An Israeli settler living in the Israeli settlement of Shavei Shomron deep in the West Bank, territory occupied by Israel in June 1967 (and claimed by the Palestine Liberation Organization for the future Palestinian state) was shot and killed on Thursday while driving on a road near where he has made his home.
The next day, Israeli settlers from Shavei Shomron reportedly carried out revenge attacks against Palestinian greenhouses and property west of Nablus.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority reportedly rounded up and interrogated some 120-150 Palestinian “suspects”, and began an “investigation”.
According to a report on YNet, the English-language website of Israel’s largest-circulation Hebrew-language daily newspaper, “A Palestinian security source told Ynet Friday that many of the detainees being interrogated by Palestinian forces are car thieves, as the PA was attempting to locate the person or persons who sold the shooters the car used to commit the attack. Israel has permitted the Palestinian forces deployed in the area of Nablus to continue their activity beyond regular hours in order to allow them to continue their search unhindered. Under normal circumstances, PA security forces work until the early evening hours … The source added that the PA was skeptical regarding announcements by al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Fatah’s military wing, and the Islamic Jihad’s military wing, al-Quds Brigades, both of which claim responsibility for the attack. ‘We are focusing on intelligence for now, in order to get to anyone who can provide information on the vehicle trade and especially stolen vehicles’, he said. ‘This was probably the result of cooperation between criminal elements and elements interested in destabilizing security, which is nearly perfect in the West Bank’.” This report can be read in full here.
Then, at dawn on Saturday, Israeli forces were sent to the Nablus homes of three Palestinian men who Israel later accused of being responsible for the killing. All three Palestinian men — members of the Fatah movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — were killed on the spot.
Palestinian Fatah member Qaddura Fares told Al-Jazeera TV in Nablus a few hours later that if Israel had evidence against these three men, they should have been arrested and tried, but not killed. Fares is a member of what is known as the “Young Fatah” movement, and is widely respected despite his failure to win a seat on the Fatah Central Committee during elections at the movement’s tightly-controlled general conference in Bethlehem last August that aimed to consolidate the control of President Abbas (Abu Mazen).
On Sunday, a day after the IDF raids that killed the three Fatah men, “The police forensics lab determined that one of the rifles seized from the Palestinian terrorists who were killed in Nablus Saturday was used in last week’s murder of Jewish settler Rabbi Meir Avshalom Hai in the West Bank. The M-16 rifle, which belonged to Tanzim member Anan Sabah, was found to be compatible with the bullet hells found at the scene of Hai’s murder. Sabah had been released from an Israeli prison as part of the amnesty deal with the Palestinian Authority in 2007, in which Israel agreed not to hunt down Palestinian gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms. ‘No two weapons leave the same indentation on the ammunition’, a police official said Sunday. The lab test results are admissible in court”. This can be found on the Israeli website YNet here .
Family members of the three dead Palestinian men made angry criticisms of the Palestinian Authority which is also headed by Abbas, based in the West Bank’s de facto capital city, Ramallah. The families were not alone in their anger.
Khaled Abu Toameh reported in the Jerusalem Post that “Some even claimed that the killing of the three Fatah operatives was carried out thanks to information provided by PA security forces in Nablus … Husam Khader, a top Fatah operative from the nearby Balata refugee camp, said many Palestinians were convinced that PA security services were involved, directly or indirectly, in the pre-dawn Nablus raid. Many Palestinians were also ‘very angry because of continued security coordination between the PA security forces and the IDF’, he said. Khader said Palestinians were also wondering why the PA security forces had disappeared from the streets of the city before and during the IDF operation … Yusef Farhat, a spokesman for Hamas, said that Abbas’s security forces tipped off Israel about the identity and whereabouts of the three Fatah men”. This article is posted here.
UPDATE [30 DECEMBER]: IN A TELEPHONE INTERVIEW, HUSAM KHADER JUST SAID THAT HE NEVER SPOKE TO KHALED ABU TOAMEH, AND NEVER SAID THE REMARKS ATTRIBUTED TO HIM IN THIS JERUSALEM POST ARTICLE…
President Abbas did not make any official statement. [He may or may not be travelling (though the Presidential Security was in evidence out on the streets of Ramallah on Saturday).] Presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh issued a statement saying that this development shows that Israel is not interested in peace.
