- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

JERUSALEM — Israel killed the most senior Palestinian political leader to date in a helicopter strike on his West Bank office yesterday, prompting an outpouring of anger from Palestinians demanding revenge on Israel and the United States.
Missiles smashed through a third-floor window in central Ramallah, dismembering Abu Ali Mustafa, head of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Mr. Mustafa had long opposed Israeli-Palestinian peace deals and was accused by Israel of masterminding a series of anti-Israel bombings.
"By this sinful crime, the Israeli government has set the stage for a full-scale, unlimited war," the Palestinian Authority said in a statement.
About 20 American nationals lived in the building where Mr. Mustafa had his office. One of those, Leana Al Quaddumi, formerly of Manassas, told the Associated Press she was doing laundry when the missiles hit.
"I heard the whole house shaking under my feet. I was terrified to death. Glass started flying around me. I started screaming, and then I left the house, running outside," said the 15-year-old, whose family moved to the West Bank three years ago from Virginia.
The assassination, coming on of the heels of Palestinian attacks over the weekend that killed seven Israelis, prompted more violence, including a fatal Palestinian drive-by shooting and a three-hour firefight near Jerusalem.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher voiced concern for the American nationals and said Israel needed to alleviate "the pressure, the hardship and the humiliations of the Palestinian people."
"We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don't end the violence, but are only inflaming an already volatile situation and making it much harder to restore calm," Mr. Boucher said.
Three missiles fired from American-made Apache helicopters crashed through the windows of Mr. Mustafa's office in central Ramallah, not far from the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
One of the projectiles hit Mr. Mustafa head on, tearing his body into several charred parts. Another missile turned the office into a pile of concrete debris.
Witnesses said Mr. Mustafa received a phone call moments before the attack. They suggested Israeli agents had placed the call to make sure the political leader was in the office.
In Damascus, Syria, spokesman Maher Taher said the PFLP would avenge the killing and called for Arab nations "to hit American interests because the United States participates in the extermination of the Palestinian people."
Mr. Mustafa was at least the 60th Palestinian slain in Israeli track-and-kill operations, which the Jewish state says are aimed at eliminating Palestinian bombers and other militants.
"When you read his resume, you see it's soaked in the blood of all [the PFLP's] Jewish victims throughout the years," said Raanan Gissin, a government spokesman.
Other Israeli officials called Mr. Mustafa a "car-bomb specialist" and said his removal would prevent Israeli deaths.
But the decision to attack a key political figure Mr. Mustafa was one of the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and considered a top-echelon leader — was seen as an escalation of the violence and raised questions whether Mr. Arafat himself one day would be targeted.
"There is very little difference between Mustafa and Arafat in terms of involvement in terrorism," said political commentator Oded Granot, speaking on Israeli television.
The Palestinian Authority announced three days of national mourning, and thousands of people took to the streets in Gaza City and in Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem and Tulkarm in the West Bank calling for revenge.
The AP quoted Nabil Aburdeneh, an Arafat adviser, accusing the United States of approving what the Israelis called "targeted killings."
"This policy of assassinations which is being conducted with a green light from the United States will push the area into a new cycle of violence and danger," Mr. Aburdeneh said.
Hours after the helicopter strike, Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli settlers traveling near Ramallah in the West Bank. One of the bullets struck Meir Lichsenberg in the head, instantly killing the 38-year-old, officials said.
The PFLP claimed responsibility for the shooting.
Later, Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli residents of Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem that protrudes entirely into the West Bank, prompting an incursion by Israeli tanks into the adjacent Palestinian town of Beit Jalla.
Israeli bulldozers and tanks also pushed into the Rafah camp in the southern Gaza Strip, destroying at least three houses and prompting a fierce gunbattle, witnesses told Reuters news agency.
Mr. Mustafa, in his 60s, had served for years as deputy commander of the PFLP, a group that rose to prominence with a series of plane hijackings in the late 1960s and 1970s. Last year, he took over leadership of the faction from the ailing George Habash.
Israel allowed Mr. Mustafa to take up residence in the West Bank in 1999, despite his abiding opposition to a series of peace deals reached by Israelis and Palestinians during the past eight years.
Israel says that when the deals began to break down in September, Mr. Mustafa activated guerrilla cells of the PFLP that set off several car bombings in Jerusalem and elsewhere inside the Jewish state.
But Palestinians said Mr. Mustafa was a political leader who conducted the group's business openly, neither appearing on Israel's wanted list nor anticipating he would become a target for Israeli helicopters.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, worried about the latest escalation, accused Israel of exacerbating the crisis and called for international action before violence spread to neighboring countries.
"The Israelis have raised tensions in the region to levels we have not seen in many years," Mr. Annan told reporters during an official visit to Austria.
Despite the killing, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday he still was planning to meet Mr. Arafat on ways to end the violence and a date for the talks would be announced soon.
Nearly 700 people, 550 of them Palestinians, have died in 11 months of fighting.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide