Messy and brutal end to Israel's 'surgical strike'

War on terrorism: West Bank
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The young Gazan policeman was either up the carob tree, or trying to hide under it, when he was caught in the eye of a helicopter search light, and the Israeli guns opened up on him.

The young Gazan policeman was either up the carob tree, or trying to hide under it, when he was caught in the eye of a helicopter search light, and the Israeli guns opened up on him.

The scores of bullet-tears in the tree's branches, and the spats of blood on the ground below – respectfully encircled yesterday by a makeshift shrine – do not reveal whether he fell out of it, or died beneath it.

But all the signs suggested he was running away, stumbling across the side of the hill in the darkness, through the thorn bushes and olives groves, desperate to escape the Israeli forces storming into the village he was supposed to protect.

Why else was he some three quarters of a mile away from his guard post, going in the opposite direction from the village centre where the Israel paratroopers had suddenly arrived by helicopter, marking the start of a ferocious and punitive operation that lasted until the following day?

Lamis Rimawi, a 36-year-old Palestinian civil servant, watched the scene from a bedroom window nearby. She said: "We saw a helicopter flying about 30 metres off the ground. It kept on turning its lights on and off. We could tell from the noise and the lights that the helicopter was shooting."

That was at 2.30am. Seven hours later – yesterday morning – she looked out off the window again. She saw Israeli troops loading two bodies into an armoured personnel carrier. A third wounded man – wearing the khaki colours of the Palestinian National Security forces – was being led through the trees by troops, his hands cuffed behind him. He was limping from a bloody leg. "They were yelling sexual insults at him in Arabic," she said, "He was weeping".

Israeli officials portrayed its military assault on the West Bank village of Beit Rima as an operation to flush out the assassins of Rechavam Zeevi, the ultra-nationalist Tourism Minister killed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) nine days ago.

But it was a messy, brutal, large-scale and flamboyant military raid with tanks, helicopters, and APCs rather than a surgical undercover night-time operation targeting the "nests" of terror that Israel is so fond of talking about.

It left five men dead who may or may not have fired at the troops piling into their village – accounts were unclear – in violation of a ceasefire that has been far more frequently breached than observed.

But there was no evidence that they had anything to do with the minister's murder. Two of them – both policemen from Gaza – died in the orchard outside the village's eastern edge, almost certainly as they were trying to escape; the other three were members of Yasser Arafat's paramilitary national security forces, none of whom came from the village.

Nor did the Israelis get the minister's suspected killers. Army officials said they arrested 11 people "with affiliations" to different militant factions , including the PFLP, and villagers said they detained the uncle and brother of one of the alleged assassins. They already have two suspected members of the cell, one of whom has strong ties to Beit Rima – which is perhaps why the village was targeted.

Yet Hamdi Kar'an, the PFLP man whom the Israelis say pulled the trigger, and Basel Rahman, another alleged cell member, were still in hiding last night, and so are the PFLP's leaders, Ahmed Sadat and Ahed Awalmeh.

The Israeli forces did manage to find the alleged triggerman's mother, Ifram Kar'an, who lives in village. She said Israeli intelligence agents began to interrogate her at 6am yesterday, having beaten down the door of the house in which she was staying. She was, she said, made to stand outside in the street for two hours, while her interrogators waved their guns at her.

"They kept asking 'Where is Hamdi'. I said I didn't know. They told me that if you don't tell us we will blow up this house." In this, the Israeli security forces were telling the truth. On Wednesday evening, they dynamited the home, reducing it to the sort of ruins you see after an F-16 bombing raid. "They didn't even give us time to get our belongings," said Nili Rimawi, one of 20 people – including nine children – who must now find somewhere else to live.

In a reflection of the mentality of war and resistance which is now gripping this landscape, Mrs Kar'an, the alleged assassin's mother, seemed almost proud to have been singled out by the Israeli security forces. "I said, take me, take me. He's my son. I will give up my soul but not my son." If he proved to be the minister's killer, she would proclaim him a "hero" from the rooftops, she said.

For an entire day, the Israeli armed forces prevented the international media from entering Beit Rima to see what they were up to within.

Yesterday morning, we got our first chance to prove suspicions that information given out by Israeli officials did not tally with events on the ground.

A field commander, Colonel Yair Golan, told us on Wednesday that there had been no shooting from helicopters; that the victims received the best medical treatment from army doctors, and that those killed and injured were from militant groups. None of these claims survived close inspection.

True, it was not "the massacre of Beit Rima", as claimed by the Palestinian posters showing the five dead men, which have already appeared on car windows and walls. But it was an ugly business, which will surely justify the fears of America and its allies that the policy of Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is only fuelling anger on the streets of the Muslim and Arab world, and propelling the Middle East conflict to deeper and nastier levels.