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Rabin Is Assassinated at Rally : Jewish Student Seized at Scene; Israel Stunned : Tragedy: Prime minister is shot in chest, stomach and spinal cord while leaving demonstration in Tel Aviv in support of peace process. He is declared dead hour later. Peres is now acting premier.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a war hero who won the Nobel Prize for trying to make peace with the Palestinians, was assassinated Saturday night at the end of a massive rally in Tel Aviv in support of his government’s efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A 27-year-old Jewish law student was arrested at the scene immediately after he allegedly fired three shots at nearly point-blank range, hitting Rabin in the torso and wounding one of the prime minister’s bodyguards.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, considered the architect of the 3-year-old peace process, was named acting prime minister at an emergency Cabinet meeting shortly after Rabin died.

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Minutes before he was killed, the 73-year-old Rabin told the cheering Labor Party rally that the majority of Israelis support his 1993 peace accord with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and oppose violence.

“I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take a chance for peace,” he said. “And you, by coming to this rally, prove . . . that the people truly want peace and oppose violence.”

He was leaving the demonstration of more than 100,000 people--the largest pro-peace rally in years--and heading for his black Cadillac limousine when a single gunman cut through police circles and fired a 9-millimeter pistol at his chest. Witnesses said that Rabin collapsed with blood on his shirt and that police pulled him into the car to rush him to a hospital.

Rabin was declared dead an hour later on the operating table at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, but a hospital spokesman said he was clinically dead when he arrived, without pulse or blood pressure. He was hit in the chest, stomach and spinal cord.

The suspect was identified as Yigal Amir, a third-year law student at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv who had been involved in right-wing causes, including illegally expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli television showed dozens of police pouncing on a clean-cut-looking young man and shoving him into a police car.

Police sources later told Israeli television that Amir claimed he had tried twice before to kill Rabin and that he acted alone.

“I acted alone on God’s orders and I have no regrets,” the radio quoted Amir as saying.

Some Israeli television reporters received a beeper message that a previously unheard-of group calling itself the Jewish Revenge Organization claimed responsibility for the assassination. But false claims by Jewish groups have been made in other political attacks.

A state funeral is set for Monday. Jewish tradition dictates that burial take place within 24 hours. But Rabin’s funeral was delayed a day to give world leaders, including President Clinton, a chance to attend.

Although Israel has been bitterly divided over the peace process and security officials had been warning of possible assassination attempts against political leaders, the slaying sent the nation into a state of shock that many likened to the 1963 killing of President John F. Kennedy.

This is the first assassination of an Israeli political leader in the country’s 48-year history, and many believed that their Jewish state was beyond this kind of violence.

For decades, Rabin and most Israeli political leaders lived with the possibility that they might be killed by Palestinians or other Arabs--but not by Jews.

Political leaders and average Israelis flocked to the hospital in tears and carrying burning candles as soon as the shooting was announced.

“He is a great man, perhaps the greatest of us all,” Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said after his friend and ally died. “He fell victim to an intolerable degree of incitement and hatred.”

A handful of those who despised Rabin also arrived at the hospital, where they shouted “Murderer!” Jewish extremists blame Rabin for the deaths of Israelis killed in bus bombings by Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the peace accord.

Opposition Likud bloc leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been the principal critic of the peace process and had hoped to defeat Rabin in next year’s election, condemned the killing.

“I am deeply shocked,” Netanyahu said. “I am horrified by this terrible attack. . . . Here we yell, we debate, but we don’t shoot. We do not accept the idea of raising our weapons in political debate.”

Netanyahu has been criticized in the past, however, for not raising his voice more clearly against extreme rightists opposed to the peace process who have been calling Rabin everything from “traitor” to a “Nazi” and declaring his government illegitimate.

In September, right-wing extremists circulated pictures of Rabin wearing a Nazi Gestapo uniform during a Likud-sponsored rally as the Parliament approved Rabin and Arafat’s interim agreement for withdrawing Israeli troops from the occupied West Bank.

