How 'wrong turn' ended in lynching of soldiers

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The Independent Online

It was the melt-down everyone feared but few believed would happen. As night fell over the Holy Land yesterday Israeli helicopters were circling the Gaza Strip and West Bank, firing missiles into the heart of Palestinian territory. The Palestinians called it a declaration of war; the Israelis said peace talks were dead.

It was the melt-down everyone feared but few believed would happen. As night fell over the Holy Land yesterday Israeli helicopters were circling the Gaza Strip and West Bank, firing missiles into the heart of Palestinian territory. The Palestinians called it a declaration of war; the Israelis said peace talks were dead.

The crisis had been building for days but it took an act of singular brutality to ignite it, the death of at least two Israeli soldiers at the hands of a Palestinian mob that the police of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, could not control.

The men were arrested by Palestinian police as they entered Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Ramallah is the most prosperous of the West Bank towns, teeming with liberated young Christian and Muslim Palestinians. It has a thriving café society and a vibrant nightlife where women sport high heels, Levi's and the latest Western fashions rather than the chadors of the Arab world. The now-shattered peace process had brought back prosperous Palestinians from the diaspora. The town has been as angry as everywhere else in the Israelioccupied territories in the past two weeks and Islamic militancy has been on the increase.

Soon after the Israelis were detained yesterday rumours circulated that they were from an intelligence unit spying on Palestinian militants and gathering information on recently released Hamas prisoners. No one believed the Israeli version - that the men had strayed into the area by mistake.

Palestinian autonomous areas are clearly marked and well known to everyone on both sides. However, the soldiers were, reports said, driving a car with yellow Israeli plates. They had gone through one Israeli checkpoint before arriving at a Palestinian post, where they were detained.

Before long a throng of 1,000 Palestinians, several brandishing Kalashnikovs, converged on the police station. Some smashed a path to the room where the men were being held and stabbed them to death. One of the bodies was flung from the second-floor window to a crowd that began pounding it with their hands and feet - and in one case a window pane.

Television footage showed the killers emerging, their hands bathed in blood. Youths danced through the streets. Grinning young men, leaning from the windows of the building where the Israelis had been killed moments before, made the victory signs. It was a grotesque display - bestial sectarian hatred, frustration built up over years; contempt for Mr Arafat's authority and his pathetically weak police force, and legitimate anger over the Israelis' persistent killing of rioting youths and children. It was also the straw that broke the camel's back, tipping the two sides towards war.

News of the deaths hit Israel like a sledgehammer. There has been terrible brutality on both sides in the past fortnight. Israel was angered and humiliated by the capture of three of its soldiers by Hizbollah guerrillas.The Palestinians and Arab world has been incensed by the killing of around 90 Arabs by Israeli troops. But for Israel this butchery was the worst.

When news broke that the soldiers' bodies had been handed over to Israel, a furious crowd gathered outside the forensic institute in Tel Aviv, where they were brought. In Jerusalem crowds took to the streets, demanding all-out war against the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, once the country's most decorated soldier, approved a retaliatory attack by the army, mobilising tanks, troops and Apache helicopters around Ramallah and Gaza. The government also began checking reports that a third soldier had been seized and may also have been killed.

The subsequent military attacks, the Israelis later said, were "limited action" in retaliation for a "barbaric action". And it seems Israel did warn the Palestinians of their attacks - three hours before, military officials claimed. There will be consequences and they will be bloody. In a piece of astounding self-delusion the Israeli military issued a statement saying the sorties were a "symbolic message".

It did not look symbolic to the terrified Arab crowds fleeing through Ramallah as helicopters circled and began pounding the city with rockets.

They hit Palestinian Authority buildings, and at least two police stations, reducing one to rubble. The streets emptied as people took cover.

The aircraft hit the Palestinian television station, which has repeatedly broadcast coverage of the rioting, deaths and funerals of the past fortnight - incitement, according to the Israelis. The helicopters also hit a Palestinian radio transmitter twice. Medical officials said at least 17 people were hurt, mostly civilians.

As the sun set over the Arab city and the low hills around it, the Israeli helicopters - guided by spotter planes and a drone - were still arcing over the reddening skyline, above a silent, stunned landscape.

A parallel Israeli strike began on the Gaza Strip. The United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, was in Mr Arafat's offices in Gaza City when the news came in. It was relayed by the Palestinian leader - and it was nothing if not blunt: Get out of my office; it is about to be bombed by the Israelis. The envoy, who had been delivering a message from the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, packed his briefcase and hurried away, seeking refuge in a nearby UN office.

The harsh reality of the hatred of the Middle East had erupted at his feet as never before. Nor was he the only senior official in Gaza as Israeli helicopters began circling, poised to launch their missiles. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had been there the night before, having dinner with Mr Arafat during a mission that was always going to be far too little, far too late.

George Tenet, CIA director, was still there. His agents have long been on the ground in Gaza, a seething fenced-in oblong of coastal land in which a million Palestinians are crammed, with a few thousand heavily protected Jewish settlers. But they either spectacularly failed to read the signals or chose to ignore them. For them, too, yesterday's events must have been a stunning taste of the hard facts.

Soon Israeli naval ships were offshore, their barrels trained on the land. The targets were carefully chosen. Helicopter missiles smashed into several tiny boats belonging to the Palestinian authority's sad little marine force, moored in the grubby waters along the sea front, an area dotted with hotels used by "the Oslo class", the irreverent phrase Gazans use for the bureaucrats around Mr Arafat. A rocket also came close to Mr Arafat's residence, hitting a building housing his bodyguards. Residents ran out of the buildings in the area amid the chaos as ambulances drove to the scene.

In the nearby town of Beit Lahia, rockets hit the headquarters of Tanzim, the armed wing of Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation. A police station was also reportedly hit. Mr Arafat escaped and was soon touring the city, surrounded by crowds yelling defiance and abuse at the United States and Israel.