Thousands of Palestinians accompanied the bodies (two were escorted from Nablus’ main Rafidiya hospital) to the cemetery for burial late Saturday morning. Fatah called for a three-day period of morning, and almost all shopkeepers closed and shuttered their stores. Even the businesses and the cinema in the vaunted new multi-story Nablus mall — touted as a symbol of Palestinian success under Israeli “leniency” in the West Bank as opposed to its tightened blockade of the Gaza Strip — were closed.
At the official condolences site set up at the Worker’s Center in downtown Nablus, men filed in to shake hands with a long receiving line of other men, then went inside to sit on plastic chairs for a few minutes, before filing out again. It was all very formal and rigid, illustrating the political dimension of the results of the IDF raids. Only the presence of two young pre-teen boys, distraught and crying, with red faces, showed the human cost.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza, later issued a statement saying that “Israeli undercover units extra-judicially executed 3 members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (the armed wing of Fatah movement) in Nablus. The three victims in Nablus had been granted amnesty, in coordination with the Palestinian National Authority, and had been allowed to freely move and live normally. Israeli occupation forces claimed that undercover unit fired at the three victims ‘as they refused to surrender’. However, investigations conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) conclude that the three victims were executed in cold blood”.
According to its report, PCHR says that “In the West Bank, at approximately 02:00 on Saturday, 26 December 2009, Israeli occupation forces, including undercover units, moved into Nablus. They positioned themselves near al-Nasser Mosque in the old town, where they surrounded and opened fire at a house belonging to the family of Ra’ed ‘Abdul Jabbar Mohammed al-Sarkaji, 40. Using megaphones, they ordered al-Sarkaji out of the house. As soon as he opened the door, Israeli troops opened fired at him. He was hit by a gunshot to the forehead and fell down. Soon after, Israeli occupation forces fired at him from a very close range. He was killed by 6 gunshots to the head, the chest, the left forearm, the pelvis and the left leg. His wife, 32-year-old Tahani Farouq Ja’ara, was wounded by shrapnel to the leg. At the same time, other Israeli units besieged a house belonging to the family of Ghassan Fat’hi Abu Sharekh, 38, near Qaderi fish market in the old town. Through megaphones they ordered residents of the house to get out. All the inhabitants left the building, Ghassan was the last to leave. Once he appeared, Israeli occupation forces opened fire at him. He was killed by 7 gunshots to the neck, the chest, the abdomen, the back and the left leg. At approximately 02:30, Israeli occupation forces besieged Sobeh 5-storey apartment building in Kshaika Street in Ras al-‘Ein neighborhood in the southeast of Nablus . They called through megaphones on ‘Anan Suleiman Mustafa Sobeh, 36, who lives on the second floor to get out and surrender to them. They opened fire at the building. At approximately 08:00, Israeli occupation forces withdrew from the area, and residents of the area found ‘Anan’s body on the roof of a car washing yard near the building. He was hit by several gunshots to the chest, the right shoulder, the neck and the lower jaw”.
The PCHR statement condemned “the policy of extra-judicial executions adopted by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian activists, and asserts that this policy serves to increase tension in the region and threatens the lives of Palestinian civilians”. It also called “upon the international community to immediately intervene to stop such crimes, and calls upon the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War to fulfill their obligation under article 1 of the Convention to ensure respect for the Convention in all circumstances”, and “to search for and prosecute those who are responsible for perpetrating grave breaches of the Convention”.
A U.S. official in Washington made a phone call to an Israeli official on Saturday evening to ask what had happened, according to a report in the Israeli media. [CORRECTION: Haaretz reported that Haaretz reported that it was told by a senior U.S. official that “We talked to both sides in order to get full information about what happened … We expressed our concern and encouraged both sides to continue their security cooperation”.]
