Grief and fury after hostage bloodbath: Hamas supporters march against peace process as Israel counts cost of failed rescue mission in which five died

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The Independent Online
ON Saturdays there is normally a bustle of activity in the Palestinian villages just north of Jerusalem, while most of the city itself slumbers in the hush of a Jewish Sabbath. But all was stillness yesterday in the little West Bank community of Bir Naballah, where Israeli commandos tried and failed on Friday night to rescue a young soldier from the suicidal zealots of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement.

And not more than two miles away, a pall of mourning hung over the Jewish neighbourhood where the soldier's family were comforted at home by senior army officers and their relatives.

He and four other people died less than nine hours after the Nobel Committee awarded its 1994 Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat.

The kidnapping stalled the Middle East peace process and almost set off a civil war between Mr Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation and its Muslim extremist opponents.

In yesterday morning's pale autumn sunlight, the marks of explosives blistered the small stone house where Corporal Nachshon Waxman, 19, had been kept captive in a fortified room. The detritus of military emergencies - khaki cloth, scraps of bandage, indeterminate pieces of metal - lay scattered around. An ominous dark stain caked the dust by the gate.

The decision of the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Rabin, to send in the commandos, saved Mr Arafat from a political dilemma and ended the most serious breach in relations between Israel and the PLO since the historic handshake on the White House lawn last September. But it did not save Corporal Waxman.

He was seized last Sunday by a team of Hamas gunmen near Israel's international airport at Lod, outside Tel Aviv. His abduction threw Israeli politics into an uproar. Mr Rabin believed he had been spirited into the Gaza Strip, now nominally controlled by the PLO. 'I hold Yasser Arafat personally reponsible for his safe return,' said Mr Rabin grimly. He ordered peace talks with the PLO to be suspended.

The kidnapping was a dangerous blow to Mr Arafat and a great coup for Hamas, which promptly demanded the release from Israeli jails of its spiritual guide, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, another militant clergyman and some 200 activists.

The PLO threw itself into a frantic effort to search the Gaza Strip for Corporal Waxman, although it insisted he was unlikely to be there. PLO security men mounted joint patrols with Israeli troops, rounding up hundreds of Hamas sympathisers, angering mosque preachers and provoking Hamas leaders into threaten violence. Then came a video from the kidnappers, in keeping with the finest Beirut tradition of hostage propaganda. A captor masked in a chequered keffiyeh waved an automatic weapon just behind the head of the teenage captive. Corporal Waxman's paralysed expression showed the teenager to be in the abyss of terrified trauma.

The PLO security men moved quickly. They arrested the team of Palestinian reporters and cameramen through whom the video had been passed to the media. The group were released, then detained once again.

By this time the entire Israeli public and much of the world media were following the young captive's plight with horrified fascination. The Nobel committee was due to announce its widely expected awards on Friday, lending an awful irony to the drama.

Mr Rabin called in the chief of staff, Ehud Barak, and his senior intelligence officers. They demanded co-operation from Mr Arafat's security apparatus, and, by the accounts of Israeli cabinet ministers, they got it. Mr Arafat himself pledged to 'do everything we can to get this soldier back'.

Hamas set a deadline of 1900 GMT on Friday, when it said Corporal Waxman would be killed unless its demands were met. The Egyptian government ordered its diplomats, who know Gaza intimately, to become involved in the effort to save him. On Thursday night 50,000 Jews prayed at the Wailing Wall for the captive's deliverance. Even Palestinian prisoners held by Israel sent out a letter with their lawyer, calling for him to be left unharmed. Sheikh Yassin himself enjoined the kidnappers to 'respect the merciful tenets of Islam'.

By Friday morning, as devout Jews, including Corporal Waxman's mother, prepared for the onset of Sabbath at sundown, the Prime Minister had the information he needed. Mr Arafat had been telling the truth. The hostage and his captors were not in the Gaza Strip at all, but in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas had taken their victim to the house in Bir Jaballah, not far from his own home and, astonishingly, near to an Israeli army camp.

Mr Rabin, by his own account, did not hesitate. 'I take full responsibility for launching any military action against terrorists,' he was to say later. The responsibility would prove to be a heavy burden.

The commando team, numbering several dozen men, surrounded the house. There was no cover, because it stands isolated on a small hill. Corporal Waxman and his captors must have known at once that the end was at hand. There was a brief stand-off as the deadline drew near. Then the commandos rushed the building. Their officer, in the Israeli tradition, was leading from the front.

General Barak said they quickly lost the element of surprise. They found all the entrances heavily fortified. Orders were given to blow open the front door with explosives. Some soldiers say the detonation may have triggered a booby trap. In the smoke and chaos, gunfire ensued. The Israeli officer was killed, but his men shot dead one Hamas gunman and charged on.

In the living room they came up short. A heavily barred door blocked off an inner room where Corporal Waxman lay bound hand and foot, guarded by two more Hamas men. It was too late to save him.

General Barak said he believed that the Hamas men shot Waxman in the face and chest from close range at the moment the front door was blown open. He was probably dead by the time his comrades got to the second door. They shouted at the Hamas men to surrender. But, in General Barak's words, 'they shouted back that the soldier is already dead, and they now preferred to die'.

Within seconds the Hamas men had found the martyrdom they so ardently desired. At least 12 soldiers were wounded, some seriously. One member

of Hamas was captured alive.

The day of the Nobel peace prize, intended to symbolise the dawn of reason in the Middle East, thus ended in violence and bereavement. The PLO expressed its regrets, but breathed a great sigh of relief that it had been proved truthful and genuine in its co-operation.

News update

YASSER ARAFAT was facing an upsurge of Muslim fundamentalist opposition in the Gaza Strip yesterday as militants marched in the streets and condemned the PLO for helping Israel in its failed attempt to save a kidnapped soldier, writes Michael Sheridan.

The Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, warned the Palestinian self-rule authority that it would 'set Gaza ablaze' unless police stopped arresting its members and freed 300 activists and supporters. The Palestinian self-rule authority said that it would confiscate all unlicensed firearms in Gaza, but agreed to start releasing 'some' of the activists.

Among those held are four local journalists who work for Reuter and other international news organisations. They were being questioned about a video recording of Corporal Nachshon Waxman and his Hamas captors, which they obtained early last week.

One of those detained was photographer Ahmed Jadallah, Reuter said. A Hamas statement from Damascus named one of its three 'martyrs' killed on Friday night as Salah Jadallah. Israeli officials said the two men were brothers.

'Reuter, like many news organisations, hired Palestinians on an ad hoc basis to assist crews,' Reuter said. 'Since June we have had no contact whatsoever with Salah Jadallah.' Israeli authorities are trying to find out whether the journalists helped Hamas to mislead the security forces over the whereabouts of the hostage.

(Photograph omitted)