JERUSALEM (Aug. 4)
Israeli security officials long have warned that as the Gaza withdrawal approached, a Jewish extremist might try to stage a spectacular attack, shocking the nation and leading the government to call off the evacuation plan. Primarily, they were braced for an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or an attack on army and police units called in to empty Gaza settlements. But after an AWOL Israeli soldier went berserk Thursday evening, opening fire and killing four Israeli Arabs on a bus in the Galilee town of Shfaram — raising the prospect of Arab riots or revenge attacks on Jews — pundits are asking what effect if any the attack will have on the withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.
The soldier, a 19 year-old army deserter named Eden Tzuberi, who also used the name Natan Zada, boarded a bus bound for Shfaram, an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel on the main road between Haifa and Nazareth. As the bus pulled into Shfaram, Tzuberi sprang to his feet and sprayed automatic fire in all directions, killing at least four people and wounding about a dozen.
According to one account, people in the bus overpowered and killed Tzuberi as he tried to change magazines in his gun. Another version has an incensed mob storming the bus and lynching the soldier after police had disarmed him.
The terror attack occurred as large contingents of police were in the south of the country to prevent demonstrations against the Gaza withdrawal from getting out of hand. Many of the police were flown by helicopter to Shfaram to reinforce units already at the scene.
They arrived to find the bus surrounded by a mob that refused to allow Tzuberi’s corpse to be removed or the bus to be towed away. The police’s immediate task was to prevent the crowd from becoming unruly or moving on to Jewish towns to wreak vengeance; they also wanted to remove the bus and the soldier’s body. Police Chief Moshe Karadi took personal charge of the operation.
Israeli Arab political leaders also rushed to the scene. Some blamed the army and the Shin Bet security service for failing to pre-empt the outrage. One leader, Issam Makhoul of the communist Hadash Party, declared that Israeli Arabs would know how to protect their honor and dignity, which some Israeli pundits saw as a veiled threat.
Israeli Arabs’ relations with the state are volatile, with a number of major clashes leaving deep scars. In May 1976, six Israeli Arabs were killed during demonstrations against land expropriation on what came to be known as “Land Day.”
In autumn 2000, at the start of the Palestinian intifada, 12 Israeli Arabs were killed in clashes with police during riots in Galilee.
Those were defining moments in Israeli Arab attitudes toward the state and Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward the Arab minority, fueling mutual suspicions. But the lesson of those bitter experiences could lead Arab leaders to steer a more moderate course this time.
The act that the soldier’s shooting spree most resembles is the February 1994 killing of 29 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a fanatic from the nearby settlement Kiryat Arba.
Like Goldstein, Tzuberi is associated with an extremist West Bank settlement, Tapuah, where he had lived for the past few months. Also like Goldstein, he is said to have been an activist in the anti-Arab Kach movement, which has been banned as racist.
Tzuberi’s action raises several questions: Will it lead to acts of vengeance or clashes between Israeli Arabs and police? The Supreme Israeli Arab Steering Committee, the community’s leadership group, was to meet Thursday night and probably will try to defuse the situation by ordering a work strike to express the community’s anger, but no more.
Most analysts don’t believe Tzuberi’s killing spree will spark violence in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian leadership wants to see Israel’s Gaza withdrawal go through, and it wouldn’t want a new wave of Arab terrorism to get in the way. Nevertheless, rogue groups could open fire, citing the Shfaram killings as the reason.
Will settler protesters in the south exploit the redeployment of police to the north to burst into the Gush Katif settlement bloc, which the large police contingent had prevented them from reaching? That, too, appears unlikely, since the protesters wouldn’t want it to appear as if they had anything to do with Tzuberi’s actions.
The most serious question, though, is whether the soldier acted alone or was part of a wider extremist group planning further violent acts in a last-gasp attempt to subvert the withdrawal. If anyone knows at this point, they’re not saying. The Yesha settler council denounced the attack, as did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum.
There are other disturbing questions. For example, why wasn’t Tzuberi picked up by the army or the Shin Bet? His family claims it told the army where to find the deserter. The Shin Bet also seems to have known of Tzuberi’s whereabouts, so why didn’t they tell the army or detain him themselves?
If Tzuberi’s attack was an isolated incident that he hoped would ignite a fire across Israel and in the Palestinian areas, stopping the withdrawal, it probably will fail. At every opportunity, Sharon emphasizes his determination to stick to the withdrawal timetable.
But if Thursday’s attack is the beginning of a new wave of Jewish terrorism, there could be serious trouble ahead.