At the start of the weekly meeting of the Israeli cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu stated: “I would like to commend the ISA and the IDF for the quick operation against the cell that murdered Rabbi Meir Avshalom Hai. Our policy against terrorism is clear. We will continue to respond aggressively – against any attack on Israeli citizens and against any firing of rockets or missiles at Israeli territory”. [N.B., the firing of rockets or missiles refers to attacks coming from Gaza, not the West Bank…]
During the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reportedly said that “one of the assassinated had been freed from an Israeli prison, highlighting the risks of the prisoner swap deal Israel is negotiating in a bid to free Gilad Shalit”.
Haaretz reported on Sunday that “Meir Hai, a 40-year-old teacher and father of seven, was killed when militants opened fire at his car car on the road between Shavei Shomron and the nearby settlement Einav in the West Bank. He was alone in his car. An IDF officer said that in the past week a roadblock had been removed on the road Hai was driving on, about 150 meters from where he was shot. The roadblock, known as the barrels roadblock, monitored traffic around Nablus in the direction of Tul Karm, the officer said. The perpetrators are believed to have fled through where the roadblock used to be, to the village of Asira al-Shamaliyah. Over the past year, the number of terror attacks in the West Bank has dramatically decreased thanks mainly to the Shin Bet security service and IDF. However, IDF officials say attempts to carry out terror attacks continue, especially those perpetrated by local individuals working alone”. This Haaretz article is published here.
Al-Jazeera reported on its website that “The Israeli military has said that the three men shot dead in Nablus were behind the killing of an Israeli settler on a West Bank road on Thursday. It said a ballistic analysis showed that weapons found in the house of Anan Tzubach, one of the dead, were used to murder Meir Avshalom Hai, the settler … Family members of the three men said the troops entered without warning and killed all three in cold blood, insisting none had resisted arrest. The Israeli military confirmed that none of them fired any shots at its soldiers and said only one of them was armed”. This Al-Jazeera report can be viewed here.
Ma’an News Aency reported that “Director of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees in Nablus Ghassan Hamdan told Ma’an that three Palestinian homes were besieged in the raid. He confirmed that Sukarji was shot in the head and chest ‘before the very eyes of his wife’. While the second man, Abu Sharkh, was removed from his home and shot outside … The home of Anan Subih in Ras El’ein was the third targeted location, where troops reportedly opened fire randomly on the building before entering. According to the Israeli military, ‘When he was killed, Annan Tzubach [Subih] was armed with a handgun and hiding two M16 assault rifles, an additional handgun, and ammunition’. The same statement, however, noted ‘During an attempt to arrest him tonight [Saturday], Annan was killed after an exchange of fire with the IDF while he was found in a hiding place along with weapons and ammunition’. Eyewitnesses described to Ma’an the siege launched on Ksheikiyya street in the Ras El’ein neighborhood where Anan Subih lives. Subih was an officer in the Palestinian Authority preventive security services in Nablus [N.B., other reports suggested that Subih was waiting to enter the Preventive Security Forces] . ‘Dozens of Israeli soldiers ransacked Anan’s home at 3:00am firing gunshots and grenades, causing a fire to break out in the next dor warehouse for plastic chairs. The soldiers [entered the building] demanding Anan, and when we told them he was at work with the security forces the soldiers evacuated all nine families who live in the building. We were gathered at the nearby home of the Al-‘Amoudi family’, Anan’s brother Nidal told Ma’an. Witnesses added that Israeli forces did not allow Palestinian fire fighters to access the area and put out the blaze”. This Ma’an report is published here.
The New York Times team in the region reported that “[IDF] Maj. Peter Lerner, spokesman for Israel’s Central Command, which controls the West Bank, said that its forces had spent the past two days looking for the killers of the settler, Rabbi Meir Hai, a 45-year-old teacher and father of seven, who was shot dead on Thursday as he drove near his home in the settlement of Shavei Shomron. The information gathered, he said, led them to three men in the city of Nablus early Saturday. Troops in jeeps descended on their homes and in each case, he said, the suspect was asked to give himself up. None did so, and all were shot dead. All three, he added, had been involved in anti-Israel violence in the past through activities in the Aksa Martyrs Brigade, a militia associated with the Fatah movement led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. One of them, Annan Sleiman Moustafa Tsubakh, 36, was hiding with two assault rifles, two handguns and ammunition in a crawl space in his house when the Israeli troops found him. Major Lerner said that the three were the killers of Rabbi Hai and that they acted as an isolated cell rather than as part of some larger organization. Asked if the Israelis had coordinated with the Palestinian security forces that had been patrolling West Bank cities for a year and a half, he said no, that the army’s job was first and foremost to protect Israeli civilians. Ghassan Katib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said Palestinian security had been investigating the killing when the Israelis interfered. ‘This is what they do’, he said. ‘They kill people and then claim they were responsible. Our security forces had begun an investigation into the killing but the Israelis did not coordinate with us’.” The NYTimes report can be read in full here.
