Israelis kill two members of militant Islamic Jihad

Saturday, February 22, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The militant Islamic Jihad said Friday it will not attack American targets to retaliate for the U.S. arrest of four alleged members and the indictment of four others on terrorism-related charges.

Abdallah Shami, the Gaza leader of the Palestinian group, condemned the arrests but said Islamic Jihad will continue to focus on its fight against Israel.

"We are not going to open any new fronts," Shami said.

Earlier Friday, Israeli troops killed two Islamic Jihad members who attacked a Jewish settlement and an army post in Gaza.

In the West Bank, near the town of Tulkarem, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an unidentified Palestinian who they said was running toward an army checkpoint and failed to stop after repeated calls and warning shots, an army spokeswoman said.

Also Friday, thousands of Palestinians joined the funeral procession of a leader of the Hamas military wing and and vowed to avenge his killing by Israeli undercover troops.

Riyad Abu Zeid was killed in a roadside ambush earlier this week.

"Today, he is a groom, and he will surely go to paradise," said his wife, Umm Moussab, referring to the widely held belief in Gaza that those killed in clashes with Israelis will spend eternity in the company of 72 virgins.

A 50-count indictment was unsealed Thursday in Washington against eight alleged members of Islamic Jihad, including computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian, the alleged U.S. leader of the group who is on paid leave from the University of South Florida.

Four of the eight, including Al-Arian, were arrested in the United States. Four others are abroad, including Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah, who is in Damascus, and Abd Al Aziz Awda, 52, a founder of the group, who lives in the Gaza town of Beit Lahia.

Awda was not available for comment Friday. Shami said Awda left the group a decade ago after falling out with other members, and that he has withdrawn from public life. Awda is a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile, and in 1997 voted in favor of revoking sections of the PLO founding charter that call for Israel's destruction.

Another Islamic Jihad leader, Khaled Batsh, said that of the eight men indicted, all except Shallah "either left the movement or the movement froze their membership more than 10 years ago."

The indictment says Al-Arian directed the audit of all the group's money and property throughout the world from his home and workplace in Tampa. Al-Arian has denied he has ties to terrorism.

Shami, in a speech to about 800 Islamic Jihad supporters in Gaza City, dismissed the U.S. indictment as "a big lie" but not a provocation for attacking American interests.

"We raise our voice in protesting this American measure but our operations will continue against the Israeli occupation only," he said.

Ely Karmon, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said he believed Shami. Karmon said Iran, which provides major funding for the group, would be unlikely to support attacks on U.S. targets.

"They (Islamic Jihad leaders) know that Iran is today cautious in its policies ... because they know the United States will pressure Iran very hard after Iraq," he said, referring to a possible U.S. offensive against Baghdad. "I don't think Iran will permit the Palestinian Islamic Jihad at this moment to do anything against the United States."

Karmon also said Islamic Jihad was not prepared to carry out operations abroad.

The group was founded in the early 1980s by radical Palestinian students who hoped to copy the Islamic revolution in Iran. Two of its founders, Fathi Shekaki and Awda, were deported by Israel to Lebanon in 1988. Today, the leadership is based in Damascus.

Since 1988, Islamic Jihad has carried out dozens of attacks on Israelis, including 19 suicide bombings, 15 shootings and 10 car bombings. More than 150 people, the vast majority Israelis, but also at least two Americans, have been killed. Among U.S. victims were Alisa Flatow, 20 and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, 16, both killed in bus bombings.

Ben-Yishai's father, Yitzhak, said Friday in Jerusalem that it was important to stop the flow of money to Islamic Jihad. "This (the arrests) is going to stop them, to stop the money, the support," he said.

Friday's attacks targeted the Jewish settlement of Dugit and the Erez industrial park, both in northern Gaza.

An Israeli army commander, identified only as Col. Ofer, said soldiers at a lookout near Dugit spotted a Palestinian climbing over the settlement fence near the beach. "Within five minutes, troops ... overpowered him and killed him," the commander told Israel Radio. Palestinian doctors said the man had been hit by 12 bullets and his lower body had been run over by a jeep.

In a second incident, a Palestinian jumped over the wall of the Erez industrial park into an abandoned parking lot, the Israeli colonel said. "We surrounded him and called on him to surrender. In response, he threw grenades and opened fire at the troops," the officer said.

In Tel Aviv, a two-hour meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and opposition leader Amram Mitzna ended with an agreement to continue the talks Saturday. Sharon is trying to bring the left-center Labor Party into his government, but Mitzna made a campaign pledge to shun such an alliance. Mitzna has since said he will join a Sharon-led government if the prime minister agrees to take significant steps toward resuming peace talks with the Palestinians.

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