- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

RAMLE, Israel Nearly every morning for the past year, Yossi Tabaja and Nael Yassin met in the West Bank town of Kalkilya, shook hands, patrolled together in their military jeeps and shared a coffee.
Mr. Tabaja, an officer in Israel's Border Police, and Mr. Yassin, a member of the Palestinian police force, served together in a joint security patrol one of several in the West Bank and Gaza Strip formed after Israel's milestone peace deal with the Palestinians seven years ago.
The joint patrols are a symbol of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, tangible proof that the two sides can turn back decades of enmity and share responsibility for the region's elusive security. But they ve also been a barometer for the peace process itself, prospering when negotiations are on track and foundering in times of crisis.
On Friday, a day after Palestinian riots erupted over the fate of a fiercely contested Jerusalem shrine, Mr. Yassin, with no prior warning, turned his gun on Mr. Tabaja during a patrol and shot him dead.
It was an utter shock, said Mr. Tabaja's commanding officer, Nabil Abumedin, speaking after Mr. Tabaja s funeral in Ramla, the working-class town where he grew up. Thousands of Israelis walked behind Mr. Tabaja's coffin as it was transported in an open military jeep to the cemetery.
Mr. Abumedin and other Israeli members of the unit say the incident shattered what was an exceptionally positive relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in the joint patrol.
Mr. Yassin's family says he was sometimes taunted by the Israelis for his Muslim religious beliefs, which had become stronger since his pilgrimage to Mecca last year.
The family also said Mr. Yassin was upset by the visit of hard-line Israeli opposition lawmaker Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount last Thursday, a site holy to Muslims and Jews. The burly Likud Party leader said his visit demonstrated that Israel is in charge of the site, which it seized from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.
[Mr. Sharon said he bears no responsibility for the ensuing violence. "The one who is responsible for that is only one man, and that is [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat," he told CNN.]
At least 60 persons have been killed, including six Israelis, and hundreds have been wounded, mostly Palestinians, in the week since Mr. Sharon's visit.
Messrs. Yassin and Tabaja began their patrol at 6 a.m. Friday, riding convoy in separate jeeps, with four Israelis in one vehicle and four Palestinians in the other. About an hour later, when members of the patrol stopped at the side of the road to make coffee, Mr. Yassin opened fire at the Israeli jeep with his AK-47, shouting "Allahu Akbar" ["God is great"].
Mr. Tabaja was mortally wounded, and a second Israeli soldier was grazed in the head by a bullet.
Mr. Yassin, who had been patrolling with Israelis for five years, fled on foot before any of the Israeli soldiers thought to shoot back. He was later arrested by Palestinian troops in Kalkilya, where he now awaits trial.
Mr. Yassin did not cause problems, but the Israelis sometimes made fun of his religion, and this made him very upset, said Sami Yassin, Nael's cousin, speaking at the family home in the West Bank town of Asira Shamaliya. Family members have not been allowed to see or speak to Nael Yassin since the shooting.
His cousin said Nael Yassin had not been involved with Hamas or other radical Islamic groups that have attacked Israelis in the past.
Mr. Yassin's village was the scene of a bloody confrontation between Israeli commandos and Islamic militants in August, in which three Israeli soldiers died from "friendly fire" while trying to capture a Hamas fugitive.
One Israeli officer said this incident might have turned Mr. Yassin against the peace process and the joint patrols. Other Israelis rejected the family's assertion that Mr. Yassin was mistreated.
"I can't imagine any taunting like this happened, and if it did, it still is no reason to shoot someone," said Col. Eitan Avraham, commander of the Israeli forces that take part in the joint patrols in Kalkilya.
He said Israelis and Palestinians had established a camaraderie in Kalkilya during breaks in their patrol.
"Sometimes they talk about sports, sometimes about politics. Usually, they just sit around telling each other jokes," he said.
Col. Avraham said the joint patrols worked better in Kalkilya than in any other town in the West Bank or Gaza, partly because Kalkilya lies near the border with Israel, has strong economic ties to the Jewish state and is usually quiet.
In other areas, joint patrols have been suspended during periods of tension as they are now throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A ranking Israeli officer in Gaza said the patrols there sometimes do more to cause tension than to defuse it.
But after each round of violence, the two sides have opted to resume the patrols, which are written into Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. In Mr. Tabaja's unit, officers have already had psychologists speak to soldiers about ways to get beyond the memory of the shooting.
"Some of the soldiers said after the shooting that they would not go back to joint patrols, but when all this ends, they'll have to learn all over again that their Palestinian counterparts aren't their enemies," Col. Avraham said.
Many Palestinians will face the same challenge.

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