Friday, August 05, 2005

Israeli soldier lynched after bus shooting

Middle East Online - Security forces braced themselves Friday for a violent backlash after four Israeli Arabs were shot dead by an extreme right-wing Jewish soldier trying to torpedo the imminent withdrawal from Gaza.

Israeli Arab leaders called a one-day general strike to protest the killing of the four on a bus in the northern town of Shfaram as the military faced awkward questions over how 19-year-old Nathan Zada was able to keep hold of his weapon despite being identified as a potentially dangerous extremist.

Zada mowed down his fellow passengers on bus 165 in a shooting spree that left another 12 needing hospital treatment. After he had emptied his rifle, furious residents lynched Zada, who was wearing his military fatigues despite being absent without leave for several months.

Police were placed on the second highest level of alert but kept a low presence in Shfaram itself for fear of further exacerbating tensions ahead of the afternoon funerals for the victims which included two Christians and two Muslim sisters.

There was a heightened security presence around Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque ahead of Friday prayers but there were no immediate reports of unrest.

In Shfaram, relatives of the victims were trying to come to terms with their loss, convinced that Zada was not merely acting on his own.

"This was an ugly criminal operation. It was carried out with the help of the extreme right and the settlers. It can't have been just one individual," said Iqbal Bahus, whose brother Michel was shot dead while driving the bus.

"Terrorists were behind this. The whole family, the whole country is in shock," he said as he received mourners at the family's home.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas condemned the shooting as a "savage crime" which he said illustrated the threat posed by extremist settlers.

"This crime is a clear illustration of the danger posed by Jewish settlers to our people and we want to know why the Israeli government allows them to be armed and commit crime after crime," a statement from Abbas said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made personal appeals to Arab Israeli leaders to ensure that the shootings would not serve as a trigger for violence which could lead to the unravelling of his plan to leave Gaza later this month.

Sharon condemned the shooting as "a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens".

He phoned both Shfaram mayor Ersan Yassin and Shauki Khatib, head of the Israeli Arab Monitoring Committee, telling them that "even in the wake of such horrific events, we will succeed in maintaining quiet together."

The relationship between Israel's 1.2 million-strong Arab population and the Jewish majority has a volatile history. Mass riots broke out across the north of the country five years ago when security forces shot dead around a dozen Israeli Arabs taking part in pro-Palestinian protests.

Israeli intelligence agents have long warned that extremists would try to wreck Sharon's disengagement plan with a spectacular attack such as the assassination of the prime minister or an assault on Al-Aqsa.

Security sources said Zada, a recent resident of a hardline settlement in the northern West Bank and a follower of the banned anti-Arab Kach movement, had deserted his unit after refusing to participate in the uprooting of his fellow Jews from settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip.

He had since been spotted taking part in protests by ultranationalists against Israel's first ever pullout from occupied Palestinian land, which is due to kick off on August 17.

Zada's mother said she had tried to contact the army to warn them that her son was a potential danger, but received no response.