Was Hamas activist betrayed by a borrowed car?

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The Independent Online

"If you turn right, walk 300 metres, then turn left,'' the Israeli soldier told me, "You'll find the son of a bitch at the checkpoint.'' But the son of the bitch wasn't there. The Palestinian policeman at the Tulkarem junction didn't want to die in the kind of "mistaken" Israeli ambush his colleagues suffered in Ramallah and the road was just a hot, midday pageant of burnt tyres, stones, empty Israeli cartridges and rotting sandbags. A torn Palestinian flag hung over the empty checkpoint. Not far beyond lay anger as hot as the sun.

They were preparing to bury Amr Hassan Khudeiri and they were looking for the man who betrayed him.

Amr Khudeiri, it may be remembered, was the young Hamas "activist" – for which read "guerrilla/terrorist/extremist/militant", depending on your point of view – who was burnt alive on Sunday afternoon when an Israeli pilot in an American-made Apache helicopter maintained Israel's policy of state murder by firing three US-made missiles into Mr Khudeiri's car. The manufacturer of the missile is scarcely in doubt. But was it Mr Khudeiri's car? The Fatah security man standing outside the row of Ottoman-built shops was more interested in the car than the missile.

"There was nothing left of him – atomised, burnt alive," he said of the "martyr" Amr Khudeiri. "He was just ashes. But we have the information that there was some kind of strange paint on the roof of the car.'' He said this with his eyebrows raised, as if it was a question rather than a small but critical piece of intelligence. But what about the missile, I asked? The Fatah man opened his car door, took something from the back seat and handed me a hunk of iron – perhaps six inches long – with two metal tubes attached to it and a code number which read: 18876-13411923-14064. I had seen this same shaped missile engine part and numeral configuration in Lebanon. Always it belongs to AGM-114 air-to-ground missiles, fired from Apache and manufactured by the American Aeronautics firm of Lockheed-Douglas. So Lockheed, it seemed, also had a role in Amr Khudeiri's death.

But that wasn't what interested the Fatah man. "Khudeiri wasn't driving his own car,'' he said. "He had borrowed it. And the owner took the car to Israel last week. He is missing now. We are trying to find him. The helicopter came over the bridge outside the town and fired the three missiles. We think there was some infra-red paint on the roof.''

The message was easy to understand: Fatah thought Mr Khudeiri had been betrayed by a collaborator, probably the owner of the car, who had allowed the Israelis to splash some infra-red on the roof to guide the missile. "Or maybe there was a 'bleeper' of some kind, a computer code,'' the man said.

It is a twilight war in the occupied territories, ruthless, murderous. And, yesterday afternoon, the Israeli police announced they had arrested a Palestinian who was preparing to be a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv. All he needed were explosives that were supposed to have been brought by ... Amr Hassan Khudeiri. Or so they said. Israeli "security" stories often turn out to be more than economical with the truth. In Tulkarem yesterday, there were quite a few truths lying around.

The first was that there was more than one body. The corpse I saw taken from the smaller mosque bound in a Palestinian flag, a cloth round its head revealing only a mouth and moustache, turned out to be not Mr Khudeiri but Mohamed Meziad, a 20-year-old Fatah man, apparently kicked and beaten to death by four Israeli soldiers late on Sunday.

I watched the mouth and moustache bobbing off between the crowds to the second mosque where the somewhat humbler remains of Amr Khudeiri were also awaiting burial. The funeral contained a ritual that is now as familiar on the West Bank as breakfast or evening prayers. There were 10,000 mourners, a loudspeaker screaming "Allahu Akbar" and ferocious bursts of automatic gunfire from young men, often shooting rifles and pistols at the same time.

The Fatah men and the Arafat cops and the Hamas members all walked together. "This isn't Fatah or Hamas,'' one of the Arafat men muttered to me. "We are one now. We are the moukawama, the resistance.'' There was more shooting at the graveside while Amr Khudeiri's father Mansour, a dignified figure with short, curly grey hair who is a senior teacher at Tulkarem College, embraced hundreds of mourners.

The body was lowered into the grave and Abbas Zeyid, the local Hamas leader, made a short but very revealing speech. "Our dear son and brother Amr loved his parents,'' he said. "Just five minutes before he left home for the last time, Amr said to them 'My dear mother and father, if I die, you must not cry for me'.'' The thousands round the grave lifted their eyes at this and murmured "Allahu Akbar" again. Prescience? Or was Amr Khudeiri on a mission from which he did not expect to return, a mission he undertook, fatally, in someone else's car?

¿ Palestinian leaders rejected Israel's demand to arrest seven "main terrorists" yesterday as both sides issued warnings that hinted at more bloodshed. Israel has been demanding that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, lock up about 100 suspected Palestinian militants, but it picked out seven men that it most wanted behind bars.

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