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Killing of Hamas operative raises questions about conduct of elite Israeli units in pursuing militants

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With the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian direct talks this month, leaders in the region must examine how changes in the Palestinian security sector might improve the long-term prospects for peace. From the sidelines of the talks, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Analyst Robert Blecher discussed the state of the Palestinian Security Forces, as well as popular attitudes toward the Palestinian Authority and the peace process.

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By Joel Greenberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 10:44 PM

IN NUR SHAMS REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK Moving quietly through the alleys of this ramshackle neighborhood, the Israeli soldiers forced their way into Iyad Abu Shilbaya's home in the early morning hours under cover of darkness.

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A Hamas operative who had been detained repeatedly by the Palestinian Authority and imprisoned for two years by Israel, Abu Shilbaya was one of more than a dozen people whose homes were raided during a sweep of arrests in the Nur Shams camp outside the town of Tulkarm on Friday.

But Abu Shilbaya was not arrested. In an encounter in his bedroom, the details of which remain murky, he was fatally shot at close range, prompting vows of revenge by Hamas and condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, which said the killing "undermines the credibility" of recently renewed negotiations with Israel.

The talks, which have broached core issues in dispute, have been accompanied by stepped-up violence from Palestinian militants opposed to the negotiations, including the fatal shooting of four Jewish settlers in the West Bank last month in an attack claimed by Hamas and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

The killing of Abu Shilbaya came at a time of improved cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, but it was a reminder that Israeli troops still operate in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and it raised fresh questions about the conduct of elite Israeli units when pursuing militants in the West Bank.

Following classified rules of engagement, the units who carry out the most risky arrests are authorized to use lethal force, which can cause political complications.

Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, said actions such as the killing of Abu Shilbaya, which he called an assassination, damaged the Palestinian Authority's standing among its own people, giving it the image of a "sort of a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation."

"We make no secret of our cooperation with Israel, but such Israeli activities give the impression that this is collaboration, not cooperation," Khatib said. After Friday's killing, Hamas was quick to accuse the Palestinian Authority of complicity in the deadly raid.

Palestinian security forces detained Abu Shilbaya for a few days earlier this month as part of a mass roundup of Hamas militants after the killing of the Israeli settlers.

The Israelis have lately praised the performance of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. But they say they need more assurances that the Palestinians can control security before the Israeli military hands over more responsibility in the area.

Accounts of how Abu Shilbaya was killed, in an operation that an Israeli military official said was carried out by the special forces unit Cherry, or Duvdevan in Hebrew, provide a glimpse of how the unit works in the West Bank.

Muhammad Abu Shilbaya, a brother of the slain militant, said that soldiers forced their way into his house before 3 a.m. and ordered him to lead them to his brother's home nearby. There the front door was broken open and soldiers entered the darkened home while Muhammad was ordered to turn and face a wall outside.


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