Hamas recruit reveals ease of enlisting bombers

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Squeezing out the words as if to satisfy an off-screen interrogator, Mohammed Abu Wardeh described how he recruited the suicide bombers who blew up two buses in Jerusalem. From his cell in the headquarters of the Palestinian security police in Jericho he told his Israeli television interviewer: "I was asked to prepare two people and I prepared them to carry out a suicide attack."

Abu Wardeh spoke as if his jailers had told him to stick to the script of his confession. From his look of exhaustion mixed with fear, he already had a good idea of what would happen to him if he did not obey. Recanting his previous beliefs, he called on Izzedine al-Qasim, the military wing of Hamas, not "to repeat these actions".

With Israeli tanks and infantry encircling Gaza and the towns and villages of the West Bank, the Palestinian authorities are desperate to prove to Israel that they are doing everything to stop the suicide bombers. Abu Wardeh, 20, a student at a teacher training college run by the UN in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, was their best catch so far and they wanted him on display.

He says he joined Izzedine al-Qasim only four weeks ago after he was recruited by a man named Abu-Ahmed, from Gaza. He was told to look for potential suicide bombers. Abu Wardeh, who comes from Hebron, had some difficulties at first, but he persuaded a cousin, Majdi Abu Wardeh, 19, to volunteer for an attack. Majdi and a second recruit, Ibrahim Hussan Sarahne, came from al Fawwar refugee camp, a squalid settlement of 7,000 people five miles south of Hebron.

At first Abu Wardeh "sounded them out, then afterwards I received their agreement in principle". On 25 January the two young men, carrying explosives mixed with ballbearings and nails, went to Jerusalem and Ashkelon where they killed themselves along with 25 other people. "There were moments when I did not have faith in it," says Abu Wardeh. He was asked to volunteer as a bomber himself. He refused but this did not stop him recruiting a student called Raid Karim Mahmed Sharnobi from the teacher training college and sent him to Jerusalem with a third bomb last Sunday.

The televised confession was meant to reassure Israelis, but in fact it showed how easy Abu Wardeh found it to recruit and arm potential bombers from the impoverished camps and villages of the West Bank. No expertise was required on their part other than a willingness to die.

Abu Wardeh says that after last Sunday's attack he asked his operators in Gaza for a break but they told him to find recruits to launch new attacks.

The Israeli Public Security Minister, Moshe Shahal, said yesterday that Israel knew the name and location of the overall organiser in Gaza of the last four bomb attacks and had given both to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

A second arrest is also worrying Israelis. This is of a 54-year-old Arab- Israeli lorry driver whose willingness to drive a bomber from Gaza to the Dezingoff Centre in Tel Aviv, where he killed 13 people last Monday, will reinforce the Israeli right in their suspicion of the 900,000 Arab minority in Israel. Driving a truck with Israeli number plates, he had a licence to transport scrap metal out of Gaza from the Karni checkpoint. Last week a member of Islamic Jihad, which has had its own suicide bombing campaign, asked him to take an extra passenger out of Gaza in exchange for $1,100 [pounds 700].

On Monday afternoon the unnamed driver picked up a man with a bag who probably hid under the seat in the cab. Just before 4pm the lorry let off the passenger near Dezingoff Centre, where he almost immediately detonated the 30lb charge which had been in the bag. All drivers who had been to Gaza that day were called in by the police and in the house of one was found $1,100. He then admitted to the extra passenger.

The suicide bombs overshadowed the first meeting of the Palestinian Council, the legislative body chosen in the first Palestinian election in January, which met for the first time in Gaza yesterday. Under the terms of the Oslo agreement the Palestinians must revoke their charter calling for the destruction of Israel within two months of it meeting. Otherwise Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, says he will freeze the peace process.

Pollsters put Likud ahead of Labour

Jerusalem (Reuter) - Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing opposition leader, has taken a lead over Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, for the first time, according to an Israeli opinion poll released yesterday. The poll, broadcast on Israeli television, gave Mr Netanyahu 48 per cent of the vote and Mr Peres 46 per cent some three months before the general election on 29 May. Hanoch Smith, who conducted the survey, said earlier this week that he had expected the Likud leader to edge past Mr Peres after the recent suicide bombings.

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