Joint Israeli-Palestinian Raids Target Militants
Battling to break the back of Islamic extremists, Israeli and Palestinian security forces raided militant strongholds from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank on Wednesday, uncovering the cell believed responsible for two recent bus bombings in Jerusalem and charging an Israeli Arab trucker with smuggling another bomber to a Tel Aviv shopping center.
In Jericho, a militant accused of recruiting the Jerusalem bombers was sentenced by a Palestinian court to life in prison with hard labor. The swift trial of Mohammed abu Wardeh, arrested Sunday night, appeared designed to block any extradition request from Israel.
The flurry of activity Wednesday marked important progress in the investigation of the recent wave of suicide attacks, in which four bombers killed themselves and 57 others. It was also the first time that Israeli and Palestinian police had conducted joint raids in PLO-run territory, reflecting intense pressure on Israel and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to halt the carnage and resuscitate the flagging Mideast peace process.
“We are in a state of war with terrorism and terrorists,” said Khaled Kidra, the Palestinian attorney general. “The entire world is fighting terrorism, and we are part of the world. We are not standing by and watching.”
The cell responsible for the attacks Feb. 25 and Sunday on Jerusalem buses, as well as for a third bombing of Israeli soldiers at a hitchhiking stop in Ashkelon, was centered at the U.N.-run Teachers’ Training College in Ramallah, a PLO-controlled West Bank city north of Jerusalem, according to Israeli Defense Forces.
Two students at the college, both alleged accomplices of Abu Wardeh, were arrested Wednesday. The trio had recruited the three suicide bombers, one of whom was Abu Wardeh’s cousin, on orders from an unnamed leader of Hamas, a militant Islamic group opposed to the peace process, Israeli police said. The leader remains at large.
Abu Wardeh was not present for his trial Wednesday.
But he did a series of radio and television interviews, apparently orchestrated by the Palestinian authorities, in which he said he joined Hamas’ military wing and agreed to recruit the three bombers just four weeks before the first attack, hoping to slow the momentum of the peace process.
But, he added, he now regrets his involvement.
“I made a mistake,” he said, and he urged Hamas to “stop any military action.”
“We know the people who committed the acts, we know who sent them, and we know the method,” said Moshe Shahal, Israel’s internal security minister. “It is a small group, actually, part of which has been arrested. We have several other names, and we are expecting the Palestinian Authority to arrest them. Much of our future relationship will be determined by the outcome of that request.”
Authorities say the bomber in Monday’s attack in Tel Aviv, which left the bomber and 13 others dead, was smuggled in from the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
An Israeli Arab in the trucking business told authorities that he was paid $1,100 to take the bomber from Gaza into Israel. He said he dropped off the man, who was carrying a large sack, at the shopping mall just minutes before the explosion in a crowded street. The smuggler, who lived in northern Israel but was not otherwise identified, was charged with aiding a terrorist organization.
While Israel continued to confine 1.2 million Palestinians to their towns Wednesday, the authorities staged more raids in refugee camps near Hebron and Nablus in the West Bank, making 100 arrests of suspected militants and relatives of the suicide bombers.
The closure of Israel’s borders with Palestinian-controlled areas spawned some food shortages, and long lines formed at bakeries in Gaza. Food was trucked in to some West Bank areas sealed off by Israeli soldiers.
In the Al Fawah refugee camp, home of two of the four recent suicide attackers, residents were forced to remain inside their homes during a 24-hour curfew as troops patrolled the streets.
In Gaza, Arafat ordered his police into Islamic University, a bastion of the militant Hamas group.
Three security guards at the university were arrested, and police found large quantities of knives, explosives and vests of the kind worn by suicide bombers.
The six-hour raid was significant because it marked the first time that the Palestinian Authority sent police to the university, which Hamas has regarded as an institution under its control.
Palestinian police also arrested dozens of members of the group in overnight raids on homes and mosques.
Several thousand Palestinians in Nablus staged a peace rally organized by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. The group, composed mostly of students and government workers, heard Arafat’s recorded message urging: “Yes for peace. No for terrorism.”
Palestinian police broke up a pro-Hamas march by students nearby, beating the marchers and arresting at least 10 people.
Also Wednesday, the Clinton administration said it is sending experts in diplomatic security and counter-terrorism to Israel. Their mission will be to assess ways to improve terrorism prevention and to bring terrorists to justice.
Israel has already received a shipment of eight bomb-detecting devices sent by the United States.
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