Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Truth or tricks?

According to Shin Bet, a Hamas-inspired suicide bombing in Tel Aviv was narrowly averted last month. But the details of the story scarcely stack up.

April 17, 2007 8:15 PM

Conal Urquhart

The message in last week's Israeli press was clear. Tel Aviv had just avoided a bloodbath and Hamas were back in the business of launching suicide attacks against Israel.

Anyone exposed to the Israeli media would have been left in no doubt that a tragedy had been averted and Hamas, after a three-year moratorium on suicide attacks against Israel, had reverted to type.

The problem is that the Shin Bet press release that led to blanket coverage raises far more questions than it answers - none of which were asked by the Israeli media, or passed onto the Israeli public.

According to a press release from the prime minister's office last week on behalf of Shin Bet, a Hamas terrorist drove a 100kg car bomb to Tel Aviv with the aim of blowing it up over the Passover holiday. The driver got past a large Israeli checkpoint and then drove through the towns of Kfar Sava and Herzliya before reaching Tel Aviv. For some reason, the "suicide-terrorist" had second thoughts and returned home to the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, where he parked the vehicle in a "backyard", according to Ha'aretz.

By this time, Shin Bet awoke to the threat and, with the help of the army, arrested 19 suspects in Qalqiliya. According to the press release: "During the aforesaid wave of arrests, the vehicle exploded in a 'work accident'."

The bomb would have had a devastating effect on Tel Aviv. According to Shin Bet, the vehicle was loaded with "powerful explosives" and "considerable shrapnel". It is fair to guess the effect on Qalqiliya, where it exploded on March 14 or 15 according to the prime minister's office which deals with the public affairs of Shin Bet, would have been equally damaging.

Qalqiliya is a small, densely-populated town of 33,000, which is almost completely surrounded by a 30-foot concrete wall. However, no one in Qalqiliya could recall any kind of explosion in the town in recent months.

Ahmed Abu Hazar, a resident of Qalqiliya and Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said he first heard of the arrests and the bomb plot from Israeli media. "Qalqiliya is a very small place and everyone know or hears what happens. I have asked my children, neighbours and friends, but they have heard nothing. When there was a small gas explosion a few months ago, everyone rushed to the scene, but about this we have heard nothing," he said.

Riad Amr, the Qalqiliya correspondent for the Bethlehem-based Maan News Agency, said that he had reported on the arrest of 19 men in Qalqiliya, but had not been able to substantiate rumours of an explosion.

Some might say that Palestinians have an interest in covering up the handiwork of their compatriots, but the confusion in Qalqiliya was mirrored by the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. When first asked about the explosion, Miri Eisen, the spokeswoman, commented that the explosion of 100kg of TNT would be hard not to notice. After seeking clarification of the exact location of the explosion from Shin Bet, Ms Eisen could only reiterate that the explosion had occurred in Qalqiliya.

If it was difficult to find the site of the explosion in Qalqiliya, it was easy to find the identity of the "suicide-terrorist". Mr Abu Hazar said the suspect was a distant relative and organised a meeting with his father, Yusef Obeid. Mr Obeid said his son, who carried an Israeli identity card, was arrested by the army on March 28, but the family were given no reason for the arrest.

Shin Bet specified that the "suicide-terrorist" carried an Israeli identity card and drove an Israeli-licenced vehicle. Ms Eisen said she could not state the name of the suspect but confirmed that he was the only one of the 19 men detained who carried an Israeli identity card.

Ali Obeid's Israeli-registered vehicle is still parked outside his house. It looks freshly painted and completely intact. Shin Bet did not state directly that it was Ali Obeid's vehicle that carried the explosives to Tel Aviv and later exploded, but other Israeli media did. The statement says that Ali Obeid's vehicle's "temporary Israeli licence plates facilitated its use by the Hamas terrorists".

It is possible that Shin Bet have more information, which they are unwilling to share, and that there is a destroyed Israeli-registered commercial vehicle in a devastated area of Qalqiliya somewhere. But why were they so quick to implant a fear in the Israeli public without the details to back it up? Why did the Israeli media fail to demand those details?

Ms Eisen explained that the details of the attack were still vague. "We cannot be exact on these things as the investigation is still ongoing."

The investigation continues, and may or may not lead to a trial. The only certain effect of the story is that many Israelis will have their suspicion and fear of Palestinians revived and reinforced.

Cif editor note: the headline on this blog was changed at 10pm to better reflect the piece

Conal Urquhart is a correspondent for the Guardian based in Israel.

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