Israelis miss warning signs about young Jewish gunman

JERUSALEM -- The 19-year-old who killed four Israeli Arabs on a bus deserted the army to protest Israel's impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and took refuge in a militant Jewish settlement with his military-issued rifle.

Israeli security forces missed that and other warning signs -- including a plea by his father to find him -- raising questions about Israel's ability to rein in Jewish extremists even as it demands Palestinian leaders act against Muslim radicals.

Israeli officials vowed not to let Thursday's attack sabotage the Gaza withdrawal scheduled to begin Aug. 15, while the Arab response was restrained, a marked contrast to violent riots that erupted after similar violence in the past.

Both Israelis and Palestinians had been keenly aware of recent warnings that a Jewish extremist might try to sabotage the Gaza withdrawal by attacking Arabs and diverting security forces.

And leaders on neither side seemed prepared to let the plan be derailed by Eden Natan-Zada opening fire on a bus in the northern Israeli Arab town of Shfaram, killing four and wounding more than a dozen before being killed himself by an angry crowd.

"We've been very clear, disengagement goes ahead," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "Everyone understands what this obscene terrorist was trying to do and we cannot let him do it."

Hamas militants in Gaza threatened retaliation for the killings, but mass funeral processions for the victims and Friday prayers in Jerusalem proceeded without violence. Israeli Arab leaders announced a general strike -- a measure Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi called a "very peaceful type of protest."

Regev said "appropriate steps" would be taken against anyone found to be negligent in missing the warning signs about Natan-Zada, including what Israel Radio said was his brief detention three months ago for trying to reach the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

Yitzhak Natan-Zada, 49, told The Associated Press that he had asked the army to find his son, who deserted after refusing to participate in the Gaza pullout. The father said he was concerned his son's weapons would fall into the hands of fanatics in Tapuah, the extremist settlement in the West Bank where the teenager fled.

Carmela Menashe, Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent, said she was approached by the soldier's hysterical mother nearly two weeks ago, warning of danger. "She was very upset. She begged, shouted, implored," Menashe said on Israel TV.

Menashe said she asked the army to look into the matter and asked for a response. She didn't hear back until two hours before the attack, when the army assured her the matter was being taken care of.

The mother, Debbie Natan-Zada, lashed out at the army over the incident. "I blame the army," she screamed at TV cameras at the family's modest home.

The bloodshed raised questions about Israeli intelligence infiltration of the Israeli right, with some critics saying it falls far short of the Israeli penetration of Palestinian militant groups that is widely credited with reducing attacks on Israelis.

But Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rejected the contention that Israel demands more from the Palestinian Authority regarding extremists than it is willing to do itself, saying "it's not a symmetrical situation."

"This thing that we're dealing with is indeed a very serious problem and it's something that we cannot tolerate as a democratic society," he said. "But still it's a far cry when you have on occasion one or two isolated incidents of this sort than when you have a whole society which is beset by terrorists."

Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, said it is "almost impossible to detect or to have any kind of an early warning" when a single assassin acts on his own.

Investigators on Friday sought to determine if that was the case, though officials said teenagers from the Tapuah settlement had been detained for questioning.

Ashrawi called the massacre "an indicator that more could be coming" and blamed it on right-wing Israeli rhetoric that she said creates an atmosphere conducive to violence.

"The language, the discourse is extremely racist, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and the culture of violence is there," she said.

Settler leader Bentzi Lieberman recently warned that Jewish violence could harm opposition to the Gaza pullout by giving Sharon broader public backing.

But he backtracked Friday. "I don't see any linkage between (the settlers') pure democratic ways and the evil things that some crazy man in Israel is doing," he said.