Israel destroys seven-story building to get bombmaker

Saturday, September 6, 2003

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli commandos killed a Hamas bombmaker in a firefight Friday and pulverized the seven-story apartment building in which he had been hiding, leaving dozens of Palestinians homeless and prompting charges that soldiers meted out collective punishment.

An Israeli soldier was killed and four were wounded in the battle, which took place after soldiers surrounded the 3-year-old building and ordered residents out. The Israelis said they blew up the structure more than six hours after the fighting ended because they believed some militants might be inside.

Hours later, 8-year-old Bakr Sobah searched through the rubble, looking for his books and school bag. "I have homework in my notebooks. What can I do now?" the boy said. "We had a house here, now we don't."

The Hamas explosives expert who was killed, 26-year-old Mohammed Hanbali, was involved in bombings and shootings that killed at least 36 Israelis and wounded hundreds, the army said. Hanbali also recruited members and trained them in making explosives, according to the military.

Friday's raid in Nablus came as Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' fight for political survival intensified.

The Palestinian parliament speaker said Friday he has decided to hold a confidence vote on Abbas, who is distrusted by many Palestinians because he has Israel's backing and has been further weakened by a power struggle with veteran leader Yasser Arafat.

The vote will likely be next week, said the speaker, Ahmed Qureia, who initially opposed such a showdown.

Abbas has staked his political future on the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan, frozen for the past three weeks because of a flareup in violence.

Abbas refuses to crack down on armed groups, saying he wants to persuade them to halt attacks. Israel says that in this vacuum, it will pursue terror suspects relentlessly.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to destroy the road map. Deadly arrest raids tend to trigger reprisals, including a Hamas bombing that killed 22 people on a Jerusalem bus last month.

"The Israeli government is pursuing a comprehensive war that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, the peace process, and the resumption of the full Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Dore Gold, an Israeli government spokesman, said Israel had no choice but to act.

"The war we are facing now has been imposed on us," Gold said. "Israel is not seeking to be in Nablus, but is only there because the area is a constant source of terror attacks on Israeli civilians."

Eight of the 15 apartments in the building demolished Friday had been occupied, housing about 50 people. Residents included shopkeepers, accountants and middle-class professionals. Each apartment had cost $50,000, with a monthly mortgage payment of $300 -- high sums in the impoverished Palestinian economy.

Bakr's mother, Mona, was at a nearby elementary school, still dressed in the black bathrobe she wore when soldiers asked her to leave her apartment at the start of the raid. "I have only this," she said, raising her identity card. "I thought we were only being asked to leave for a few minutes."

The Israeli operation began at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

Soldiers surrounded the building, ordered the residents out and took them to a school, said Jamal Kordi, 38, a housepainter and one of the residents. Men were handcuffed and questioned about strangers in the building.

Kordi said that after midnight, he and three other men were taken into the building as "human shields," leading the way as soldiers, accompanied by dogs, searched various apartments. Israel's Supreme Court has outlawed the practice of using human shields; the army had no immediate comment.

After some time, Kordi said he heard an explosion on one of the upper floors, and that he and the other three men were eventually taken back to the elementary school.

The Israeli military said that Hanbali, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and standing on top of an elevator between the building's lower floors, ambushed troops as they pried open doors to the elevator shaft above, on the fifth floor. The shots killed an Israeli naval commando, Sgt. Maj. Raanan Kumimi. Soldiers returned fire, killing Hanbali.

During the battle, gunmen threw hand grenades at troops, said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman. Four soldiers were wounded, one critically. The army fired rockets at the building.

Kordi disputed Feingold's contention that the Israelis blew up the building because they feared some militants remained inside.

Several residents were allowed back into the building at midmorning to pick up a few belongings, he said, arguing that it appears unlikely soldiers would have permitted residents to go back into the building if they feared militants were still hiding there.

"There was no reason (for the demolition)," he said. "It was just for revenge."

Adnan Asfour, a Hamas spokesman in Nablus, said the group would help those made homeless by paying rent on a new apartment for a year and buying some furniture. The Nablus municipality said it would also pitch in.

Three Palestinians were arrested, the army said.

Before becoming a fugitive, Hanbali had studied industrial engineering at Nablus' An Najah University. He was a Hamas leader and his father is an Islamic leader in the city.

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