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The Death of a Semblance of Peace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early on the day that Nael Yassin, a Palestinian police officer, killed an Israeli partner, Maj. Yossi Tabjeh, everything seemed routine.

Their joint patrol through the West Bank town of Kalkilya began at 6:30 a.m. After shaking hands and exchanging greetings all around, Tabjeh and three other Israeli police officers mounted a bulletproof jeep. Yassin and three Palestinian patrolmen rode in another vehicle.

They drove in tandem through Kalkilya for 15 minutes, then returned to the outskirts of the town and stopped by a park. The Israelis sat inside their jeep, sipping coffee, Tabjeh on the front passenger’s seat with his door wide open.

Suddenly, as he cried “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!), Yassin lunged toward the jeep and opened fire with his Kalashnikov automatic weapon. Tabjeh was mortally wounded. His driver floored the accelerator and sped away as Yassin continued firing.

Twenty-four bullet holes were punched into the jeep’s side and back panels, but only Tabjeh was seriously hurt. None of the Israelis got off a shot.

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The Palestinians say Yassin was provoked, that the Israelis made fun of him as he said a Muslim prayer and that he exploded in wrath. The Israelis deny that they taunted the Palestinian.

That was two months ago. Tabjeh’s death Sept. 29 was noted in passing at the time, widely seen as an aside to the turmoil that quickly engulfed the region.

Yet a closer look and interviews with 20 people who were involved or who knew the men reveal that the slaying, the shock it caused and the sense that it seemed to come out of nowhere foretold the chaotic unraveling of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

When Yassin, the Palestinian, killed Tabjeh, the Israeli, a rare, promising step in cooperation between two peoples was destroyed.

Each man represented his family’s hopes and plans for the future. And their work together in one of 10 joint security patrols mandated by a peace accord and encouraged by the United States was supposed to be the blueprint for the future of the Middle East.

Today it seems clear that the fragility of their working relationship mirrored the fragility of the peace process they were meant to be enforcing.

At the time, the shooting was as shocking and baffling as the violence and collapse of peace that followed. In hindsight, the strains were as obvious within the joint patrols as in the entire process of pursuing peace.

This is the story of Nael Yassin, a gregarious, hotheaded 25-year-old Palestinian who enjoyed posing Rambo-style for pictures and who worked as a police officer from the time he was old enough to join the force, supporting his widowed mother and two younger brothers.

This is also the story of Yossi Tabjeh, a personable, up-and-coming 27-year-old Jew who crossed the African desert as a child to emigrate from Ethiopia to Israel and whose success was an inspiration to a minority community badly in need of success stories.

The lives of the two men crossed tragically. Yassin is in jail and Tabjeh is dead, the first fatality in a raging conflict that has claimed nearly 300 lives.

A Success Story for Israel’s Ethiopian Jews

Yossi Tabjeh was the apple of his family’s eye, an immigrant success story for a people--Ethiopians--whose assimilation into Israeli society has been difficult. He overcame the discrimination and hardship in a way achieved by few of the nation’s 70,000 Ethiopian Jews.

He excelled at everything, it seemed: at studies, where he got the top grades; as a paratrooper in the army, where he pushed the envelope and once, on a training mission, walked the more than 170 miles from Eilat to Tel Aviv; and, finally, in officers academy.

In addition to Hebrew, he spoke Arabic, Russian and English. In a day he taught himself to write Amharic, the Ethiopian tongue that he feared losing, his family says. He encouraged his nephews and cousins to study and to complete their military service as good citizens of Israel.

“He liked whatever he did, no matter how dangerous,” said his cousin Zina, who is 24 and seems the most kindred spirit to Tabjeh. “He prided himself on going where it was hard and doing the best he could to the best of his ability. He wanted to be an example.”

Tabjeh was just a boy in 1984 when he embarked on an arduous and treacherous journey from the famine-racked Ethiopian province of Gondar across the Sudanese desert, to eventually be airlifted to Israel. Many of the thousands of Jews who fled Ethiopia back then died along the way. With two older brothers, he braved criminals, sickness, ravenous animals and the harsh elements to reach safety.

“He was very strong,” said brother Uri, 39. “Even then, he had such a will--he was so determined to come to Israel.”

Tabjeh and his brothers, from the time they were young, heard their village elders speak of a Holy Land for Jews and of their cherished Jerusalem. Ethiopian Jews, thought to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, have been immigrating to Israel since the late 1970s.

The extended Tabjeh family, including his father, an aunt and her four children, lives in Israel. His mother died long ago in Ethiopia. Most of Tabjeh’s relatives are rooted in Ramle, a working-class city in central Israel. That is where they buried Tabjeh.

Tall and slender, with a bright smile, Tabjeh had planned to marry Yael Nagat, a 21-year-old student who escaped Ethiopia 10 years ago. He was going to leave the military, earn an accounting degree and go into business. They were going to have children. If Tabjeh was having trouble with Palestinians at work, he did not share his concerns. He kept everything “in his stomach,” Uri said.

“I never heard a bad thing come out of his mouth,” said his 45-year-old aunt, Tamar, who practically raised him. “It wasn’t hard for him here. He learned well, and he was a good boy.”

“He never let on that anything was wrong,” Nagat said. “I used to say it’s dangerous, they’re enemies. He said, no, it’s just work. . . . He really did want cooperation. He believed in it. Even when it was hard, he never wanted to worry anyone.”

A Bitter, Hard Life in West Bank Village

Nael Yassin grew up facing a bitter, hard life here in Assira Shamaliya, a tiny, militant village surrounded by olive groves in the West Bank just north of Nablus. Israel’s 1948 War of Independence forced his father to come to this village as a youth from the Mediterranean city of Haifa. When Yassin was in his teens, his father died.

Yassin and his brothers were raised by their mother, Afaf, a simple woman who now works as a janitor at a girls school in Nablus. The 53-year-old mother earns about $250 a month. They live in a two-room cinder-block house, porchless and set back from a sloping road, with exposed wiring hanging from the roof and a thin metal door. A second story is under slow construction.

The options available to Yassin for survival were like those of any young Palestinian man living under Israeli military occupation. If anything was remarkable about Yassin’s life, it is that it was so typical.

He joined Fatah, the then-underground political movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At 18, Yassin failed high school exams, so further education was out. Fatah militancy was in. He signed up with the Palestinian police almost as soon as the force was formed in 1995.

Yassin also had a reputation as a troublemaker. Villagers say he ran with a car-theft ring for a while. And his brothers, Suleiman and Wael, said Yassin had quite a temper. He busted up things when he became mad, roughed up Wael and even yelled at their mother on occasion.

A tall, barrel-chested man, Yassin began to calm down this year, at least to all appearances. In March he made a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, a richly spiritual journey for most Muslims. From that moment on, he seemed to have gotten religion. He began to pray five times a day and fast regularly, in the tradition of the most observant Muslims.

For Yassin, participation in security patrols with the Israelis was just a job, one that provided a decent salary for easy work. Patrol commanders were usually recruited from the elite of the Palestinian security establishment, but the grunts who worked the patrols were ordinary men like Yassin.

“He worked with the Israelis and saw nothing wrong with it,” said an elderly cousin, Tahir. “We heard they even sat and ate together.”

The shooting “really surprised us,” said Yassin’s brother Wael, pausing in his harvest of olives outside Assira. “He’d been working with the Israelis for six years. There was nothing to suggest this.” But, he said, there were also tensions and ethnically charged comments on the patrols.

Assira was well known for the presence of every major Palestinian faction, including the radical Islamic Hamas, which is particularly strong. A month before Yassin shot Tabjeh, events unfolded that caused a quiet rage to fester in the Palestinian police officer’s mind.

On Aug. 26, Israeli special forces disguised as Arabs infiltrated the village at night seeking Hamas militant Mahmoud abu Hunoud, wanted in a string of terrorist bombings that killed more than 40 people in 1997. In the fierce shootout, four Israelis were killed. Abu Hunoud was injured but escaped.

It later was revealed that the Israelis were killed by their force’s own, confused gunfire. But the word among the villagers was that Abu Hunoud had single-handedly killed all four: He was an instant hero.

The village was shaken by the raid. Yassin later told his commanders that he was beaten up that night by invading Israelis and his mother slightly wounded by a rubber-coated bullet.

The raid sat well with no one, least of all Yassin.

On Sept. 27, a Wednesday, Yassin marked the anniversary of a friend’s death during the 1996 Palestinian riots that erupted over Israel’s construction of a tunnel near the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Yassin hung posters in Assira in honor of his “martyred” companion.

On Sept. 28, Yassin watched TV news silently as Ariel Sharon, a right-wing Israeli politician whom Palestinians hold responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Arabs, was shown trooping through the compound containing Al Aqsa mosque. The visit ignited outrage throughout the Arab world.

Yassin rose before dawn the next day, traveled 25 miles to Kalkilya and at 6:30 set out on patrol with his Palestinian and Israeli partners.

Palestinian May Have Felt Insulted

According to the version offered by Palestinian authorities, and what Yassin later told relatives and friends who visited him in jail, the young police officer was using the break in patrol duty to pray. “There is but one God, and Muhammad is his prophet,” he recited.

Tabjeh, or perhaps one of the other Israelis in the jeep, said something that Yassin interpreted as an insult. The Palestinians say the words amounted to the equivalent of take your prophet and shove it.

Yassin grabbed his gun and opened fire.

The Israelis maintain that nothing was said to provoke Yassin and that he was not even praying.

Yassin “meant to kill the whole team,” the joint patrol’s Israeli commander, Nabil Abumidian, said in an interview. “It is my assumption that he was recruited to attack the joint patrol because it was an easy target and because nobody thought this could happen here.”

The Israeli border police, the militarized force that supplies troops for the joint patrols, refused The Times’ requests to interview the other three members of Tabjeh’s patrol. All are Druze, Arabs who are citizens of Israel and serve in its army. The driver was slightly injured in the shooting.

