- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

ASSIRA ASHMALIA, West Bank A botched raid on an Islamic militant hide-out in this West Bank village ended yesterday with three Israeli soldiers dead all possibly by friendly fire and Palestinian officials angry at how Israel handles threats to peace between the two peoples.

The target of the nighttime raid was Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a fugitive at the top of Israel's most-wanted list, blamed for two 1997 bombings that killed at least 21 Israelis.

Abu Hanoud, known as the leader of the militant Hamas group's military wing, was wounded and fled the shootout into Nablus, a nearby town under Palestinian control. There, he gave himself up to Palestinian security forces, who took him to a hospital. Later, he was transferred to the Nablus prison, Palestinian officials said.

The raid comes a month after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broke new ground at the Camp David summit. The sides still hope to agree on a permanent peace soon, a prospect that has spurred Hamas implacably opposed to any deal with the Jewish state to increase its efforts to scuttle the talks.

Despite their own failure to capture Abu Hanoud, for whom they had been searching for years, Israeli officials praised Palestinian security forces and said his detention proved the effectiveness of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation.

"It doesn't matter under whose custody he is," Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, told Israeli radio. "He's out of commission."

"His arrest prevents the Hamas from carrying out spectacular terrorist operations," said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh.

But the Palestinians did their best to distance themselves from the operation.

"What the Israelis have done is a mistake, that they committed on their own initiative, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority," said Col. Jibril Rajoub, the top Palestinian security official in the West Bank. "They paid the price."

This prosperous village, tucked into a dry riverbed, is designated in interim agreements as a "B" area jointly controlled by Israel and the Palestinians, with ultimate security control in Israel's hands.

Mr. Rajoub suggested that, with the sides approaching an agreement that would transfer most B areas to a sovereign Palestinian state, it was time for Israeli forces to move out for good.

"It would have been more appropriate to have given the information to the [Palestinian] police to tackle the issue peacefully and without bloodshed," he said.

Israel was not about to cede its West Bank operations, said Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the military chief of staff. Still, with three young men dead, all possibly by friendly fire, hard questions needed to be asked.

"It is possible that the lower-level officers made erroneous decisions about the place, the people, the firing. All these issues will be investigated," he said.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, expressing sorrow over the deaths, acknowledged that "maybe they were killed as a result of our own friendly fire" a result of miscommunication among the troops.

The troops entered the village, a Hamas stronghold, on Saturday night looking for Abu Hanoud. He has been a fugitive since the 1997 bombings at the crowded Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

He is also suspected in other attempted attacks, and Israeli radio said he was suspected of involvement in the operation of a bomb factory uncovered earlier this month in Nablus by Palestinian police.

Abu Hanoud was walking through the village when an Israeli soldier told him to halt, said his mother, Fatma, who visited her son in the hospital. He fired at the soldiers, who were on a nearby rooftop.

He was hit in the shoulder but fled through olive groves to a Palestinian police checkpoint, Fatma Abu Hanoud said.

"Thank God he defeats the Jews," she said, encircled by cheering villagers after she visited her son.

"We are very proud of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud because he acts against the Zionists, the occupiers, to get our rights," said Bashar Yassin, 34, an economist with the Palestinian Authority, standing next to the pile of rubble that had been the house where the armed clash took place. Israel demolished the house after the raid.

The owner of the home, Nidal Daglas, who witnesses say also shot at the soldiers, was arrested by Israeli troops and was being questioned.

It was the second fiasco in two weeks for Duvdevan, an elite unit charged with rooting out terrorism in the West Bank. On Aug. 16, Duvdevan troops shot and killed Mahmoud Abdullah, 70-year-old mayor of another area B village, during a night exercise. Mr. Abdullah had fired at the troops when they entered his property because he believed they were burglars. The army expressed regret at the incident.

Without advance warning of such operations, Mr. Rajoub said, Israel could hardly expect Palestinians to live up to the letter of agreements, and extradite Abu Hanoud, as some have demanded.

"This is a thing that will never happen, except over our dead bodies," he said.

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