The Israeli website YNet reported that military sources “noted that despite the PA forces’ commendable conduct, the IDF had no choice but to independently act on apprehending the three persons responsible for the attack. All three were killed by the IDF during military activity in Nablus Saturday morning. IDF rejected Palestinian claims according to which there was no reason to kill the three. The sources further noted that some 120 suspects have been detained by the Palestinian security establishment since the attack on Thursday, in an attempt to apprehend the responsible terrorist cell. The fourth suspect reportedly turned himself in to the authorities prior to the Saturday military operation. ‘They acted with determination, but alongside that we have the responsibility to act against whoever executed the attack and settle the score with them’, said a senior officer with the Central Command. The defense establishment is investigating why the three, who are considered fairly mature, decided to execute the attack themselves, and why they acted so shortly after being released from the Israeli prison. A possible tie to Hezbollah was also being investigated. The military activity became possible with the help of Shin Bet intelligence. It began at 3 am Saturday and was carried out under the command of Shomron Brigade Commander Colonel Itzik Bar, who dispatched forces from the Duvdevan Unit and Kfir Brigade’s Nachshon Battalion to all three locations where the suspects were reportedly hiding. ‘It was important to act correspondingly, because we believed there was a connection between all three suspects’, explained the senior officer. The fact that the terrorists are not young, said the officer, indicated they have an extensive background in terrorist activities, as well as experience and knowledge. ‘They acted in order to cover their tracks. The risk level in this operation was high because the three had access to weapons and would not hesitate to use them’, he said. The military activity at the first two locations, where Raghsan Abu Sharah and Raed a-Sarkaji lived, was fairly short. The two refused to leave their houses, and continued hiding inside even after IDF
forces used different methods including shots in the air in order to make the two surrender. Abu Sharah sent his wife out to face the soldiers, but did not agree to step out himself. ‘There are clear directives in these situations’, explained the senior officer, ‘after they refused to leave their houses and surrender, we entered. They continued hiding and endangering our soldiers, which made the shooting imperative’. In the third location, where Anan Sabah was staying, the activity lasted a few hours, and included the firing of an antitank missile toward the house, in an attempt to force the suspect out. When we approached (to Anan Sabah), he Yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ a few times and refused to step out. There were also weapons in the house. The fact that no soldier was injured in the incident shows that we did not act too aggressively and that everything was done properly despite the extremely complex and dangerous mission,” he said. Colonel Itzik Bar, which commanded the activity, also headed a 2004 operation, in which Abu Sharah’s brother, who was the former leader of the Tanzim in Nablus, was killed”. This report can be read in full here.
Another YNet report said that “IDF Shomron Brigade Commander Colonel Itzik Bar arrived Saturday night at the settlement of Shavei Shomron, where locals spoke of their sense of insecurity since the army removed roadblocks from roads throughout the West Bank as a gesture to the Palestinians”. here. An earlier version of this same YNet story reported that “Amidst increasing tensions between settlers and the defense establishment of the settlement construction freeze, the Yesha Council on Saturday expressed its satisfaction with the IDF’s swift retaliation against the Palestinians who executed the lethal shooting attack in the West Bank on Thursday, which left Meir Avshalom Hai of the Shavei Shomron settlement dead. However, the settlers also warned against the IDF’s removal of roadblocks, which they say facilitate the execution of terror attacks. At the end of Shabbat, some 120 Shavei Shomron residents, together with activists from the Samaria Settlers Committee gathered at the scene of the attack and protested against the removal of roadblocks. ‘We must prevent the next murder and close this roadblock again. If the government acts negligently and does not close it again, we will do it ourselves’, the settlers said … The council also conveyed a hint of a warning about the consequences a deal for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit might have. ‘The murderers were released prisoners who returned to terror, and the State of Israel would be wise to internalize the necessary lessons’. Shomron Regional Council head Gershon Mesika said the removal of roadblocks in the regional allowing Palestinian movement prepared the ground for the murder. ‘It has been proven once again that when the IDF is allowed to fight terror, it can crush it. Had the roadblocks not been removed, the murder, and the need to strike the terrorists, would have been prevented. I demand the prime minister put an end to this security negligence and immediately close the barriers which were removed in order to prevent more murders and attacks’.” This article can be found here.