The Knesset vote was held up by Parliament Speaker Shevah Weiss until Netanyahu apologized to the Knesset. Rabin walked out during the apology.

Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein blamed the Likud bloc for contributing to increased tension in the country. The right-wing party allies itself with Jewish settlers in the West Bank who have vowed to stop the handing over of Jewish land to Palestinians. Many of the settlers are armed.

“All of these provocations have been made in front of the Likud leader. They were told this could end in tragedy,” Rubinstein said. “We warned them there could be an assassination. We were right.”

Rabin had been warned, too, by his security officials but insisted he was not afraid. He was physically threatened by a demonstrator last month at a meeting of the so-called Anglo-Saxon community living in Israeli.

Since then, security had been stepped up and was described by Israeli reporters as unprecedented at the Saturday night rally in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square. Officials feared right-wing violence and were concerned about reprisals from the extremist organization Islamic Jihad, whose leader, Fathi Shikaki, was assassinated in Malta last month.

Islamic Jihad blames Israeli agents for the killing and launched two suicide bombings near Israeli buses last week outside Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The two bombers were killed, but no Israelis.

World leaders reacted to Rabin’s death with an outpouring of grief and outrage.

Clinton, in an emotional statement from the White House Rose Garden, called Rabin one of the world’s “greatest men.”

“Yitzhak Rabin was my partner and my friend. I admired him and I loved him very much,” Clinton said. “Goodby, friend.”

King Hussein of Jordan, who signed a peace accord with Rabin last year, announced that he would come to Israel to attend Rabin’s funeral Monday. This would be the first visit by an Arab leader to Israel since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came in 1977. Sadat, also slain for pursuing peace, was shot to death by Islamic extremists during a 1981 military parade.

PLO Chairman Arafat, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Peres last year, looked to be in shock when he said: “I hope we all have the ability to overcome this tragedy and continue with the peace process in the Middle East.” He called his political and onetime military adversary “a great leader of peace.”

Arafat was speaking from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, which he governs today thanks to Rabin’s willingness to negotiate with the PLO.

But on some streets of Gaza, where Islamic Jihad and the Islamic extremist organization Hamas enjoy support, and in refugee camps in Lebanon there were celebrations after Rabin’s death.

At his final public appearance, the normally reserved Rabin--not known for singing--joined in bellowing the Israeli national anthem and peace songs. He gave a rousing speech on behalf of his policy of negotiating peace with the Palestinians.

“This government, which I have the privilege to head with my friend, Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance. A peace which will solve most of the state of Israel’s problems,” Rabin said.

Peres was with Rabin at the rally and just yards away when the prime minister, his onetime political adversary in the Labor Party, was shot. He said he was certain that if Rabin had had a chance to state his last wish, it would have been that the peace process continue.

“This is a tragic day for the Jewish people, the state of Israel and for the peace processes all around the world,” Peres said after he took over as acting prime minister.

“There is nothing else we can do, as comrades, as friends but to continue along a great road paved by a great leader,” he said.

Looking devastated, Peres, also in his 70s, added that “today was [Rabin’s] happiest day. I have never seen him so happy and satisfied with himself. Thousands of people came out in support of his policies.”

Peres could either form a new government or serve out the government’s term until elections scheduled for October, 1996.

Dalia Itzik, a Labor member of Parliament who witnessed the shooting, said it was “a crisis of the kind the state of Israel has never known. All those who spoke about violence did not imagine anything like this.”

Chaim Cohen, a 37-year-old Likud supporter who went to the hospital with his family after hearing that Rabin had been shot, said: “We feel as badly as everybody. This is a great tragedy.”

* O.C. REACTION: The assassination froze a certain time and place for Orange County’s 80,000-member Jewish community. B1

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Key Sites in Slaying

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated as he was about to get into his car following a peace rally in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv. He was taken to Ichilov Hospital, where he arrived unconscious, without pulse or blood pressure. Hundreds waiting outside the hospital burst into tears when Rabin’s top aide announced that Rabin had died. The suspect, a student at Bar Ilan University, lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.


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