Archives>MIDDLE EAST> From Beneath an Olive Tree, a Palestinian Sniper Kills 10

From Beneath an Olive Tree, a Palestinian Sniper Kills 10
JAMES BENNET . NY Times . 4 march 2002

Hamas activists, dressed as suicide bombers, vowed more attacks on Israel after this weekend's bombing and shooting. Israel said it would apply "continuous military pressure" on the Palestinian Authority.

WADI AL HARAMIYA, West Bank, March 3 — Worn and frightened by a worsening conflict that their leaders were already calling a war, Israelis went to bed Saturday night with images on television of black plastic body bags lined up along a Jerusalem street.

They woke this morning to bulletins about the latest stunning assault on Israel's soldiers, who are both vaunted for their fighting skills and known, in this small country, as sons, nephews or friends of friends.

With 25 bullets fired from an aging rifle, a lone Palestinian sniper concealed beneath a hillside olive tree methodically shot and killed seven of the soldiers and three Israeli settlers at a checkpoint here today, then escaped.

The shooting followed by less than 12 hours a suicide bombing in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem that killed nine Israelis, including six children, from a few months old to 15.

The killings put a damper on hopes that were raised in some quarters by a Saudi peace proposal for the Middle East. Bush administration officials who were awaiting a visit from the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, suggested today that the intensifying violence would complicate any American diplomatic involvement.

[Early Monday morning, the Israeli security cabinet announced that it would apply "continuous military pressure on the Palestinian Authority so as to curb Palestinian terrorism." The announcement did not appear to mark any change in Israeli strategy. Shortly after the announcement, the Israeli Army reported a limited operation at the Rafah refugee camp, in which witnesses said three Palestinians had been killed and one house damaged by a bulldozer.]

Today at the checkpoint here, spent M-16 shells littered the sandy ground, and blood stained one of the waist-high cement blocks intended to protect the soldiers. A shattered pair of wraparound purple sunglasses, a style favored by Israeli soldiers, lay on top of another block beside an overturned plastic coffee cup.

The Palestinian attacks followed three days of Israeli raids on two Palestinian refugee camps that the Israeli Army said left about 30 Palestinians dead. Israeli military officers said the operation had killed terrorists or put them to flight and was a success, but Palestinians said it was an assault on civilians and a provocation to violence.

Today's shooting was the deadliest attack against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank or Gaza Strip in 17 months of fighting. But, with the body count ratcheting upward, it followed by less than two weeks the previous most lethal assault, the shooting of six soldiers at another checkpoint.

Another Israeli soldier was killed today when a Palestinian gunman opened fire at an Israeli outpost along Israel's boundary with the Gaza Strip. The gunman wounded four other soldiers and escaped.

In the last month, at least 24 soldiers have died in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, roughly the same number as the toll during an average year of Israel's painful occupation of southern Lebanon, military experts said.

In retaliation for the suicide bombing, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles at a Palestinian police station in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. And after this morning's shooting, Israeli forces were fighting around the West Bank. Tanks shelled a military intelligence headquarters in Salfit and also fired at suspected militants in Ramallah. Ground forces briefly invaded Qalqilya. At least four Palestinians died in the attacks.

The army today was still blockading and occasionally entering the two refugee camps it had stormed — Balata, in Nablus, and another in Jenin.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II appealed today for calm in the region. "In respect for international law, silence the guns and listen to the voice of reason," he urged in his Sunday address in St. Peter's Square. He called for "an immediate cease-fire and renewed sense of humanity."

Further Israeli reprisals were expected, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met tonight with his top security advisers. Mr. Sharon was elected more than a year ago on a promise of peace and security, but his popularity is dropping as the violence surges.

While left-wing members of his government urged him again today to put more emphasis on diplomacy, right-wing ministers pushed him to reoccupy swaths of Palestinian territory.

"There will be no sanctuary, no safe haven, for anyone involved in terrorism," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr. Sharon. But he added, "Despite the calls by the right, this government is acting in a cool-headed fashion, and will not be swayed by the extremes."

The Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group connected to Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the shooting, as it did for Saturday night's bombing. In an interview in Balata last week, a senior member of the group, Naser Badawi, said Al Aksa had adopted a strategy of attacking checkpoints.

"This is our new slogan now: Break the siege and remove the checkpoints," he said, proudly declaring that, because of the heightened attacks, "it's a hysteria the soldiers are living in."

The checkpoint attacked today sits at the southern entrance to this narrow valley, which is among the West Bank's most beautiful spots. The hulking hills on each side are striped with ages-old, pitted limestone terraces shaded by olive trees and dotted now, in spring, with red and yellow flowers.

The valley has long been a dangerous place. Its Arabic name means "valley of the bandits," and the outpost is known as the British police checkpoint, because, to protect travelers from thieves, the British established a position here when they governed the area under international mandate, Israeli soldiers said.

The Israeli checkpoint was established in the early months of the conflict after a settler and two soldiers were killed in drive-by shootings nearby.

It is a vulnerable spot, on low ground between the towering hills, with a blind approach around a bend to the north.

With checkpoints under increasing attack, soldiers here recently seemed even more cautious than usual, stopping motorists at least 25 yards away, then waving them slowly forward but training rifles on them as they inched ahead.

The checkpoint was manned today entirely by reserve soldiers. At about 6:40 this morning, the sniper opened fire from 50 yards away, about halfway up the slope of the western hill, an army spokesman said. He spaced his shots about 45 seconds apart, the spokesman said, and as the reports echoed off the hills, the soldiers could not determine the source of fire.

With deadly aim, the sniper picked them off one by one, the spokesman said, hitting each in the head or upper chest, above his bullet-proof vest.

"One could see the self-confidence," Rani Saguy, a settler who arrived during the firefight, told the Israeli radio. The sniper was firing single shots, he said, into a "tremendous wave of gunfire that lasted 25 minutes to half an hour."

He killed three soldiers standing at their post outside, then picked off some off-duty reservists who tumbled out of a nearby building. As settlers drove up in their cars on their way to work, he shot at them, and he fired at arriving reinforcements as well, killing an officer. Besides the 10 he killed, he wounded three people, the army said.

Hezi Tzuri, a medic who reached the scene during the fight, said he could not help the wounded right away, but instead pulled his gun and joined the battle. "When it died down a bit, we started to deal with the wounded, of whom the largest part, there was nothing to do for them," he said. "They were actually dead."

The gunman finally dropped his rifle and fled. The army spokesman suggested that he might have been wounded, or that his rifle might have been struck by Israeli fire.

After the attack, behind the cement blocks and sandbags of the soldiers' post, stood a loaded machine gun, five grenades, and four yellow rocket-propelled grenades. Such firepower proved of scant use.

Soldiers were sweeping the surrounding hills. One security officer emerged from the scrub carrying a rifle that appeared to have a wooden stock. It was closely examined by several soldiers.

An army spokeswoman said tonight that the gunman's weapon was decades old, and the Israeli news media reported that it was held together by nails.

But, noting the sniper's deadly accuracy, Mr. Gissin, Mr. Sharon's spokesman, said the attack was "a very professional job — that's not just some kid with a rifle." He accused Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority of inciting and even directing such attacks.

The top Fatah leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, praised the shooting.

Shlomo Gazit, a retired Israeli major general and a military analyst, suggested that more than preparation or tactics determined the outcome of even as devastating an attack as today's. "It's a question of good luck or bad luck," he said. "Sometimes our soldiers will be successful, sometimes not."

On Saturday, Israeli officers boasted that the raids on the congested refugee camps proved to the Palestinians that Israeli forces could reach anywhere in Palestinian-controlled territory.

Even before today's shooting, several Israeli commentators declared that Saturday night's bombing threw that message back in Israel's face. "The `cycle of blood' spins around like a wheel accelerating into the valley of death," Hemi Shelev wrote in the newspaper Maariv, in a column in which he noted that, in Biblical times, hell was thought to be in the area of Jerusalem.

But Mr. Gissin rejected the idea that the raids on the refugee camps had anything to do with the Palestinian attacks. "The entry into the refugee camps is not the cause," he said. "It is the result."