- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli commandos killed a suspected Hamas bomb maker in a firefight yesterday and pulverized the seven-story apartment building in which he had been hiding, leaving dozens of Palestinians homeless and prompting charges that soldiers meted out collective punishment.

An Israeli soldier was killed and four were wounded in the gun battle, which took place after soldiers surrounded the 3-year-old building and ordered residents out. The Israelis said they blew up the structure more than six hours after the fighting ended because they believed some militants might be inside.

Hours later, 8-year-old Bakr Sobah searched through the rubble, looking for his books and school bag. “I have homework in my notebooks. What can I do now?” the boy said. “We had a house here, now we don’t.”

The Hamas explosives expert who was killed, 26-year-old Muhammad Hanbali, was involved in bombings and shootings that killed at least 36 Israelis and wounded hundreds, the army said.

Hanbali also recruited members and trained them in making explosives, according to the military.

Before becoming a fugitive, Hanbali had studied industrial engineering at Nablus’ An Najah University.

Yesterday’s raid in Nablus came as Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ fight for political survival intensified.

The Palestinian Parliament speaker said yesterday he has decided to hold a confidence vote on Mr. Abbas, who is distrusted by many Palestinians because he has Israel’s backing and has been further weakened by a power struggle with veteran leader Yasser Arafat.

The vote will likely be next week, said the speaker, Ahmed Qureia, who initially opposed such a showdown.

Eight of the 15 apartments in the building demolished yesterday had been occupied, housing about 50 people. Residents included shopkeepers, accountants and middle-class professionals. Each apartment had cost $50,000, with a monthly mortgage payment of $300 — high sums in the impoverished Palestinian economy.

Mona, the mother of the 8-year-old boy, was at a nearby elementary school, still dressed in the black bathrobe she wore when soldiers asked her to leave her apartment at the start of the raid. “I have only this,” she said, raising her identity card. “I thought we were only being asked to leave for a few minutes.”

The Israeli operation began about 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

Soldiers surrounded the building, ordered the residents out and took them to a school, said Jamal Kordi, 38, a house painter and one of the residents. Men were handcuffed and questioned about strangers in the building.

Mr. Kordi said that after midnight, he and three other men were taken into the building as “human shields,” leading the way as soldiers, accompanied by dogs, searched various apartments. Israel’s Supreme Court has outlawed the practice of using human shields; the army had no immediate comment.

After some time, Mr. Kordi said he heard an explosion on one of the upper floors, and that he and the other three men were eventually taken back to the elementary school.

The Israeli military said that Hanbali, armed with an assault rifle and standing on top of an elevator between the building’s lower floors, ambushed troops as they pried open doors to the elevator shaft above, on the fifth floor. The shots killed an Israeli naval commando, Sgt. Maj. Raanan Kumimi. Soldiers returned fire, killing Hanbali.

Adnan Asfour, a Hamas spokesman in Nablus, said the group would help those made homeless by paying rent on a new apartment for a year and buying some furniture. The Nablus municipality said it would also pitch in.

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