HIT SQUADS UNLEASHED

"Any Palestinian who sells land in violation of this law will be considered to have committed national treason and will receive the maximum punishment.

"Any foreigner who violates this law will be prosecuted on charges of harming the national interest and will receive a life sentence.

"Any past or future deals with the occupiers concerning properties in Palestine are considered null and void." -

Excerpts from the Property Law for Foreigners, under consideration by the Palestinian Legislative Council, outlawing land sales to "the government of occupation, its civilian and military institutions and its individual citizens".

"Imagine the world-wide denunciation had it been a warning of execution to Jews from Israel, for selling land to Palestinians. America and Europe erupt in justified fury.

President Clinton is bombarded by press questions and does not conceal his shock. Almost every newspaper and TV news programme leads with it, carries editorials, columns, commentary, talk shows.

Imagine the meetings at the UN, the boycott demands of the Muslim countries, the mock horror of the budding China-Russia alliance. Christian church groups are publicly horrified, and so too the whole world of Jewish organisations."
-- Commentator A.M. Rosenthal; New York Times, May 9

IN the early hours of Saturday, May 31, Assad Rajibi was taken by force from his home near Jerusalem by six armed men. They hustled him into a car and raced off in the direction of Ram'Allah.

At that moment, the 57-year-old Arab land merchant must have known his life hung by a tenuous thread. Three other Palestinian realtors with business links to Israelis had been found dead in recent days, as hit teams enforced in their own grisly way a newly-announced Palestinian Authority law aimed at stamping out the sale of land to Jews.

Rajibi may well have become the fourth victim, but the two cars in which he and his captors were speeding towards the PA-controlled area never made Ram'Allah. Israeli security forces gave chase, stopped the vehicle and arrested the six men. Four of them were PA Preventive Security officers.

Less fortunate were Farid Bashiti, Mahmoud Ali Jamhour, and Harbi Abu Sarah, the three land dealers abducted, shot in the head and dumped. Yet another man, Muhmad el-Mitzri, was hospitalised after alleged torture at the hands of PA security officials who suspected him of selling property to Jews. The same night Rajibi was rescued, another attempted abduction was foiled, when members of Muhammed Abu Meleh's family alerted Israeli police of the arrival at their northern Jerusalem home of PA security men.

The Israelis arrived, the PA officers left, and Abu Meleh was placed under Israeli protection.

And so the spectre of semi-official deathsquads has come to the PA self-rule areas, conjuring up memories of apartheid South Africa, the former Yugoslavia--or indeed, of PLO-controlled Lebanon.

The campaign began on May 4, when Yasser Arafat's "Justice Minister", Freih Abu Meddein, announced the PA would start to enforce an old Jordanian law, which made the selling of land to Jews a capital offence. (Jordan rescinded the statute when it signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel.)

Four days later, news broke that a prime property on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives--in a part of the city Palestinians want for the capital of a future independent state--had been sold to a Jewish businessman, and then donated to a Jewish religious seminary.

Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab politician and Arafat aide, reacted to the sale during a radio interview by warning: "Whoever sells his house to Jews, has sold his soul to Satan and has done a despicable act."

With the groundwork thus laid by the Arab leaders, and amid angry reactions to the law from Israelis and some US Congressmen--although not yet the State Department--the violence was set to begin.

Seventy-year-old Bashiti, an Israeli citizen who lived in eastern Jerusalem, was reportedly involved in the closing of the Mount of Olives land deal.

On May 8, he was lured to a meeting at a Jerusalem hotel by a woman who told him she had buyers for two houses in Ram'Allah he was trying to sell. From there it appears he was abducted.

That evening, he was seen at the Ram'Allah offices of Arafat's personal security unit, Force 17.

Five hours later, in the words of an Israeli official, "the hospital in Ram'Allah telephoned his wife and told her she could come and pick up his body."

He had been found dead, with his hands bound, his skull crushed, and his mouth sealed with plastic tape.

Pouring salt on the grief-stricken family's wound, the PA-installed Islamic mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, refused to allow Bashiti a Muslim funeral: "Such a person is not a Muslim and according to our religion we shouldn't pray over the body in a mosque. He should not be buried in a Muslim cemetery."

The body of Abu Sarah, the second man suspected of selling land to Israelis, was found in Ram'Allah on May 16. He had been shot several times in the head.

After vacillating for several days, the US State Department finally in mid-May called on Arafat to reverse the PA's land deal death penalty policy. Said US State Department spokesman John Dingle: "We believe the death penalty is inappropriate punishment for the sale of land under any circumstances."

By this time, Jesse Helms and Benjamin Gilman, chairmen respectively of the Senate foreign relations and House international relations committees, had informed Secretary of State Madeline Albright they would oppose US financial aid to the PA until the policy was scrapped.

Like Bashiti, the third victim, 34-year-old Jamhour, was also an Israeli citizen. His body was found alongside a road near Ram'Allah on May 31. He, too, had been shot in the head.

A week earlier, according to Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby, Jamhour had been warned at the Ram'Allah police station that what had happened to Bashiti could happen to him.

"Cowardly lowlifes!" fumed Police Minister Avigdor Kahalani, once again apportioning blame to the PA.

Rather than back down under the growing barrage of criticism, the PA instead announced on May 27 that Arab Israeli citizens found guilty of the offence would also face execution. This appeared nothing less thanan attempted retroactive legitimisation of the killing of two Arabs who were indeed Israeli citizens.

By June 2, the Israeli government said evidence of PA security officials' links to the killings jeopardised further talks between the parties. Security was tightened in eastern Jerusalem, and the Israelis cancelled the VIP pass for a PA security official whom police suspect of involvement.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein called for those responsible to be extradited to face trial in Israel, and stressed that senior PA officials had no special legal standing.

In response, PA secretary-general Tayeb Abdelrahim warned: "We would consider the arrest of any Palestinian official as an aggression against the Palestinian Authority itself. We warn the Israeli government against taking irresponsible actions, because they could lead to an escalation of tensions and an explosion." (Agence France Presse).

On June 10, the US House of Representatives came out with its strongest condemnation of the murder campaign. Continued US financial aid to Arafat's self-rule administration appeared to be in jeopardy.

Around this time, Arafat began to backtrack. In an interview published on June 16, he told Newsweek: "...We are absolutely against anyone taking the law into his own hands ... If we find them, we will arrest them ... The death penalty hasn't been carried out and it never will be."

That statement was a far cry from his earlier stance: "[This] law ... sets the death penalty for those who sell land to Israelis ... We are talking about a few traitors, and we shall implement against them what is written in the law books." (Yediot Ahronot, May 21)

The PLO chairman's ostensible change of heart did not help Hakim Halhawi of Shechem. On June 15, three weeks after being detained in a PA prison in Jericho on suspicion of selling land to a Jewish settlement several years ago, 57-year-old Halhawi died and was hastily buried.

His widow, Ansaf, who saw her husband's body before the burial, claimed it bore signs of torture and dismissed PA assertions that Halhawi had committed suicide.

As Ma'ariv reported that Israeli police had received a list of targets for future kidnappings, an entire Hebron family was arrested in connection with a land deal two decades ago, and another man was abducted from east Jerusalem on June 18. It seems the horror is far from over.


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