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Palestinian slain by Israeli troops in a case of mistaken identity

By Joel Greenberg
Friday, January 7, 2011; 9:01 PM

HEBRON, WEST BANK - Members of an Israeli special forces unit hunting for a Hamas militant shot dead a 66-year-old Palestinian man in his bed early Friday, mistaking him for the wanted man, who lived in the same building. The killing, witnessed by the man's wife, raised fresh questions about the military's conduct and rules of engagement in the West Bank.

The army expressed regret for the killing, the latest in a string of fatal incidents in the past week.

The shooting came during a roundup of five Hamas men whom the Palestinian Authority had released from jail hours earlier. It prompted accusations by Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, that the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, led by the Fatah party, had colluded with the Israelis - exacerbating tensions between the rival factions.

The Israelis said their roundup netted a local leader of Hamas's armed wing who had helped plan a 2008 suicide bombing that killed a woman and injured 10 other civilians in the southern Israeli town of Dimona.

But before getting their man, the soldiers, from the army's elite Cherry unit, killed his neighbor.

Subhiya Qawasmeh, the wife of the slain man, Omar Qawasmeh, wept as she described the shooting in their blood-spattered bedroom. She said she had gotten out of bed to pray at about 3: 45 a.m., when she heard soldiers forcing their way into the house and then turned to see them at the bedroom doorway.

"They didn't ask a thing - not what his name was or whose house it was - and immediately started shooting," she said. "I screamed, and they told me to keep quiet. After he was killed, they asked me for his ID card. Then they wrapped him in a sheet and took him away."

A blood-soaked sheet remained on the bed, and blood was smeared on the headboard and an adjacent closet. Bits of flesh and bone were scattered on the floor and the ceiling. Relatives showed graphic cell phone images of the slain man, who had been shot in the head. They said more than a dozen bullet cartridges had been collected from the floor of the bedroom.

After the killing, a jeep pulled up and soldiers called on the wanted militant, Wael al-Bitar, who lived on the floor below, to give himself up, said his wife, Sana, a niece of the slain man. Bitar then emerged from the house and was handcuffed and taken away, his wife said.

In a statement on the events, the army said that during an arrest operation in Hebron "a man present in one of the terrorists' homes was killed." The army "regrets the outcome of the incident," the statement said, adding that the commander of the army's West Bank division had been ordered to investigate and submit findings next week.

The rules of engagement of the Cherry unit are classified, but a former member of the unit told The Washington Post in an interview in September that the troops were given broad discretion to open fire and urged not to take any chances in close-quarter encounters with suspected armed militants. In some cases, he said, soldiers were given the message that "killing the terrorist was best." Cherry soldiers have been involved in several cases in which militants have been killed during what the army described as arrest operations.

The killing of Qawasmeh and the arrests of the militants hours after their release drew accusations from Hamas's spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had collaborated with the Israelis.

"We hold the Palestinian Authority responsible along with the occupation for the crime," Abu Zuhri said.

Cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces has improved markedly in the past two years as the Palestinian forces have cracked down on Hamas and other armed groups in West Bank cities.

The five Hamas militants, who had been held without trial for more than two years, were released by the Palestinian Authority a month after the Palestinian High Court ruled that they should be freed, and after they staged a prolonged hunger strike. The Emir of Qatar also intervened on their behalf.

The killing of Qawasmeh was the third time in a week that a Palestinian had died in an encounter with Israeli troops in the West Bank. On Sunday, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint shot and killed a Palestinian who approached them holding a glass bottle, apparently perceiving it as a threat. Last Saturday, a Palestinian woman died a day after inhaling tear gas fired by troops during a protest in the village of Bilin against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank. The army said the incidents are all under investigation.

At a mosque near Qawasmeh's home after Friday prayers, his funeral procession wound up a hill to a nearby graveyard. As his body was carried aloft on a wooden stretcher, young men chanted the name of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.

"Revenge!" they shouted. "Revenge!"

Greenberg is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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