Israeli undercover agents stalked a Palestinian militant as he drove
towards his home in Hebron yesterday, and fired a dozen bullets into
his body at close range on a day when the West Bank hovered dangerously
close to all-out war.
Local Palestinians said two or three members of Israeli special
forces, dressed as Arabs and driving a blue and white truck with
Palestinian license plates, idled by a road on a slope overlooking
the city, waiting for the car of Emad Abu Sneineh.
When Abu Sneineh, a local commander in Yasser Arafat's Fatah militias,
pulled up, the Israelis opened fire, hitting him in the head, chest
and stomach before speeding off to an Israeli section of the town.
They said there was no attempt to arrest Abu Sneineh, who was alone.
The assassination was the latest in an Israeli campaign which has
killed 39 Palestinian activists and 17 innocent bystanders.
The international community has condemned the assassinations. However,
Israel argues that the assassination of Palestinian activists -
which security officials call a "policy of pinpoint prevention"
- prevents the killing of Israelis by bomb-makers and gunmen.
In recent days, Israel has also claimed that it has assassinated
Palestinians in the process of planning suicide attacks, including
the two most senior leaders of the Hamas in the West Bank, who were
killed by guided missiles in their office in Nablus. The Israeli
army said after that assassination that it had acted to "prevent
acts of murder and terrorism against Israeli civilians". However,
it offered no convincing proof.
The killing came only hours after Israeli tanks retreated from
the gates of Bethlehem in a threatened invasion seen as the opening
of a full-scale war against the Palestinians.
Yesterday, as soldiers and tanks hunkered down on the edges of
Bethlehem, Israeli officials insisted the invasion might yet go
ahead if gunmen again open fire on the Jewish settlement of Gilo,
poised between Jerusalem and the suburb of Beit Jala.
"They have to stop firing, period," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman
for Israel's hardline prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "If they do
not we will immediately implement our original plan. If we see within
the next 24 hours, or more, that they resume sniper fire or shooting
at Gilo, we will respond in kind."
Amid the epic tensions in the West Bank - two days after the invasion
of the northern city of Jenin - Abu Sneineh, aged 28 and a father
of five, was a relatively low-level operative.
Palestinian and Israeli security sources say he led a cell of gunmen
who have regularly fired on the illegal Jewish settlement that occupies
the heart of Hebron.
Yesterday, the city was braced for another night of gunfire after
hundreds of mourners, some shooting in the air, followed a stretcher
carrying Abu Sneineh's body to the cemetery. Shops downed shutters
as businesses declared a protest strike.
In Bethlehem, meanwhile, Palestinian officials said Israeli forces
had occupied four Palestinian houses in an area under Israeli security
control, and imposed a curfew on three nearby villages.
The specter of a re-occupation of Palestinian-ruled towns in the
West Bank has infuriated Palestinians, who accuse Israel of plotting
a full-scale war. They also say the assassinations make it impossible
to convince their followers to stop shooting at Gilo.
"This has become very personal - not political," said Kamal Hmeid,
the Fatah leader in Bethlehem, including Beit Jala. "All the people
expect to be killed at any moment by helicopters or tanks. They
sit around thinking: 'If we are going to be killed in the end by
Israel, we want to kill as many Israelis as we can before we die.'"
Abu Sneineh's assassination ratchets up a week of steeply escalating
tensions after a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis inside a Jerusalem
pizzeria. In the days since then, Israel has steadily deployed greater
hardware against the Palestinians, and escalated its efforts to
destroy Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
The measures have gone relatively unremarked because there were
virtually no Palestinian casualties. However, Reuven Pedatzur, a
lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a security analyst for the
liberal Ha'aretz newspaper, said Israel and the Palestinians were
approaching a point of no return.
"This is a rolling war," he said. "We are rolling towards an all-out
war against the Palestinians. What happened in the last few days
was that we were not making war against terrorist individuals any
more, but against the Palestinians."
Israel's military operations against the Palestinians in the last
week include: the deployment of F-16 jets to drop two one-ton bombs
on a Palestinian police compound in a wealthy residential area of
Ramallah; the seizure of Orient House, the unofficial PLO headquarters
in Arab East Jerusalem; the invasion of Jenin, and the threatened
invasion of the Bethlehem area.
Three Israeli cabinet ministers said yesterday that an invasion
of Bethlehem was no longer unthinkable. "One should not consider
things that were perceived to be immune to be immune any longer,"
said the public security minister, Uzi Landau.
Israeli security officials told Israel radio the operation had
merely been postponed for 24 hours.
In part, such statements are bravado, intended to buffer Mr Sharon's
hardline reputation against accusations that he caved in to pressure
from the US and the European Union by ordering the tanks to halt
at the gates of the city. In Washington, officials condemned the
plan as "provocative".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001