Killing of baby by Jewish vigilantes ignites rural town

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As the conflict in the Middle East sent yet another baby to its grave, a West Bank town was transformed on Friday from a quiet rural community into a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and violent resistance.

As the conflict in the Middle East sent yet another baby to its grave, a West Bank town was transformed on Friday from a quiet rural community into a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and violent resistance.

Forty-eight hours ago, Idna was not much involved in the Palestinian intifada against its Israeli occupiers. It preferred to avoid the endless clashes and sectarian horrors of Hebron, the metropolitan volcano waiting to explode a few miles to the east.

Idna's 18,000 residents deplored the presence of Israel on their land as much as any of their countrymen, but they kept quiet, rubbing along happily enough with the two Jewish settlements just down the road.

Until Thursday evening.

Shortly after 9pm, Jewish guerrillas, parked in a car just outside the town, pumped dozens of bullets into a Palestinian car carrying eight people home from a pre-wedding party. Mohammed Salameh Tmaizeh, 26, and Mohammed Hilmi Tmaizeh, 22, died at the scene. Five others were wounded. But the victim who will be remembered was Diya Tmaizeh, who was but three months old.

Thousands of Palestinians turned out in the streets yesterday to follow his tiny body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, to the cemetery. A poster showing his picture was already plastered on walls and windscreens. Still wearing nappies, he was shown lying in a pool of blood.

The killings, condemned by the Israeli government and the international community, were claimed by a group called the "Committee for Road Safety". Israeli security forces have encountered this "committee" before. It became notorious in the first Palestinian intifada as a group of vigilantes that patrolled Arab villages, damaging property and harassing residents. Its roots lie with an organisation widely reviled on both sides of the conflict: Kach.

Officially outlawed by Israel, Kach is a virulently racist group whose guru is Meir Kahane, a rabbi who spent a lifetime advocating the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza until he was assassinated by an Egyptian in New York in 1990. In January, Palestinian guerrillas killed his son, Binyamin, a settler who shared his father's views, and his son's wife, supplying the movement's followers with another casus belli in their war against the people whose land they seek to take away. It is as fundamentalist as the Islamic nationalists who dispatch young suicide bombers into Israel to bomb civilians. Among Kach's aims are the replacement of democracy by theological rule, and the annexation of the West Bank to "force the hand of God" and bring about the messianic age.

Their heroes include Baruch Goldstein, the American-born settler who shot dead 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994 while they were praying, before being bludgeoned to death himself.

They are a small minority of gun-fixated, ranting paramilitaries ­ the Timothy McVeighs of the West Bank ­ who should be seen as separate from 360,000 settlers who live on the land seized by the Israeli army in 1967. Yet they are extremely dangerous. Yigal Amir, the Israeli who killed Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, was a Kahane sympathiser.

Despite this, the Israeli authorities ­ from the government of Ariel Sharon, who has close ties with the settlers' right-wing, to the law enforcement agencies ­ have consistently failed to bring them under control.

Thursday night's attack in Idna is far from the first time that Kach, or its affiliates, have claimed responsibility for the killing of Palestinians. But it was the worst attack by civilians on Arabs since the start of the intifada, and ­ not least because it claimed the life of a baby ­ it will be seen as another milestone in the conflict, pushing it closer towards the abyss.

And it happened because settlers were able to operate with impunity in the occupied territories, bearing arms supplied to them by the Israel Defence Forces.

Different rules apply to the Arabs living under Israeli occupation. When Palestinian extremists kill Jewish settlers ­ which they have done regularly ­ the punishment is usually swift and harsh. Houses and olive groves are demolished. Suspects are rounded up, interrogated and detained without charge or trial. Curfews are announced. And the Israeli armed forces tighten their suffocating siege of the occupied territories.

Yet Israelis are rarely called to account or subjected to punishment. In the past 10 months, settlers have rampaged through Arab areas, vandalised buildings, torched cars, beaten up, shot at, and ­ in at least a dozen cases ­ killed Palestinians. They have harassed olive pickers, stoned vehicles, set fields alight and fired on farm workers. And yet Israel's law enforcement agencies have frequently either turned a blind eye or treated them with leniency.

¿ An explosion destroyed the Hebron office of Fatah, the party of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, last night. One body was seen being pulled from beneath wreckage, security officials said.

Neither the nature of the explosion nor the number of people inside the building was immediately clear.