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Senior Israeli Officer Killed

February 15, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ The commander of an elite Israeli undercover unit was killed in an accident during an army sweep of a Palestinian village Friday, just hours after a powerful bomb blew the turret off an Israeli tank and killed three soldiers.

The deaths were a serious blow to the Israeli military, which had suffered relatively few casualties during the past 16 months of fighting.

The destruction of the Merkava-3 tank, one of the most heavily armored tanks in the world, marked the first time that Palestinians destroyed a major piece of Israeli military hardware, a feat even the better-trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon never matched in 18 years of fighting against Israeli forces.

Israeli columnist Rafi Mann said the Palestinians targeted a symbol of Israeli power. ``It’s as if the terrorists, with their Kalashnikov rifles and homemade rockets, had succeeded in shooting down an F-16 warplane,″ he wrote in the Maariv daily.

The Israeli officer, Lt. Col. Eyal Weiss, died when a wall collapsed on him during a pre-dawn raid on the West Bank village of Saida, near the town of Tulkarem, the military said. Weiss commanded the Duvdevan undercover unit, whose members often enter Palestinian territories in disguise to arrest suspected militants.

The collapse occurred as Israeli troops surrounded the home of a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group, Jasser Abdel Ghani, and began tearing it down.

``At one point, when the tractor was completing its work, part of the house, either from the ceiling or from a wall, flew across the road and struck the wall behind which the unit commander was standing,″ said Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, the commander of forces in the West Bank.

Weiss was killed, while those standing near him were not harmed. Abdel Ghani surrendered to Israeli forces. A second soldier was injured elsewhere in Saida.

Also in Saida, a Palestinian man was killed, apparently run over by a vehicle. Witnesses and the Israeli military said he was killed during a gunfight.

The attack on the tank in Gaza late Thursday was a double ambush _ one bomb set off to lure the armored vehicle to the scene for a much bigger second blast, said an army spokesman, Maj. Assaf Librati.

It began when Palestinians detonated a bomb near a convoy heading toward a Jewish settlement, damaging an armored bus. Following standard procedure, the Israelis sent a tank to the scene. Approaching the scene of the bombing from an unpaved side road, the tank drove over an explosive device.

The blast penetrated the tank through its relatively soft underbelly, killing three of the crew and lightly injuring the fourth, Librati said. Three of the soldiers were blown out of the tank. The turret, torn off by the blast, landed on two of the soldiers, crushing them, Librati said.

The tank fell back into a large crater blown into the ground by the explosion.

Librati said the bomb apparently was planted several nights earlier, with the attackers waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Other army officials said the bomb weighed about 110 pounds.

The Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility in a leaflet distributed in Gaza. The group includes members of various Palestinian factions, including the Islamic militant group Hamas and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The leaflet said the attack was a response to Israel’s killing of five Palestinians during an incursion into three Palestinian towns in Gaza on Tuesday and Wednesday, the largest Israeli military operation in Gaza during the current round of fighting, which broke out in September 2000. Since then, 931 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 268 on the Israeli side.

On Friday, the Israeli army removed the stricken tank, hauling it out on two trucks _ the tank’s body on one and the turret on the other. Both were covered with brown tarpaulins.

Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered Palestinian territory near the site of the attack and destroyed crops, Palestinian security officials said. Tanks fired shells at a Palestinian police post and soldiers carried out searches, they said.

The violent incidents came as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer held a second day of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Fischer said he would tell Arafat that the Palestinians must stop terror attacks.

At a lecture at Tel Aviv University, Fischer said it was a ``tragedy″ that all the elements of a peace solution are on the table and have been ``discussed ten times, a hundred times, maybe a thousand times.″ He said both sides have legitimate aspirations.

Meanwhile, the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, said that if Israel pulled its tanks back in the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon invited Arafat to peace talks, ``in 24 hours there’ll be no violence.″

However, Sharon adviser Daniel Ayalon called the appeal a ``gimmick.″ He said Israel had tried this before, easing restrictions and opening roadblocks, ``and terrorists entered right away.″

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