Missing Soldier Found Dead
A young Israeli soldier who had been missing for a week was found dead Monday, buried in a shallow grave in an olive grove. The discovery put an end to a mystery that had spooked Israel even as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew off to Washington for talks today with President Bush.
Hours after his remains were pulled from the earth in northern Israel, the death of Oleg Shaichat, 20, was already clouding the troubled relations between the nation’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Shaichat was hitchhiking home from a northern army base July 21 when he was kidnapped and slain.
“There’s no question that this is a terrorist murder,” said Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman. “We are treating this as a terror attack.”
The soldier had been hastily buried in the rugged hills outside the nearby Arab city of Nazareth, within view of his parents’ suburban apartment. An Israeli court placed a gag order on details of the kidnapping while investigators searched for the killers.
After the studious Ukrainian immigrant disappeared, hundreds of rescuers spent days in the searing summer heat scouring the countryside with helicopters, dogs and tractors. In the end, a 67-year-old Bedouin tracker from a nearby village discovered a mound covered over with pulled weeds.
“They found a soldier’s belongings not far from here, and I felt that he was in the area,” Salah Hayad told the Haaretz newspaper Monday. “I immediately told the driver to start digging and understood that he was there.”
Shaichat’s gun was nowhere to be found, and it was clear that “Oleg put up a fight,” northern district police commander Yaakov Borovsky told Israel Radio.
While Israeli police questioned residents in the nearby Arab village of Kafr Kanna, Israeli Arab leaders braced for a backlash. Police didn’t say why they suspected either Palestinians or Israeli Arabs were behind the killing, but Shaichat was found dead in the countryside between Arab villages, and residents were wary of suspicions turning their way.
“I hope this is not going to be a trial for all the Arab masses in Israel,” said Talab Sana, head of the United Arab List Party.
The perennially troubled relations between the Israeli government and the 1.2 million Arabs who live within the boundaries of the state often wobble on deep mutual suspicion. Arabs feel discriminated against, while many Israeli Jews regard the Arab citizens as enemies within, a potential fifth column for militant Palestinian groups. To the deep dissatisfaction of the Arab minority, Israel jailed the leaders of the popular Islamic Movement this spring, accusing them of laundering money for the militant group Hamas.
Last week, two Arab citizens were slain by border police in what were later described as accidental shootings. After the second death, Bedouin mourners rioted on the roadside, hurling rocks at police.
“Some parties will take advantage of this crime to instigate against the Arabs and against their legitimacy,” Sana said Monday night.
For their part, Israeli officials in recent weeks had speculated that kidnappings might occur as Palestinians demanded freedom for between 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners held by Israel, often without charges or trial. Hamas leaders have threatened to seize Israeli soldiers and hold them for ransom to demand freedom for the Palestinians, whom they consider political prisoners.
Israel has agreed to free about 500 detainees.
The fate of the prisoners is just one of the sticky themes Sharon will navigate during his trip to Washington. Israeli officials also expected to be challenged on the explosive question of a wall that is being built in a winding path through the West Bank.
The barrier was conceived to keep suicide bombers out of Israel, but it has veered into the West Bank -- and Palestinians regard it as an attempt to undermine their hopes of creating a state on the land.
In a clash Monday along the wall, Israeli troops pelted about 200 Palestinian, Israeli and foreign activists with tear gas and rubber bullets. Five people were wounded, including a 62-year-old who identified herself as a businesswoman from Los Angeles.
“They shot directly at us,” said Greta Berlin, the woman, whose leg was grazed and bruised. “I was lucky.”
A military source said the army had to intervene because a “violent crowd” was destroying government property. The soldiers reported that some demonstrators were injured.