Israelis blamed as villagers mourn

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The Independent Online
They collected Jihad Assi's brains in two black plastic bags yesterday and hung them on the wall near where the killings took place in the small square of Bayt Laqya village.

By mid-morning, hundreds had passed through the square to look at the bags. Women wailed uncontrollably and men cried. Streams of children walked around and crowds of teenagers stood in stunned groups. Some peered inside the bags, while masked youths sprayed the graffiti of their faction on the crumbling walls.

There was red writing for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP). There was blue for Fatah, the mainstream faction of the PLO. And there was green for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. All demanded revenge for the deaths of fourvillagers, shot dead by an Israeli undercover unit just hours earlier.

After nightfall on Tuesday, a van, carrying the unit, turned off a new highway, built to take Jewish settlers to Tel Aviv, and drove down the potholed track leading to Beit Laqya, a village of 8,000 Palestinians. A dilapidated Third World community wherehorses and carts are as common as cars, Beit Laqya is about two miles from the Green Line, the old boundary with Israel, and 12 miles north-east of Jerusalem. This is an area Israel hopes to annex, and the overcrowded village, which is banned from expansion, is ringed b

y new Jewish settlements.

Recently, Israel confiscated hundreds of acres of village lands on the hills near by. None of the villagers is allowed to travel to Jerusalem, and most have recently lost their labouring jobs in Israel because of the 18-month-old blockade imposed after violent attacks on Israelis.

Once off the settler highway, the undercover squad's van passed the rubble of a house on the edge of the village, destroyed a week ago by Israeli bulldozers because the owner, Jabr Moussa, had not been given permission by the Israeli military authoritiesto build it. The van was not noticed by the villagers because it was disguised with the blue number plates used by West Bank Palestinians, not the yellow plates of Israeli cars.

According to witnesses there were about 12 men inside, all dressed as Arabs. Such Transit vans are often used as Arab taxis.

The village square was full of people, meeting and shopping, as a white Subaru car drove up on one side, driven by Jihad Assi, aged 26. In the passenger seat was Ali Mafarja, 32, and in the back were Ashraf Mafarja, 17, and Mohammed Assi, 16. There are only four families in Beit Laqya - everyone is either an Assi, a Mafarja, a Moussa or an Abed.

The village gives strong support to the Marxist PFLP, led by George Habash, which opposes the Israel-PLO peace deal. Both Jihad Assi and Ali Mafarja were supporters of the PFLP, and were wanted by Israeli security forces for suspected involvement in anti- Israeli actions. But the two teenagers in the back of the vehicle were not supporters of any faction.

The Israeli army says that the undercover unit was "in the area" acting on information that militants of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic Resistant Movement, were there.

There is evidence that Israel has given its undercover units new licence in the occupied territories in recent weeks, perhaps to prove to Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, that if his "security" forces do not shape up, Israel will use its own methods, whatever the peace agreement may say.

Since 1992, more than 60 Palestinians have been killed by the units using lethal force and what human rights groups say is a "shoot to kill" policy.

According to the Israeli version, the van was shot at from the Subaru. The undercover men then piled out and opened fire, shooting dead three of the occupants in their seats, while Jihad Assi appears to have been shot as he tried to get out. "There is n

o chance to arrest people or warn them when you are under fire. It is a battle and you shoot to kill," said an army spokesman.

One of the Israelis was wounded in the foot, he said. The rest were unhurt.

Palestinian witnesses say that Jihad Assi did have a gun but that there were no shots from the Palestinians.

Nobody suspected the van until they saw the disguised Israelis, who were armed with Uzi sub-machine guns.

Ahmed Assi, who watched from his house opposite, said: "Nobody had a chance to shoot at soldiers - there were 12 of them with Uzis."

Nael Moussa pointed to the hills around. "They take our land to kill the village.

"Now they come to kill the people, too. The Jewish didn't want to take them alive."