Hamas' deadly defender Accused terrorist is a pariah to Israel, hero to Palestinians


EREZ CROSSING, Israel -- Israel says Hassan Salameh is one of the deadliest terrorists ever to kill its people. Hassan Salameh says he does God's work and defends his homeland.

An 11-page indictment cataloging Salameh's alleged terrorism has been presented in an Israeli military court here near the border with the Gaza Strip and in another north of Jerusalem.

He operated under the code name "Abdullah," a common Arabic name meaning "servant of God." His is a holy war waged by the military arm of the Islamic resistance movement known as Hamas. Salameh stands accused as the mastermind of three suicide strikes that killed 45 people last year and plunged the Middle East peace process into crisis.

The attacks hardened many Israelis against the peace accords with the Palestinians. The Hamas terror campaign set the stage for the defeat of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, an architect of the peace agreement, and the election of hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu as his successor.

Salameh does not deny the accusations.

The stocky man with the trim beard of a devout Muslim leaned back in his chair nonchalantly in court, where he had arrived last week with a group of shackled men, some clutching prayer rugs. He was the last man off the prison bus. The 25-year-old smiled for the television cameras.

"I believe what I did is a legitimate right my religion and all of the world gave me, the right to defend my land, my country and myself as a Palestinian," Salameh told reporters in the courtroom.

Palestinian security police are familiar with Salameh.

"He is the person directly in charge of the last three military operations against Israel prior to the election," said Ahmed Issa, a spokesman for the preventive security force in Gaza.

Salameh's case, in which he could be sentenced to life imprisonment, has been postponed until next week.

Profile of terror

Israeli charging documents paint a picture of Salameh as a top operative in the Hamas terror organization.

At the time of his arrest in May 1996, Salameh had been engaged in terrorist activities for four years, according to the indictment. He had planned two successful suicide operations in Jerusalem, a third in the seaside city of Ashkelon and a failed bombing on a busy road in the Israeli portion of the Gaza Strip, in which the only casualty was the bomber who rode an explosive-laden donkey cart.

Born in Khan Yunis, a town in the southern Gaza Strip, Salameh was picked up as a young man and imprisoned by the Israelis. Upon his release, he joined a Hamas group known as the Islamic Thunder, whose job was to enforce the moral code of Islam. But first, its members amassed a cache of weapons.

According to Israeli accounts, Salameh's masked men in black beat an accused collaborator with chains and attacked him with knives and an ax in 1992. The gang kidnapped a second man believed to be cooperating with the Israelis, tied him to a utility pole and broke his arms and legs. Salameh then targeted suspected prostitutes. A mother of eight had her face slashed and her arms and legs broken, the Israelis say.

After gang members were arrested in 1993, Salameh fled to Jordan under a phony Egyptian passport, the Israelis say. He traveled the Arab world, making stops in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. When the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel established the Palestinian authority in Gaza, he decided to return home.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian police arrested Salameh as soon as he crossed the border into Gaza. He spent 7 1/2 months in prison.

In mid-1995, Salameh was released. Hamas operatives quickly recruited him for their military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, the Israelis say. Its leaders were Mohammed Dief, the architect of terror campaigns, and Yehiya Ayash, the chief bomb-maker nicknamed "The Engineer."

Salameh's first bomb plot was complicated and unsuccessful, according to the Israeli file.

A donkey cart packed with dynamite was set to explode on a main road near an Israeli military camp in the Gush Katif area of the Gaza Strip. But the explosion killed only the suicide bomber; an Israeli soldier was slightly wounded in the May 25, 1995, attack.

Salameh and Dief decided to target Israeli buses, the indictment charges.

When Ayash died in January 1996 -- allegedly at the hands of Israeli assassins -- Salameh succeeded him, according to the Israeli prosecutor, Eli Bar-On. Dief, who has avoided capture, ordered attacks against Israeli public buses in Jerusalem and at a military hitchhiking post at the coastal town of Ashkelon.

Dozens died in bombings Feb. 25 and March 3, 1996, and left the Israeli nation reeling from the devastating blows.

The bombers perished with their victims, martyrs in the view of Islamic militants.

The Israelis say Salameh hid in safe houses in the West Bank. He evaded capture until May 17, when he was riding in a stolen car stopped by Israeli soldiers near Hebron.

While a soldier argued with the driver, Salameh got out and started walking away. The soldier ordered him to stop. When Salameh allegedly reached for a pistol, a soldier fired, hitting Salameh in the back. He still managed to escape.

Palestinian security officials later found Salameh in a Hebron hospital. With their help, Israel captured the No. 2 terrorist on its most-wanted list. The Israelis see him as a vile criminal, but his colleagues revere him.

Spirit, soul and body

"They look to him as a hero, as a man who is respected," said Ghazi Hamad, editor of a new Hamas newspaper published in Gaza City. "He is one who presents his spirit, his soul and his body for his homeland."

Salameh's court-appointed lawyer, Fathi Akeeleh, says the acts of which his client is accused should be viewed in the context of Salameh's membership in Hamas, an organization that views Israel as the occupier. "He is not denying that he is Hamas and that he believes in the Hamas way."

Akeeleh described the accused terrorist as a religious man, a married man, who does not anger easily. "He has a very strong personality. He does not retreat. He knows what he is doing."

As Salameh's trial was getting started, the first suicide bombing in 13 months occurred March 21 in Tel Aviv, killing three Israeli women and injuring scores in a crowded cafe.

From his courtroom pen, Salameh called the latest strike "a vindication of the words of God."

He acknowledged that Islamic instructions for war prohibit the killing of women, children and innocent civilians.

But, he said, "I'm for defending my right and my people and my country by any means that I see as my duty. I don't condemn the latest operation. The one who bears the first and last responsibility is Netanyahu."

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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