Fatah chief blown up by Israeli helicopters

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The Independent Online

An Israeli attack with helicopter rocket fire killed a Palestinian guerrilla and two middle-aged housewives near Bethlehem yesterday, hours before Yasser Arafat was to meet Bill Clinton in Washington.

An Israeli attack with helicopter rocket fire killed a Palestinian guerrilla and two middle-aged housewives near Bethlehem yesterday, hours before Yasser Arafat was to meet Bill Clinton in Washington.

The 34-year-old, a local Fatah leader, was killed when missiles fired by two Israeli combat helicopters blew up his pick-up truck in Beit Sahour, a scene of regular battles between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the past six weeks.

The strike was intended as retaliation for the killing of two Israeli soldiers in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen on the other side of Bethlehem just over a week ago. It was also an attempt to warn the Palestinians against embarking on a guerrilla war by showing Israel has the intelligence and capability to pinpoint its fighters.

Undeterred by plentiful evidence that a guerrilla war with the Palestinians would be extremely costly, long and bloody, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, Ephraim Sneh, was full of confidence. Speaking on CNN as gun battles broke out yet again in the West Bank and Gaza, he boasted about Israel's precision weapons and warned the Palestinians that "if the game is a guerrilla war, we are the champions".

Mr Arafat was expected, during his meeting with Mr Clinton, to use the missile strike as further evidence to support his demand for an international armed force to protect the Palestinians, not least because two women passers-by - Azizi Gubran, 58, and Rachme Shaheen, 55 - were also killed.

More than 190 people have been killed since the intifada began six weeks ago, mostly Arab rioters shot dead by the Israeli army. But yesterday Mr Sneh declared that Israel "preferred" precision weapons.

In Beit Sahour, an angry throng of Palestinians gathered at the scene at the rocket attack to stare at charred remnants of the women's bodies, some on the ground surrounded by a ring of stones, a makeshift shrine. The Mitsubishi truck, - one of two vehicles hit - was a twisted wreck.

Assam Shaer, 27, a construction worker, said: "These are the fruits of all our agreements with the Israelis. They kill our women, they kill out children and they rocket our homes. How can anyone talk about peace?"

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said the dead man, Hussein Abayat, 34, was an activist with the Tanzim - the armed militia affiliated with Fatah, Mr Arafat's political organisation.

It said he was suspected of involvement in at least three attacks in which three Israeli soldiers had died, including last week's ambush. Residents of Beit Sahour made little effort to deny he was a Fatah official or that he had taken part in attacks on Israeli positions.

An IDF spokesman blamed the Palestinian "terrorists", saying it was a result of their policy of attacking Israeli positions from populated areas. He insisted Mr Abayat had been about to launch an attack.

Anger has been building for days in Beit Sahour, a mostly Christian suburb of Bethlehem where tanks and helicopters from a nearby IDF base have regularly fired shells and grenades at homes.

Under mounting domestic pressure to take an even tougher line, the IDF had been threatening for some days to take the battle to the Tanzim. Officials called this a plan to "take the initiative", an astounding phrase given the number of tanks and helicopters they have used, and the habit of Israel's trigger-happy troops of killing young Arabs daily. Yesterday, they added a 14-year-old Palestinian boy shot in the Gaza Strip to their shamefully long list of fatalities.

* Qatar shut down its Israeli trade mission yesterday. Iran and Saudi Arabia had threatened to boycott an summit of Islamic nations if the office remained open. It was not clear how long the closure would last or if Qatar would sever relations with Israel.

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