Palestinian authorities refused The Times’ request to interview Yassin in jail.

Initially, Palestinian officials maintained that Yassin was deranged and simply flipped out. Tabjeh was initially not included in the death count that began later that day with clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in the area around Al Aqsa. But the facts now available show that the killing cannot be separated from the context of the wider deterioration.

Yassin was immediately detained by the other Palestinian officers at Kalkilya, prosecuted in the middle of the night in a Palestinian court and sentenced to life in prison. He sits today, according to authorities and his family, in a small cell in a Palestinian prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

For some Palestinians in Assira, Yassin is revered as a defender of the faith.

A wall at the village entrance is covered with green graffiti: “A thousand salutes to Fatah member Nael Yassin, who blew up the heads of the Zionists.” And Yassin’s jowly face stares out from posters: “With pride, we salute the hero Nael Yassin, hero of the Kalkilya operation. With fire and bullets, we respond to those who mock our religion and prophet.”

His mother recalls that in the days after the shooting, neighboring women came to pay respects to the family of the hero. But now she seems dejected and confused, unable to grasp what her son did and worried about the loss of income. She wasn’t paid the final month of Yassin’s salary.

At a memorial service in Ramle marking 30 days since his slaying, Yossi Tabjeh’s family also was bewildered, and unable to contain either its grief or rage.

Ethiopian women in long skirts, heads wrapped in bright scarves and shrouded in white mourning cloths, stood in the red mud around Tabjeh’s grave. His brother Benjamin, weeping uncontrollably, touched his forehead to the tombstone. Aunt Tamar wailed. Fiancee Nagat collapsed against a gray-trunked tree.

Members of his border police unit were present. The military chaplain read from Psalms and spoke of humankind’s first murder, when Cain slew his brother Abel, a treacherous act that led to deterioration of the world until, finally, came the deluge.

“Terrible fate catches us with a lack of strength,” the chaplain told the mourners. “Yet we are commanded to continue and live on.”

Following a Jewish tradition, the Tabjeh family and several police officers lay stones on the grave. From that moment on, custom has it, the bereaved must pick up the pieces of their lives and continue on, finding strength through prayer.

But Tabjeh’s family is not satisfied with the explanations it has been given. After the service, Benjamin confronted the senior border patrol officer present to pay his respects.

“I want to know what happened,” he pleaded. “Where is the driver? Where are the others from the patrol? I want to ask them. I want answers.”

“We give you answers,” responded Eli Aharoni, deputy commander of the border police for the West Bank. “You just don’t like the answers.”

“It cannot be that the others just sat there and did not react,” a despondent Benjamin said.

Later, the family walked back to the sixth-floor apartment where brother Uri lives. The mourners sat around a table dominated by injera, an Ethiopian bread. Benjamin, who served in the army during the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, revealed the bitterness that the slaying left behind.

“When an officer is killed, they have to react,” Benjamin said. “I know the instructions. They didn’t do a thing. The army is a coward and a liar.”

The military agrees on one thing: The men in Tabjeh’s patrol should have fired back and did not. They were too shocked, commander Abumidian said.

“There was always fear that other forces might open fire at the joint patrols, but we never feared that somebody from inside the joint patrol would do this,” he said. “Kalkilya was a model. It was an example for good relations. We used to eat together and drink coffee together. This should not have happened in our area, of all places.”

Some in the family are convinced that Tabjeh was targeted, out of jealousy or because of his success. There is no evidence for that. However, by killing an Ethiopian immigrant, Yassin did eliminate a person who embodied for many Palestinians the ultimate usurper of the land: Russian, African and American Jews who have moved here in recent years while Palestinians are still denied access to property they claim.

Yassin also attacked his counterpart, rather than a more distant Israeli target, leading to speculation that he was seeking to cleanse himself of what he might have seen as collaboration with the enemy.

The joint patrols were problematic from the beginning. They depended on District Command Offices, a combined Israeli-Palestinian security structure whose main purpose was to allow Israel to have a say in matters involving its citizens in Palestinian territory. By most accounts, they had little practical impact in fighting crime or violence, but they were the principal, tangible example of security cooperation as a product of the peace process.

Last month, the offices were formally shut down by Israel in response to the unending convulsion of violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There have been a few halfhearted attempts to reopen these offices, but the reality is that joint security patrols stopped working the minute Yassin killed Tabjeh.

The families are not surprised.

“Working with the Israelis only brings trouble,” Wael Yassin said. “You can see my brother. He worked with them, and now his whole life is destroyed.”

“Yossi’s murder makes no sense,” said Zina, Tabjeh’s cousin. “It breaks your faith, your ability to believe there can ever be anything between Israelis and Palestinians. One day you can be sitting, drinking colas and coffee. And one day a fellow shows up and shoots you in cold blood. You cannot trust them.”

Lt. Col. Avi Nudelman, the regional commander overseeing all the district offices, said revival of the patrols is not likely any time soon.

“The patrols were basically symbolic,” he said, “and now not even the symbol exists.”


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