On Sunday, as YNet subsequently reported, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that Israel will insist that terrorists not return to action in the field as part of the prisoner swap deal for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. ‘As of now, there is no deal, and it is not at all clear if there will be a deal. It is clear that if we reach a practical proposal, I will bring it to the cabinet. But we still are not there and I don’t know if we will be’, Netanyahu told Likud ministers on Sunday. The PM linked Saturday’s killing of three al-Aqsa Brigades gunmen who were behind last week’s shooting death of settler Meir Avshalom Hai to the prisoner swap negotiations. According to him, ‘One of the cell terrorist cell members who were killed had been released from Israeli prison. This is precisely the consideration standing against the Shalit deal … We will not agree to expose our citizens to terror’, Netanyahu said”. This YNet report is posted here.
So, the events in and around the once-proud but now much-diminished Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus — once a regional financial capital — have become convenient arguments of the Israeli right against the prisoner exchange deal being negotiated with Hamas, and against any lessening of the oppressive checkpoint regime in the West Bank …
Ma’an News Agency reported that “According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the attack follows the first week since the beginning of 2009 that Israeli military and security activities throughout the West Bank ended with no Palestinian casualties”. This was published here.
It is also worth putting this situation into context: the West Bank has been under a belligerent military occupation by Israel for over 42 years — since the June 1967 Mideast wart. Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered violations of the Geneva Convention [which somehow saw occupations as lasting, at most, one year…], as well as other provisions of international law. The First Palestinian Intifada against the Israeli occupation broke out in December 1987. Almost year later, on 15 November 1988, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat proposed (and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Palestine National Council approved) the creation of a Palestinian state on the territory Israel occupied in June 1967 (meaning the West Bank, including East Jerusalem — and its Old City with extremely important religious sites — and the Gaza Strip). The Madrid Peace Conference convened in 1999 failed to make progress toward ending the occupation or the Intifada. The Oslo process that began with an exchange of diplomatic recognition between Israel and the PLO in September 1993 resulted in the creation of a Palestinian Authority that was supposed to exercise a temporary autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza [Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem was excluded], during negotiations that were to last five years. It was never stated, but it was certainly assumed by the Palestinians, that the result of those negotiations would be a state in five years’ time (that is, by 1999). The Road Map adopted by the Quartet of Middle East negotiations in 2003 (to defuse the Second Palestinian Intifada that started in September 2009 and threatened the region while the U.S. wanted to focus on eliminating the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq) suggested the formation of a Palestinian State by 2005. The Annapolis process launched in the final year of the administration of George W. Bush was aimed at the creation of a Palestinian State by the end of 2008. After his inauguration as new U.S. President in January 2009, Barack Obama made a big splash by trying to insist on a freeze of Israeli settlements, as a way to re-start direct Israeli-Palestinian talks that the Palestinians broke off after the start of a massive Israeli military operation against Gaza that began a year ago today. But, the Defense Minister of Israel still rules the West Bank. And, the current Israeli government has only just barely decided to implement a temporary ten-month settlement “freeze” — except in Jerusalem (meaning the unilaterally-expanded Greater Jerusalem municipal area that includes some 60 square kilometers of land that was part of the West Bank until 4 June 1967 — after which, officials say, they will begin to build again… leaving less and less room for hope that there could ever be any viable Palestinian state.