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Friday, September 05, 2003

Israeli commando killed in clash with armed Palestinians in Nablus

By Haaretz Service and News Agencies
Sgt. Maj. Ra'anan Komemi, a member of the Israel Defense Forces' elite Naval Commando unit, was killed before dawn Friday in a gunbattle with armed Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus. Four other soldiers were wounded in the incident, one of them seriously.

A senior Hamas bomb-maker, Mohammed Hanbali, who orchestrated several fatal suicide bombings and was responsible for dozens of Israeli deaths, was also killed in the gunbattle.

The army later blew up the seven-story building where the incident took place, and some 100 Palestinians had lived.

Komemi, 23, from Moshav Aminadav near Jerusalem, was laid to rest at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem later Friday. Komemi is the fifth soldier from the Naval Commandos to be killed in action since the end of the IDF's Defensive Shield. Six years ago Friday, 13 soldiers from the same unit were killed in an operation in Lebanon.

Troops from the elite Shayetet 13 unit exchanged fire with Palestinian militants they had come to arrest in a raid in the city in the early hours of Friday morning, killing one and arresting three, witnesses said.

Hanbali, a Hamas commander in the West Bank responsible for dozens of terror attacks and topped Israel's wanted list for that region, was killed in the raid.

The troops fired four rockets at the apartment building where the gunmen - defying a call over loudspeakers to surrender - were holed up, damaging two floors of the structure after residents were ordered to leave.

Then the army sent dogs to search the building area, after which troops entered and the Palestinian gunmen fired at them, Israel Radio quoted Brigadier General Gadi Eizenkot, who commands the West Bank Division, as saying.Komemi was killed in the shooting and four others were wounded, after which troops returned fire, killed a gunman, and destroyed the building, Eizenkot said.

Several loud blasts were heard during the two-hour firefight. The IDF said the wanted men threw grenades. It was not immediately clear whom the soldiers were chasing.

Witnesses said soldiers removed the body of a Palestinian man from the building. Four residents took the man's body and laid him nearby, the witnesses said. Three Palestinians were arrested after the gun battle, residents said.

IDF blows up Nablus apartment building

The building was blown up more than six hours after the gunbattle had ended because the military believed some militants might have remained hiding on top floors, said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman. Feingold didn't know if additional fire had been directed at Israeli troops after the gunbattle ended.

Israeli troops had ordered about 100 residents to evacuate the structure, which housed 15 apartments, before the start of the raid. As it exploded, the building disappeared behind large brown clouds of dust and debris that covered the neighborhood.

Three Palestinians were arrested after the gunbattle, the army said.

The family of the dead Hamas leader, Hanbali, said the young man was studying for a master's degree in industrial engineering at Nablus' An Najah University. He was a Hamas leader and his father is a well-known Islamic leader in the city.

Residents of the destroyed apartment building, some of them weeping, tried to salvage whatever they could from the rubble. Eleven families lived there.

"My family is in the street," said 8-year-old Baker Sobeh, searching for some school books in the debris. Soldiers arrested his father. His mother and siblings stood in the street in their pajamas. "I thought it would be just for a few minutes or a short while," said his mother, Mona, explaining why residents left the building with no belongings when soldiers ordered them out.

Hours after the building was destroyed, a woman in her 70s, Fatima Herzellah, couldn't bring herself to go. "I just want to be close to my place," she said through tears. Someone brought her a plastic chair to sit there beside the ruins of the building where she shared an apartment with her son and his family.

An adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dore Gold, acknowledged that the destruction of the apartment building would bring hardships to the families that lived there. "Nonetheless, the war we are facing now has been imposed on us," Gold said. "Israel is not seeking to be in Nablus, but is only there because the area is a constant source of terror attacks on Israeli civilians."