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Israel cheers Palestinian killer's death

A militia commander is killed when a bomb explodes in his West Bank city as he walks by. His group vows revenge.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 15, 2002

TULKARM, West Bank -- Raed Karmi knew he was a marked man. To avoid exposure, he frequently took a shortcut by the local cemetery, up a short hill and through an olive grove.

As Karmi walked the path Monday morning from his safe house, a bomb planted alongside the cemetery wall exploded. Karmi, a top Palestinian militia commander who proudly confessed to murdering Israelis, was killed instantly.

Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny that they ordered his death, but they quickly welcomed it. If Karmi -- who stood near the top of Israel's most-wanted list -- was killed by the Israelis, it was the first time the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had successfully used its widely condemned assassination policy in nearly two months.

"A man like this is a like a ticking bomb," Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said. "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword."

In keeping with recent history, an escalation of revenge and counterattack likely will follow: Hours after Karmi was killed, an Israeli soldier was shot dead while driving near a Jewish settlement on the road to Tulkarm.

Karmi's faction, an armed offshoot of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the shooting of the soldier and wounding of his companion. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade also announced it would no longer heed a truce in effect with Israel since mid December.

With the killing of Karmi, Israel has "opened the gates to hell," the Tulkarm branch of the group warned in a leaflet. "The hoax of the so-called cease-fire is canceled, canceled, canceled."

The news of Karmi's death came as Israel sent bulldozers into a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem to demolish nine homes. Israeli officials said the homes were built without permits; the U.S. government condemned the action as provocative. It followed continuing domestic and international outcries over Israel's demolition last week of dozens of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip, a move the Sharon government said was part of its fight against arms smuggling.

In Tulkarm, an angry, mournful crowd carried Karmi's body to the hospital amid cries for revenge.

Israeli officials hold Karmi responsible for the murders of nine Israelis, including two Tel Aviv restaurateurs who were shot Jan. 23, 2001, in Tulkarm. Karmi and his fellow gunmen killed the restaurant owners -- he claimed they were undercover soldiers -- to avenge the death three weeks earlier of Thabet Thabet, a dentist and head of the Fatah movement in Tulkarm.

Israeli forces shot Thabet as he left his home in one of the most disputed of the dozens of assassinations that Israel has carried out in the name of self-defense. Several Israeli peace activists and politicians defended Thabet and argued that the military had killed the wrong man; the army said he had directed shooting attacks.

Thabet's slaying gave momentum to Karmi's militia, which he formed along with Thabet's nephew, Maslamah.

The younger Thabet, milling outside the hospital Monday with armed men, said Karmi left his hideout after receiving a telephone call and was killed half a block down the road by what Thabet believed was a remote-controlled bomb. The blast left a small pit in the road and a puddle of blood.

"There is no question Israel is behind this," Maslamah Thabet said.

Karmi, 27, survived an earlier Israeli attempt on his life. On Sept. 6, Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles into his car as he and three companions drove on the outskirts of Tulkarm. He and the driver escaped; two other gunmen were killed.

His close call made him something of a celebrity here. He boasted that God was on his side and that Israel couldn't touch him. He appeared, eye bandaged, at funerals and on television.

In an interview on Sept. 6, Karmi vowed to continue his attacks. "I will continue killing Israeli soldiers and settlers -- not civilians," he said.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he, Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had decided to stop demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- not East Jerusalem -- after the uproar over last week's destruction of houses in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.

"We learned a lesson and reached the conclusion that (with) this method, the damage it causes is greater than the benefit," Peres said.

But Sharon and Ben-Eliezer later contradicted Peres, saying there had been no change in policy. Both indicated that home demolitions will continue based on "security considerations."

Monday's violence further threatened U.S. truce efforts, and it was not clear whether U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni would return to the area this week as planned.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat accused Israel of trying to sabotage Zinni's mission. "The Israeli government is inviting Palestinian reaction, and we hold it (Israel) responsible for the escalation of this cycle," he said.

In a living room near the spot where their leader died, Karmi's comrades and friends gathered over cigarettes and tea Monday afternoon to remember him. The group leafed through an album of photographs to select a picture for Karmi's "martyr poster." Such posters of Palestinians killed in fighting with Israel plaster the walls of Tulkarm.

Karmi's brigades consider themselves freedom fighters. Unlike members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, they said, they have no interest in suicide attacks, and they insisted their goal was only to drive Israelis out of the West Bank.

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