Palestinian police shot dead while cooking supper

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The Independent Online

Versions of exactly how and why Israeli soldiers shot dead five Palestinian security men at one of the quietest and least defended checkpoints in the West Bank differed wildly yesterday, but one incriminating fact was clear. As 50mm machine-gun bullets tore into the outpost ­ which is nothing more than a corrugated iron shack ­ one victim was making a late supper.

Versions of exactly how and why Israeli soldiers shot dead five Palestinian security men at one of the quietest and least defended checkpoints in the West Bank differed wildly yesterday, but one incriminating fact was clear. As 50mm machine-gun bullets tore into the outpost ­ which is nothing more than a corrugated iron shack ­ one victim was making a late supper.

A half-cooked bowl of tomatoes and peppers was still sitting on the top of the stove, a few hours after the bodies had been cleared away. A jar of olive oil lay shattered on the ground. On a shelf there was a blood-spattered plastic bag, containing pitta bread. Some of the bread, drenched in gore, had spilt out in the mêlée.

Why is this incriminating? Because Palestinian security guards, no matter how young and inexperienced, do not usually cook when their paramilitary colleagues are ­ as one senior Israeli official initially alleged yesterday ­ shooting at Israeli soldiers.

They do not cook because they know that when their colleagues shoot at Israeli soldiers, as they sometimes do, the Israelis shoot back with heavy machine-guns, or with tank shells, or rocket-propelled grenades or sometimes even missiles fired from helicopters.

And they especially do not cook inside a half-built tin shack, a squalid wreck of a building whose roof is held on by rocks, and which is generally no more equipped to withstand a military assault than a potting shed in an English allotment.

When they hear shots in the vicinity from either side, the Palestinian guards rapidly take cover. They may also begin to shoot. But the young man who died in the squalid shed behind the equally squalid Palestinian police post at Beituniya near Ramallah at 2am yesterday did not have time to do either. Nor, claimed the Palestinians who had gathered at the scene, did the two policemen who were shot inside the shed as they were eating their suppers, or the two others who were outside the post, apparently keeping guard.

Attempts to extract an explanation from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) yesterday about this incident, the most deadly assault in the past three months, drew a blank.

At first, IDF officials told reporters their soldiers were engaged in an operation in the area, which is where West Bank territory under total Israeli military control ­ Area C, as it is known ­ meets territory under Palestinian control, Area A. The Israeli troops had fired at "suspicious figures", the army said.

But yesterday afternoon, even this sparse and inadequate explanation had evaporated. A spokeswoman said the IDF had no comment at all. We are left only with suspicion ­ the alarming possibility that it was a planned, ruthlessly executed extra-judicial mass killing. The position of the bullet holes in the walls of the shack suggested that most of the shots were fired from a tall, empty building that overlooks the outpost, about 250 yards away.

Yasser Arafat denounced the killing of the men ­ who were all from Gaza and aged between 18 and 32 ­ as "dirty ... assassinations". His Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the killings constituted "pre-meditated cold-blooded murder by the Israeli army".

The Palestinian guard post had been set up through co-ordination with the Israeli security forces, Mr Abed Rabbo said. "This post has never been engaged in attacks or exchange of fire with the Israelis."

Much importance was being attached yesterday to the timing of the killings. They came on the eve of Nakba Day ­ a highly volatile event in which Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel hold marches and demonstrations to mourn the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Bloodshed seems certain. They also happened just before the deadline for both sides to submit their responses to the Mitchell committee report.

There was no suggestion that the dead men were from Force 17 ­ the bodyguard of Mr Arafat ­ or Fatah. It appears that they were simply guards from the Palestinian National Forces. By hitting them, Israel may be trying to pressure the Palestinian Authority, by sowing panic in its ranks. But it would be hard to find a policy more likely to backfire.

¿ A Palestinian man was killed and two others wounded when Israeli forces opened fire near the Gaza city of Khan Yunis. Israeli helicopters and navy gunboats also shelled 10 Palest- inian security installations, including a compound of Force 17.

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