Israel steps up its punishment of suicide bombers' relatives


BEIT JALA, West Bank - Atta Yousef Sarassra spent nearly two decades working as a math teacher in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf before returning to this Palestinian village, the place of his birth, to build a spacious house for his family.

Last week, the Israeli army blew it up. Rubble from half the house is piled in an impenetrable heap. The other half slid into the valley separating the West Bank from Jerusalem, the ruins scattered among olive trees.

Sarassra, 47, is paying for the deeds of his 17-year-old son, Haza. A promising student at one of the West Bank's best private schools, Haza slipped by an army checkpoint July 30 and blew himself up outside a falafel stand in Jerusalem. At least five Israelis were injured, but Haza was the only fatality.

Now, amid a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks, Israeli officials have revived the tactic of destroying the homes of militants' relatives. And they are carrying out the campaign with vigor: 11 houses have been razed in the past five days.

"Israel thinks that this will make the bombings stop," said Sarassra, sitting under a blue mourning tent, sipping coffee made by neighbors and staring at the slabs of concrete that were once his floors. "They destroyed my house, and then they had three more attacks.

"Why did they do this? The bombing was my son. I didn't do it. I don't think this will stop anything. The violence will only increase. Look at this. The criminals have destroyed my house, and I can't rebuild it again."

Frustrated that attacks continue despite reoccupation of most of the West Bank and curfews imposed on 700,000 Palestinians, the Israeli army is trying to deter bombers from carrying out their missions by punishing their families - a strategy that failed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday that intelligence officers reported that several would-be suicide bombers who are under arrest said they were reluctant to carry out their attacks for fear of what Israel might do to their families.

Ben-Eliezer noted that the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, refrained from identifying the bomber who blew up a bus Sunday in northern Israel, killing nine people. Hamas said it wanted to prevent retaliation against his relatives.

"We will continue with demolition of terrorists' houses," the defense minister said. "We will begin exiling the families of suicide bombers, but only if there is a clear link proven between them and the act. We will also continue with a long list of operations, which I am not prepared to discuss at the moment."

Yesterday, 24 hours after a series of shootings and bombings that claimed the lives of at least a dozen Israelis, the army also imposed a "total ban" on Palestinian cars and trucks in the northern West Bank and tightened its curfew on cities there, including Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm and Qalkilya.

Ben-Eliezer told reporters that the restrictions on Palestinians would be tightened further. "Nobody enters and nobody leaves," he said. "There is no movement between the towns and villages."

Tanks already in Ramallah moved closer to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters. In the Gaza Strip, the army positioned 25 tanks to divide the territory, preventing north-south travel in an effort to stop the flow of weapons. Helicopters fired missiles at a suspected weapons factory, injuring four people.

Even with the new restrictions, militants apparently remained active. A car blew up last night in northern Israel near the village of Umm el-Fahm, killing one occupant and injuring the other. Israeli police said they believe the two were on their way to carry out an attack but that the bomb exploded prematurely.

Hillel Frisch, a political science professor and researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said the government's new deterrent measures are part of a long, and thus far unsuccessful, study into what motivates a suicide bomber to go through with an attack.

Once that is known, said Frisch, who specializes in Palestinian security issues, then Israel could possibly find a way to dissuade the militants. Ben-Eliezer is, in effect, conducting an experiment, he said.

"I'm skeptical that we will ever find the answer," Frisch said. "I mean, we are not kidding ourselves. We need the army in the territories. Expulsion and house demolitions are a secondary, supplementary method. And doing this is not lethal. The people in Gaza can always come back. We can always allow a home to be rebuilt."

Human rights groups, such as the Israeli group B'Tselem, decry the army's latest measures as collective punishment that will prevent Palestinians from going to their jobs and prevent them from earning an income and feeding their families - creating more militants.

Sarassra - born, educated and married in Beit Jala - spent 19 years teaching math to elementary school children in the United Arab Emirates. He returned to Beit Jala in 1995 with his wife and family to build his dream home.

He chose a chunk of land on the side of a steep cliff, well off the nearest paved road, where a stiff breeze blows even on the hottest of days. From his front porch, he could look across the valley at another village. But there were sights he didn't like.

Below him, on the valley floor, the Israelis built a road for use by Jewish settlers commuting between Jerusalem and settlements in the southern part of the West Bank. The road is on land that Sarassra used to play on as a child and is claimed by Beit Jala residents as their own.

Across the valley, he can see Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem built on West Bank land that many in Beit Jala say belonged to their grandparents. Palestinian gunmen have used the ridge on which Sarassra's house sits to shoot at Gilo and at settlers' cars on the road below.

Sarassra said he stayed away from militant politics.

Three of his sons, ages 20 to 25, are professionals. One works in neighboring Bethlehem for the Palestinian Authority; another is an electrical engineer; the third is finishing studies in nursing. Sarassra also has two daughters, a 13-year-old student and a 26-year-old who works in the United Arab Emirates.

Haza, his youngest son, was a student at Beit Jala's Talitha Kumi School, run by the Lutheran Church. He wanted to become a dentist.

Sarassra said he has no idea when Haza became involved with militants but suspects it happened after a relative was injured in a hit-and-run accident with Jewish settlers. The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have claimed responsibility for his bombing.

Should any of his other sons volunteer for a suicide mission, Sarassra said, "they wouldn't tell me." But should he learn about it, he would try to prevent them from carrying it out.

"But only because I don't want to lose a son," he said. "Not for any other reason."

Sarassra said he understands why people resort to such desperate measures. "Look, yesterday, your President Bush named us terrorists and called [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon a man of peace," he said. "Is this justice? If you kill someone in America, do they imprison your father?"

The new Israeli measures are born out of frustration. Several Israeli newspapers complained that most measures the government has tried to prevent violence have failed. That includes a 225-mile fence to separate the West Bank from Israel. It was begun with much fanfare after a series of bombings in June. But after three months of construction, it is only 40 yards long.

"No country and no serious government would forsake its citizens this way," the editor of Maariv wrote of the latest violence. "Nor would it dare tell them that the future will be like the past, namely, more blood, more suffering and more tears."

The glum mood of the country can be judged by the name the army gave to its latest offensive to the covered marketplace in Nablus.

In April, soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian gunmen hiding in the narrow alleys there, in what was called "Operation Defensive Shield." The army returned last weekend for more battles. Soldiers named the latest action "Operation Maybe This Time."

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