Israeli Anguish Over Murder Sets Hurdle for Peace Process
AN Israeli policeman kidnapped by the Palestinian Hamas movement was found dead along a West Bank roadside near Jerusalem on Dec. 15, prompting calls by Israelis on both the right and left of the political spectrum for a tough crackdown on the Muslim fundamentalist movement.
There also were concerns that Jewish reprisals might follow in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod, in central Israel, where the policeman, Nissim Toledano, was abducted while walking to work the morning of Dec. 14.
Hamas, in a written announcement published Dec. 13 in the occupied territories, demanded that Israel release the organization's ailing spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in exchange for the life of the Jewish border policeman. Sheikh Yassin is serving a life sentence for ordering the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers by Hamas four years ago in Gaza.
Hamas has consistently rejected the idea of negotiations with Israel, a stance that has put it into direct competition with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for popular support in the West Bank and Gaza.
The kidnapping, the first such political abduction here in four years, has dominated Israeli life in recent days and fueled criticism of Yitzhak Rabin's Labor government for seeking an autonomy accord with West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.
In the hours after discovery of the kidnapping, Israel detained 1,200 Hamas activists from the West Bank and Gaza in an initial reprisal against the organization, and to gather intelligence on the policeman's fate. Detainees included dozens of religious and political leaders of Hamas, which advocates jihad, or holy war, to establish an Islamic state in Palestine.
The discovery of the policeman's body left many embittered. In Lod, angry Israelis gathered outside the Toledano's home, where the policeman had lived with his wife and two children. Meanwhile, city mayor Maxime Levy called on Jews to behave with restraint toward the city's Arab residents, who hold Israeli citizenship. Reaction against Hamas
Binyamin Netanyahu, a candidate for the leadership of the right-wing Likud Party, called for deportations of Hamas political leaders from the West Bank and Gaza, and demanded on a declaration of "war on terror" by Mr. Rabin's center-left government. And left-wing Knesset member Yossi Sarid, a member of the governing coalition, also did not rule out the possibility of deporting Hamas leaders.
"I have no doubt that Hamas will pay a very heavy price for the murder of Nissim Toledano. To kidnap a man, to kill him, and at the same time appear ready to negotiate over his release - that's the deed without par," Mr. Sarid said in a tough statement.
"Hamas is a murderous and fundamentalist organization, with a declared struggle against peace, and therefore it must be repressed with an iron rod," he added.
Among activists detained in the Israeli sweep were Hamas's political leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, who on Dec. 14 proposed the formation of an Israeli-Palestinian medical panel to determine if Sheikh Yassin should be released from prison.
Rabin's government, while mounting a massive manhunt for the kidnappers, had hinted at its readiness to negotiate with the kidnappers if they would give a sign that Toledano was still alive.
Rabin, in a television appearance on Dec. 14, said: "Our demand is for a sign of life as a first condition for a dialogue with the Hamas."
But Mahmoud Nazal, a Jordan-based spokesman for Hamas, rejected Rabin's demand Dec. 15, saying that it was merely an attempt to "gain time" in the hunt for the policeman.
Following discovery of the body, Army investigators said it appeared that Toledano had been killed just a few hours after his kidnapping. Impact on peace talks
The Hamas kidnapping follows a string of violent acts on the West Bank that many fear could further undermine the standing of Palestinian negotiators at peace talks in Washington. Eleven Palestinians and five soldiers have died this month. Hamas has claimed responsibility for killing four of the soldiers.
In Washington, the State Department on Dec. 14 denounced the kidnapping as an attempt to sabotage the peace process.
The head of the Palestinian peace delegation, Haider Abdel Shafi, called it a "tragic event," which nonetheless resulted from Israel's 25-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Since Dec. 15, Israel has been closed to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, cutting off the daily flow of tens of thousands of workers from the territories to jobs inside Israel proper.
Prior to the attack, it was estimated that 30 to 50 percent of West Bank Palestinians supported Hamas.
But Palestinian popular expressions of admiration for the kidnap operation have fueled fears among Palestinian moderates that the balance may be changing in Hamas's favor due to the failure of secular PLO leaders to demonstrate results from the peace process.
In Lebanon, Hamas representative Abu Mohammed Mustafa said his group did not rule out further kidnappings of Israeli troopers "as long as Israel carries out detentions and still occupies our land."