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Tale Of A Target

6 minute read
Matt Rees/Nablus

In front of him was a copper model of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, dusted clean, though the rest of the room was shabby. Behind him was a treadmill, unplugged and wedged into the corner, its disuse perhaps explaining his tubbiness. Framed like this, Sheik Jamal Salim sat for an interview with TIME a few days before the beginning of the Aqsa intifadeh last year, predicting that such an uprising against Israel was imminent. The sheik argued that it was not Hamas fundamentalists like him who endangered peace, but Israel. “I’m not dangerous,” said the sheik, 43. “I’m a victim.”

He is now. Last week Jamal Salim was decapitated by an Israeli missile while visiting a Hamas office in Nablus. The prominent preacher and political leader was also, according to Israeli officials, a key member of a Hamas network preparing a massive terror campaign against Israeli cities. Jamal Salim’s story is a parable of the mounting violence and fatalism that have engulfed Palestinians, the tale of an admitted hard-liner with a thoughtful side who ended up consumed by a cause that has swung beyond politics into the realm of blood feud.

Salim’s family were refugees from a village near Acre; he grew up in the dusty Ain refugee camp on the edge of Nablus. Arrested by Israel for the first time in 1975, he was jailed seven times in all and deported for a year to Lebanon. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat jailed him twice more during the times that Hamas radicals were subject to frequent roundups. For the last four years of his life, Salim, a popular teacher of religion at an Islamic school, never left Nablus. Colleagues on the National and Islamic Committee, a collection of Palestinian factions that organizes protest marches and rallies, say he was open to compromise. “He was flexible and tolerant,” says Abdel Sattar Kassem, a professor at Nablus’ an-Najah University and a friend of Salim’s. But he never attempted to hide his beliefs; Salim told TIME that the peace process had failed to restore Palestinian rights and deserved to be overwhelmed by violence. “Islam is a very merciful religion, but the people don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” he said. “The military option is the natural outcome.”

Opinions like that get noticed. Last month Israel asked Arafat to arrest a group of Palestinians it accused of terrorist activity. Salim was among them. Two weeks ago, he was in the mourning tent for Salah Darwazeh, a Hamas activist killed by an Israeli missile. Salim watched as his colleague in the Hamas leadership, Sheik Jamal Mansour, addressed the mourners. “This week you are seeing images of the martyrdom of Darwazeh!” the sheik yelled into the microphone. “Next week you might see my martyrdom.” The only Hamas leader in the West Bank with more influence than Salim, Mansour died at his side in the helicopter attack.

Salim knew he had become a target. At the mourning for Darwazeh, he sat with Hussam Khader, a firebrand young leader from Nablus. “May God protect you,” Khader told the sheik. Very softly, Salim replied, “No one can change God’s will.” Still, he was trying. Salim garaged his conspicuous black 1993 Peugeot 205 and started taking taxis. But the Israelis had him in their sights. On the night of Monday, July 30, Israel’s top generals and the chief of the Shin Bet security service met in Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s office. The agenda: responding to a wave of attempted terror attacks around Jerusalem. Ben-Eliezer was told that surveillance tapes showed the Hamas network in Nablus was planning “the attack of attacks.” Israeli intelligence already blamed the group for recent bombings, including the suicide bomb at a Tel Aviv nightclub in June that left 23 dead. Ben-Eliezer gave the green light for a strike.

The day before that meeting, according to Israeli intelligence sources, Arafat’s officials warned Salim and Mansour to steer clear of the Hamas office. But at lunchtime on Tuesday, Salim’s neighbors in the Mreij district of Nablus saw him climb into a taxi for the ride to a meeting. At around the same time, Apache helicopters took off from Israel’s Palmakhim air force base south of Tel Aviv. An hour later, at 2 p.m., they reached the mountains that frame Nablus. The pilots fired their American-made Hellfire missiles, guiding them by the video camera in the tip of each missile on their 20-sec. path from the chopper through the windows of the office and into the room where Salim and Mansour were meeting. Six other Palestinians, two of them children, died in the attack.

The prominence of those killed prompted immediate international protests. U.S. officials have told aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel’s policy of assassinating those Palestinians it accuses of terrorism compromises American influence among Arab states, because Israel uses American-made weapons to make its hits. But the Israelis are unapologetic. Ben-Eliezer believes the rage caused by what Israel calls “targeted strikes” does not make terrorist attacks more likely, since terrorists are already sufficiently motivated. Sharon told Secretary of State Colin Powell, “What we did in Nablus was the same thing you would have done to protect American citizens.” On Saturday, Israel continued its attacks, firing missiles at a convoy carrying another Palestinian leader. He escaped unharmed.

In Nablus, under a baking sun, as many as 100,000 mourners gathered for a series of funerals. In just one 20-min. drive through the town, the full range of Palestinian rage was made plain. In the north was a funeral parade with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah flags, accompanied by the constant rattle of illegal M-16s. In a yellow truck on the main street, an open door revealed two militiamen holding machine guns at the ready. A clutch of gunmen, some with green headbands inscribed with Koranic verses, crowded round the gate to Nablus prison, hoping to lynch alleged collaborators held there. On the southern edge of the town, thousands jogged toward the Israeli checkpoint, some rolling tires that they would later set alight in a riot.

Arafat’s Palestinian Authority tried to take some of the edge off the anger. With good reason. Much of the rage was aimed at Arafat’s police for failing to protect Salim and Mansour. Within hours of the attack, Arafat’s security court sentenced three men to death for allegedly collaborating with Israel. The judicial process was not much less swift or more formal than actions on the streets of West Bank towns; in the three days after the Israeli attack, lynch mobs murdered four other suspected collaborators. Hamas vowed it would take revenge. This terrible summer, the number of victims grows, and then grows some more.

–With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Nablus and Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv

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