Israeli bus attacker had deserted with gun

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The Independent Online

The Israeli army is investigating how the Jewish killer of four Israeli Arabs managed to remain at large with his military M16 weapon six weeks after deserting from the army in protest at the withdrawal from Gaza.

The inquiry was set up as thousands of residents in this normally peaceful town turned out for the funerals of two Christian and two Muslim victims of Eden Natan Zada, who was beaten to death by an enraged crowd after the shootings on a 165 bus. It came after the parents of the gunman, identified as an adherent of the outlawed Kach movement, were widely quoted in Israeli media as complaining the army had not done enough to locate and disarm their son after his desertion despite information that he was living in the West Bank settlement of Tapua, a bastion of extremism.

An army statement said that Dan Halutz, the Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff, had "ordered that the circumstances surrounding and leading to the possession of an IDF weapon by the soldier, who had defected and was of a problematic background, be investigated".

Military sources insisted that "great efforts" had been made to locate the deserter. But Mohammed Barakeh, a prominent Israeli Arab Knesset member who lives in the town, said yesterday that the attack represented - among other things - "a failure of the security services to ... prevent and arrest [the gunman]".

Mr Barakeh said it was impossible to see the shooting as only the responsibility of one individual when "every day these people hear talk about transfer [of Arabs], about the Arab population as enemies and when the Knesset passes laws against Arab citizens of Israel". He added that Israeli Arabs did not want to be killed in a battle over disengagement from Gaza "between the extreme right and the even more extreme right. Every fascist in Israel thinks that by killing more Arabs he can change the agenda of the state."

As Israeli mass media devoted saturation coverage to the shooting, and the Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, made clear Natan-Zada would not be given a military funeral, doubts arose about where his body would be buried. The mayors of Rishon Letzion and Tapuah refused to allow burial within their jurisdiction.

The victims included the driver of the bus, Michel Bahuth, a Greek Catholic who had two children, was active in his church and had helped to build a local elementary school.

A friend, Samer Nachli, said he had been driving the bus on Thursday afternoon to earn some overtime pay. He added: "Michel felt so much an Israeli. He was proud of being an Arab and a Christian as well as being an Israeli."

Mr Nachli welcomed the unequivocal condemnation by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, of the shooting but warned that Israel was "creating a monster" by indulging armed settler opponents of disengagement from Gaza.

Mr Nachli said he was "happy" that the gunman had died after the attack. "If a Muslim does this he is called a terrorist, if a Jew does it they call him a crazy man. I don't want him coming back and dancing in Tapua in five years' time."

Rami Aboud, 35, a bystander who helped to seize and disarm the army deserter immediately after the shooting, said the gunman had told him: "I want to kill all the Arabs I can find."

His father, Moussef Adeeb Aboud, 61, described Israel as a "beloved state" but then he added: "There is a small group [of Jews] who are very religious and racist. Israel should punish them because they are creating racism."

A small pile of shoes discarded by victims of the shooting lay on the pavement beside wreaths to mourn the dead. A small group of demonstrators from the entirely Arab town waved banners proclaiming: "We are tired of racism."

Mr Sharon underlined his public definition of the shooting as a "terrorist" act by asking the National Insurance Institute to pay the families of the victims the same monthly allowances paid to Jewish victims of Palestinian attacks.