Suicide bombers: Israel holds truth captive in a village under siege

Israel says it has identified the four suicide bombers who killed 20 Israelis in Jerusalem as coming from the Palestinian village of Azira Shamaliya on the West Bank. The village has been sealed off for five days. Patrick Cockburn evades Israeli troops to talk to relatives of the alleged bombers and the Palestinian head of security who fears an all-out Israeli assault.
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The Independent Online
The siege lines are drawn tight around the Palestinian village of Azira Shamaliya, which Israel says was home to four young men in their twenties who blew themselves up in Jerusalem, killing 20 other people.

"There is going to be a massacre here," says Major Hamad Sutki Rajeb, the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security police in this village of 10,000 Palestinians, as he trains his military binoculars at an Israeli patrol blocking the road half a mile away. "They tried to come into Azira early this morning to arrest three people they would not name and we stopped them."

Israeli troops surrounded Azira Shamaliya, built on the side of a steep hill just north of the West Bank city of Nablus, last Saturday night, searching for relatives of the four suicide bombers who had blown themselves up on 30 July and 4 September. They were seeking relatives of the suspected bombers both to interrogate, and to provide DNA samples. Late on Tuesday, the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, suddenly announced Israel knew the identity of at least three of the bombers who had attacked Mahane Yehuda market and Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. It named Mouai'ia Jarar'a, Bashar Zoualha and Touwafik Yassin, all from Azira Shamaliya, and said that another local man, Yosef Shouli, was suspected of being the fourth bomber. The facts are not easy to check. Every road and track around the village is cut off by an Israeli checkpoint.

The West Bank is a curious checkerboard of competing authorities. In Azira Shamaliya the Palestinian Authority is in theory in charge of civilian matters, while security is still handled by Israel, as it is in every so-called "Area B" - a district of joint control set up for the interim stage of the Oslo accords. It is only in cities such as nearby Nablus that Palestinians exercise full control. But the real situation is very different. In practice, the Palestinian Authority has security control of every West Bank village on a day-to-day basis. Using a grocery store in a nearby village as their headquarters, two members of the Palestinian Preventive Security were watching developments in Azira Shamaliya. They said they knew of one road which the Israelis were not guarding. This turned out to be a dirt track winding along the floor of a dry wadi for three or four miles between the olive groves.

We were not the only ones to know that the Israeli siege of the village had a hole in it. Coming in the opposite direction through a cloud of dust came a car driven by Hassan Shouli, a tractor driver, who said he had come to look for food for his family.

Asked about the alleged suicide bombers, Mr Shouli said: "Actually, I am related to all four of them. I can't really tell you whether what the Israelis say is true or not. I haven't seen seen of them for some time. But I don't think the Israelis are absolutely certain because they are still looking for people."

This is probably true. The Israeli press said the Israeli army and the Shin Bet intelligence service were amazed by the announcement by Mr Netanyahu's office giving details of the investigation before it was completed. Their main interest is to identify not only the bombers, but also to unravel their network and discover the names of the leaders of Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, who gave them their orders.

Mr Netanyahu's agenda is rather different. He wants to prove to international, and above all US opinion, that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is not liquidating the infrastructure of Izzedine al-Qassem, the military wing of Hamas.

The official announcement said all four of the alleged suicide bombers were wanted by Shin Bet for questioning regarding their involvement in a shooting at an army patrol at Ein Bidan near Nablus in December 1996, in which an army doctor and a soldier were wounded.

Israel says the four men were arrested by the Palestinian Authority after the suicide bombings in early in 1996, but had escaped from Nablus prison in September. The official statement adds that the four young men from Azira Shamaliya were among 88 alleged members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Islamic militant organisation, given to the Palestinians for arrest after the Mahane Yehuda bombing.

In the village, the families of the alleged bombers adamantly denied that their sons were dead. Fatmi Yassin, with seven sons and six daughters, said: "My son didn't do it. My son is not a terrorist. I think you will see him later."

Asked if she expected her house to be demolished by Israel, she said: "My house is not better than my son. Before they knock it down they should show me his body to prove that he is dead."

In Jerusalem Mr Netanyahu was claiming the suicide bombers had got their orders from Hamas in Nablus, which is under Mr Arafat's control. The Palestinian leader, receding from his claim that the bombers had come from abroad, said that in any case Azira Shamaliya was under Israeli security control.

Both sides are wrong. If Israel had full security control of the village it would not be necessary to besiege it. The reality of power in Azira Shamaliya has already passed into Palestinian hands.