Wednesday, January 15, 2003

GADISH, Israel, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Only when she walked to the car that would take her to Eli Bitton’s funeral did his sister, Rachel, concede defeat. She could no longer deny his death.

“I thought it wasn’t true! It can’t be,” she screamed. Her hands flew as relatives rushed to support her.

Eli’s daughter, Liraz, fainted and a young man carried her away in his arms.

Eli Bitton, 48, was killed Monday evening. That brought the number of intifada deaths on the Israeli side to 722. Since then two more people have died: a soldier and a Chinese woman.

Two gunmen penetrated Bitton’s border village of Gadish, in the Jezreel Valley, and fired at his car after it passed his neighbor’s lemon and olive trees.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad assumed responsibility for the attack, according to the Arab al-Jazeera television. The two militants, who were in their early 20s, came from the Jenin area in the nearby West Bank, it said.

The attackers stood by a long gray concrete wall and riddled Bitton’s brown car as it approached a children’s playground, Yaakov Peretz, 36, said.

Those shots may have saved other lives.

In a nearby house, Aziz Peretz, 66, was having supper with his 12 children and grandchildren. When the shots rang out, he made them crawl under beds, he said Tuesday.

Tamar Ohanuna’s two sons hid in the local grocery store that shut down. Sima Malka, 34 said she and her husband had just returned home when they heard the shooting.

“Go look for Netanel,” their 15-year-old son, she ordered. Her husband ran out and she herded eight smaller children into a secure room.

Minutes later her husband was back, terrified. He saw Bitton’s car and the dying man inside.

Another villager, armed with a pistol, returned fire, sending the two militants racing into a shed and out its other door and toward Malka’s home.

“We were lying on the floor,” she said. The children held her hands and her 2-year-old son told her he was scared.

“Shhh,” she whispered. “Don’t talk.” The idea was not to let militants know people were in the house.

One girl, holding the door handle shut with all her force heard noises from the neighboring room. Someone was trying to open the shutter. At that moment the mobile phone rang.

“There are terrorists in the house,” Sima Malka whispered. The friend called police.

Large forces of border policemen and Golani infantrymen raced to Gadish.

A bulletproof Border Police jeep, carrying Chief Superintendent Kobi Shabtai, rushed to an empty lot near Malka’s home in an attempt to flush out the militants.

The two militants stood and fired at the jeep.

Shabtai said he fired through a firing hole in the vehicle. He hit one of the militants before emptying the pistol’s magazine. He continued shooting but a bullet penetrated the hole, wounding him in the hand. A second jeep ran over the other militant, Shabtai said.

By noon Tuesday, the blood of the militant who was run over was smeared on a piece of clothing between rusty barrels. A clump of bloody flesh and hair was lying on the sand beside a cactus, punctured by bullets. Before the bodies were removed some residents went over, spat and cursed, Ehud Tayer, 16, said.

Immigrants from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco established Gadish in 1956, 1 mile north of the West Bank boundary line.

Aziz Peretz, who heads the village committee, said they were brought to Gadish straight from the port. It was a rainy day and there were no roads. So they were taken there by tractors. hey found a few roof-less small stone houses. They were given iron beds and two loaves of black bread, and, Peretz said, they were happy.

He and his wife were 20 years old at that time.

“We dug trenches for water pipes using hoes and pickaxes,” he recalled. “I dug and my wife removed the bags of sand.” They planted sugarcane, switched to peanuts, then roses for export, and eventually decided it was not worth the effort.

“There was no water and we cannot plant near the border,” he said. “There were too many thefts.”

Peretz joined the border police and served with them for 27 years.

Other residents also gave up on agriculture, finding other work. Nevertheless the fields south of Gadish are green and a barn was stacked with hay.

Two impressive gray gates were wide open along the path to the fields between Gadish and the West Bank, but they seemed useless since there is no fence around the village. Anyone who wants to enter would simply have to walk around the gate.

Many Palestinians take advantage of the lax security.

“At 5 to 6 a.m. the place is filled with Arabs,” complained Yaakov Peretz. Palestinians walk over the open, flat terrain between the West Bank village of Zububa and Gadish, looking for work.

Gadish villagers accused the Arabs of repeated thefts. According to Peretz, they have stole many tractors, at least 10 vans, and numerous bicycles.

“A month ago they stole three children’s bicycles, my husband’s new shoes and clothes that were hanging out to dry,” Malka said. “We don’t need such people.”

Over the past five months 2,000 Israeli workers have been building a 160-foot deep border fence system that includes several rows of fences, one of them electronic, a ditch, and roads. It costs more than $1 million a mile, the Defense Ministry said.

The plan now is to build a 82.5-milesfence from Salem, on the Megiddo-Jenin road south, and another 15-mile fence around Jerusalem.

These are areas that militants, including suicide bombers, have often used to penetrate Israel. However the Defense Ministry began only three weeks ago to plan a fence from Salem north toward Gadish and then east to Beisan, separating the Jezreel Valley from the West Bank, said the ministry’s Victor Bar-Gil who is responsible for the project.

Peretz was bitter. “We are not second-class citizens,” he insisted. “The government is disparaging us.”

His reaction reflected Moroccan immigrants’ suspicions that the European Ashkenazi Jews, who are predominant in the Israeli elite, discriminate against Jews from Arab countries.

Residents also complain that only a few villagers are issued guns, even though they live close to the border.

It’s absurd that members of a squad that is on standby for an attack have no rifles, one resident said. “I am allowed to hold a pistol” — a big one was tucked in his belt — “but not a gun,” he added.

He complained a gun was denied him, “because of a 20-year-old record of trespassing and stealing a watermelon.”

In her living room, her 2-year-old son sitting on the table beside a collection of spent bullet cartridges, Sima Malka said: “I was always afraid an attack would take place here, and it did.”

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