It was about 1:15 a.m. on Saturday, April 16, when the two minibuses pulled to a stop in front of a suburban house in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Then eight people—at least one of them a woman—leapt out and stormed the home of Palestine Liberation Organization military commander Khalil al-Wazir. They killed a chauffeur and two bodyguards before bursting into the study and gunning down their prime target. Al-Wazir, 52, who had been one of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s closest aides and the number 2 man in Fatah, the PLO’s mainstream guerrilla movement, died on the way to hospital, PLO spokesmen said. And his death touched off the bloodiest day of rioting yet in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, PLO representatives quickly blamed al-Wazir’s death on Mossad, the Israeli secret service. In Paris, spokesman Ibrahim Sousse declared that “Israel, unable to confront the stones of Palestinian children, now has no recourse but to resort to the arm of terrorism.”
In Israel, government officials refused to comment on the assassination. But Ovadia Soffer, the Israeli
ambassador to France, told reporters that the charges of Israeli involvement were “ridiculous and unfounded.” Still, the Palestinians who took to the battle-scarred streets of West Bank villages and Gaza — where al-Wazir had once lived and some of his relatives still live— clearly believed differently. Protesters raised black flags and chanted such slogans as “We will take revenge” and “By our spirit and our blood we will sacrifice for you, Abu Jihad”—
Father of the Holy War, as al-Wazir was also called. Israeli troops responded with bullets, reportedly killing at least 14 Palestinians and wounding more than 100, the highest single-day death toll since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in the occupied territories last Dec. 9.
Those deaths brought to at least 157
the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops since the beginning of the current unrest. But ironically, before al-Wazir’s assassination, observers last week reported that the Israelis’ tough response to the uprising had appeared to be weakening Palestinian resolve. As well as beating and shooting Palestinians, Israeli troops had enforced curfews and economic sanctions against the occupied territories. Last week they also demolished 13 Palestinian homes in the West Bank in retaliation for an April 6 incident during which Terza Porat, a 15-year-old Israeli girl, died after Palestinian youths stoned her hiking party. Although the girl was killed by a bullet fired accidentally by one of her escorts, the punishment against £ the Palestinians went :S ahead. As well, the Israelis banished eight Palestinian activists to Lebanon last week and served another 12 with deportation orders.
Al-Wazir’s death, though, clearly added new fuel to the unrest. As Palestinians in the occupied territories set up makeshift roadblocks and lit piles of tires, PLO spokesmen in Tunis said that Arafat was “shocked and angered” by the assassination of one of his closest aides. Indeed, their association had been a long one. The two men first met in 1954 when they were students in Egypt. There, in 1956, along with other present-day PLO leaders, they founded Fatah, which later became the core of the PLO.
But in Israel, Ariel Merari, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, speculated that al-Wazir’s death could have been the result of a power struggle between al-Wazir and Arafat over the appointment of PLO commanders in southern Lebanon. Some moderate Palestinians were also hesitant to blame Israel for the killing until more was known. But that feeling was apparently not shared by most in the occupied territories. Before al-Wazir’s assassination, Israeli chief of staff Gen. Dan Shomron had said that the tough Israeli response to the Palestinian uprising was “like Aspirin for a sick man. It can bring down the temperature, but it cannot cure the illness.” In the wake of al-Wazir’s death, it was clear that the fever was again on the rise.
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