews] bombing us because they want us to leave this land. . . . It makes me feel really bad. It makes me hate them too."
Surveying the damage in her room, Leila eagerly retold the story for a succession of television cameras.
Her father, Abdul, 40, an entrepreneur who just opened what he calls "the largest restaurant in Palestine"--a 400-seat Chicken Hut in nearby Ramallah--ran home as soon as he heard the explosions. Seeing his daughters' bedroom, he doubted they were alive.
Later, with the family reunited and everyone safe, Abdul Daas said he never imagined that his building would be a target, because he assumed that Zibri was off limits. With his U.S. passport in his breast pocket, Daas said he felt "betrayed" by an American government that supports Israel's military machine.
L.A. Native Among Building's Residents
Dalal Dalia, born in Los Angeles 16 years ago, was in class for the first day of the new school year when she heard about the blasts in the apartment building where she lives with her grandparents. She rushed home to see if her family was all right and found her younger brother nearly mute from terror.
Dalal, who moved to the West Bank with her family in 1991, said she knows that the Israelis' American-supplied technology usually hits its mark. But she still found it appalling that this happened in her building.
"There's no safe place anymore," said the dark-haired girl, still dressed in her uniform from the Friends Quaker school. Precautions are useless, she said. "You are talking about helicopters. F-16s. What are you going to do? Hide behind a rock?"
Sharon spokesman Gissin said the government and army knew there were civilians in Zibri's building but did not know their nationalities. He insisted that the army launched the strike confident of its accuracy and having taken precautions not to cause "collateral damage."
In dozens of targeted killings by Israel since the current intifada began in September, about 10 bystanders have also died.
Gissin said Zibri had built an elaborate terrorist infrastructure in Jerusalem that he used to plant six bombs in the last several months. One found last week in Jerusalem on a popular restaurant row failed to detonate; several PFLP activists from East Jerusalem were arrested after the incident.
Israel allowed Zibri to return to the West Bank in 1999 after Arafat promised that the veteran PFLP leader would not engage in hostile actions. But Zibri continued to make speeches that advocated Palestinian liberation by any means. As far as Israel was concerned, Gissin said, Zibri never renounced terrorism and should never have been considered a political leader.
Sharon has been under enormous pressure to make good on his campaign promises to restore security to Israelis. Monday morning, Israeli newspapers were full of complaints that his forces were wasting their time "exploding empty buildings"--a reference to the retaliatory bombings of Palestinian security headquarters that are routinely evacuated in anticipation.
Distraught Arafat Receives Mourners
The assassination had the immediate effect of uniting Palestinian factions. Monday afternoon, a visibly distraught Arafat opened his headquarters in Gaza City to receive a steady stream of mourners. Among those paying their respects was Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamic organization Hamas, which has been responsible for numerous deadly suicide bombings. Arafat and Yassin sat together for a long time as mourners filed past.
Zibri was born in the West Bank town of Araba and was expelled by Israel in 1968 after the previous year's Middle East War, in which Israel captured the West Bank. He helped found the PFLP, which burst onto the international stage with a series of airplane hijackings in the 1960s and '70s. He functioned as head of the PFLP's military wing before eventually becoming right-hand man to the faction's charismatic leader, George Habash.
Based in Damascus, the Syrian capital, until 1999, he was elected to replace an ailing Habash last year.
Zibri was the most prominent Palestinian killed by Israel in recent years. In 1988, Israeli commandos shot and killed Khalil Wazir, the PLO military chief known as Abu Jihad, in a raid on his home in Tunisia. In 1995, Fathi Shikaki, leader of Islamic Jihad, was gunned down outside a Malta hotel in an attack widely attributed to Israel.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 28, 2001
I am sure there are lines of young palestinians waiting to be rigged up with explosives today.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), August 28, 2001.
And Israel will find them and their leaders
-- Steve (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 29, 2001.