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Brutal Murder of Soldier in Gaza Poses Challenge for Arens Policy

The savage murder of an Israel Defense Force reservist in the Gaza Strip last Thursday has shocked Israelis and posed the first serious challenge to Defense Minister Moshe Arens’ policy of reducing friction in the administered territories through moderation.

Reserve Sgt. Amnon Pomerantz, a 46-year-old resident of Havatzelet Hasharon, was stoned and burned to death on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when he mistakenly entered El-Bureij refugee camp and was confronted by a mob of hostile Palestinians.

His brutal murder was the focus of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. Arens and Gen. Dan Shomron, the IDF chief of staff, briefed the ministers about the incident, but no action was taken.

The Knesset is expected to convene for an emergency session Wednesday to debate Arens’ policies.

There are already demands from the vocal right wing in the Cabinet and Knesset for severe punitive measures against the population of El-Bureij.

Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, a former IDF chief of staff who heads the right-wing Tsomet party, called for the demolition of every house within a 300-foot radius of the murder site. Other Knesset members and West Bank settlers urged the severe punishment and deportation of stone-throwers.

The application of punitive measures and their nature are the prerogative of the defense minister to decide.

Arens, who visited El-Bureij on Saturday, said the security forces should act “uncompromisingly” against those responsible for the killing, but should take care to differentiate between the ringleaders and the rest of the camp population.

So far, 15 residents of the refugee camp, adults as well as minors, are being held as suspects, and the camp is under curfew, Other suspects who fled the camp are objects of a wide manhunt.

A LOW MILITARY PROFILE

The attack on Sgt. Pomerantz and especially its savage nature has shaken the growing confidence of Israelis that the 3-year-old intifada, if not entirely spent, has lost most of its steam.

While Palestinian nationalist strength is still visible in the territories, it is manifested more by passive acts, such as general strikes, than by pitched battles between the Palestinian populace and Israeli security forces.

A 23-year-old activist shot to death in a clash with IDF soldiers in the Rafah refugee camp on Sept. 16 was the first Palestinian fatality in three months at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

Arens’ policy of maintaining a low military profile in the territories and limiting the use of deadly force by IDF personnel has been credited for the relative calm.

The U.S. secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, Richard Shifter, who visited Jerusalem last month, cited the improved human rights situation in the territories since Arens took office.

Arens, a leader in the hard-line Likud bloc, has been much easier on the Palestinian population than his Labor Party predecessor, former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Whereas Rabin decreed jail for stone-throwers, Arens has advised military prosecutors to seek fines instead if the stone-throwing caused no physical or property damage.

But the murder at El-Bureij seems to have made clear that the intifada is as lethal as ever, if not as pervasive.

“The massive violent demonstrations are over, but the intifada continues against specific targets, with unprecedented animosity,” one military expert observed over the weekend.

LAXITY AT CHECKPOINTS CITED

The IDF also is investigating the possibility that laxity on the part of its soldiers contributed to Pomerantz’s death.

The sergeant had been granted leave from his reserve training to visit his 2-year-old son, who had been hospitalized. On his return, Pomerantz was driving his own private car in search of his unit.

He had received telephone instructions to reach a military outpost in the Gaza Strip where he had not been before. He turned off the main road to follow a sign pointing to his destination, only to find himself in the crowded El-Bureij marketplace.

His car, made conspicuous by its yellow Israeli license plates, was instantly pelted by stones. Pomerantz threw it into reverse and tried to back out, when he struck a donkey cart, injuring two Arab children riding in it.

At that point, a crowd surrounded his car and began to smash it with heavier rocks and concrete blocks. According to a preliminary investigation, Pomerantz was struck unconscious. His car was then set on fire and he burned to death.

Investigators are troubled by several aspects of the case. They want to know why Pomerantz was not stopped at the heavily guarded Erez checkpoint, at the entrance to the Gaza Strip.

According to the IDF’s standing orders, military vehicles must be occupied by at least two soldiers during the day and must travel in pairs at night.

Pomerantz, though driving a civilian car, was in uniform and alone, yet he was waved through the checkpoint.

Later, when he turned mistakenly into the refugee camp, he drove past an IDF observation post at the camp entrance, without being stopped, and apparently was unnoticed.

REPEAT OF BELTA EPISODE FEARED

Soldiers at the observation post raised on alarm only when crowds of people stampeded out of the camp, indicating something had happened inside.

While hard-line politicians were demanding draconian measures against the camp residents, the Israeli human rights association B’tselem called on Arens over the weekend to take whatever measures are necessary to bring Pomerantz’s killers to justice, “without harming innocent people.”

B’tselem recalled the punishment visited on Beita village, near Nablus, in 1988, after a 15-year-old Israeli hiker was shot to death.

At least 15 homes were demolished, six residents were deported and many others were arrested, even though an investigation determined that the teen-age girl was not harmed by the villagers but accidentally shot by an armed Israeli chaperon accompanying the hikers.

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