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'Israeli death squad disarmed men and shot them'

Phil Reeves,West Bank
Saturday 15 December 2001 01:00 GMT

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, says some of his government's military strikes against the Palestinians make him "shudder".

Mr Peres would have had good reason to shudder yesterday, had he listened to the testimonies of the residents of Salfit. They described in detail how an Israeli undercover death squad arrived in the West Bank town in a pre-dawn raid and shot two young policemen at close range as they lay unarmed on the ground.

The Israeli soldiers, dressed in black, spoke Arabic so fluently that Iman Herzala ­ who heard them talking in the street outside her house ­ at first wondered whether they were Palestinian forces taking part in a training exercise. But that was before she saw the executions, less than 100 yards from her front door.

Residents had scraped earth over the spot, but yesterday afternoon patches of blood were visible. A low wall bore the marks of several bullets.

Looking hollow-eyed and distressed, Mrs Herzala, 37, who has six children, described the last moments of Dia Nabil Mahmoud, 19, and Abdul Ashour, 22.

They were among seven people to be killed by the Israelis yesterday in raids on more than four communities in the occupied territories as Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, increased his military pressure on the Palestinians. At the same time, Israeli tanks and bulldozers carried out their biggest housing demolition of the intifada at Khan Younis in the Gaza strip, knocking down 35 houses and making 345 people homeless.

Mr Mahmoud ­ a member of Yasser Arafat's Force 17 security force ­ and Mr Ashour, from Palestinian military intelligence, were shot in the early stages of the Israeli raid in which tanks and bulldozers, backed by helicopters, came thundering into the Palestinian-run town of 10,000 near Nablus at around 2am.

Mrs Herzala said: "The two boys came and knocked on my door, and told me that the Israelis were invading the town. I opened the door and asked them to come inside, but they refused and went on walking up the street. The Israeli soldiers came up to them and asked them to put down their weapons ­ they only had one ­ and put their hands behind their backs.

"They put down the gun. The Israelis asked them to lie on the ground, which they did. Then they started shooting them with machine-guns."

She said she watched the scene ­ illuminated by the light of the soldiers' torches ­ by peering out of her front door. At the same time, Khadiji al-Fataj, 61, was looking down at the spot where the execution took place from the window of her home, a few doors from Mrs Herzala's. She said: "I heard soldiers asking the policemen to stop and lie down. One was on one side of the road, and one on the other. I saw them being shot."

Yesterday afternoon, as the women told their stories, Mr Mahmoud's father sat close by the spot, dazed and exhausted. "He was just a child. If you look at his picture, you can see that," he said.

The Israeli armed forces said the Salfit raid was in response to "murderous terrorist attacks" in the area.

The wording of their official explanation was suspiciously vague: Israeli soldiers came on "armed Palestinians who came out of targets for detention. They stormed the terrorists and killed them."

Mr Sharon has moved military operations into a higher gear. Yesterday's operations were aimed at Fatah, the mainstream organisation headed by Yasser Arafat. The six people killed in Salfit were all part of Mr Arafat's security apparatus. Three homes were destroyed, all belonging to Fatah members.

Mr Sharon is bludgeoning the rickety structure of the Palestinian Authority, liquidating its police and attacking the middle-ground pro-Arafat leadership. But there is dissent in the government ranks.

Mr Peres told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Mr Sharon's decision to shun the Palestinian Authority was short-sighted. Mr Peres reportedly said: "I asked him [Sharon], 'Suppose Arafat disappears, what will happen then?'"

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