2002 Hebron ambush
|2002 Hebron ambush|
|Part of Second Intifada|
|Israel Defense Forces||Palestinian Islamic Jihad|
|IDF Nahal brigade, Border police and the Kiryat Arba Emergency Response Team||3 fighters from Jerusalem Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad|
|Casualties and losses|
|12 Israeli combatants killed, 15 wounded||3 Palestinian combatants killed|
|No non-combatant casualties|
The 2002 Hebron ambush took place in the Wadi an-Nasara neighborhood in Hebron in the West Bank on 15 November 2002. Israeli forces were subjected to a double attack by militants from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The battle was referred to in Israel as "The attack in the worshipers route",Hebrew: הפיגוע בציר המתפללים. The place where the attack took place became known as the "Alley of Death" both in Hebrew and Arabic. The ambush was initially dubbed as the "Sabbath massacre" (Hebrew: טבח השבת) by official Israeli spokespersons.
The attacks were carried out in a narrow alley, off the passage from the south gate of Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs by three Palestinian attackers. Twelve Israeli soldiers, gendarmes, and civilian security guards, including three high-ranking officers, were killed in the battle, as were all three of the Palestinian attackers.
One of the militants positioned himself near the front of the exit gate of Kiryat Arba towards Hebron. The remaining two militants positioned themselves near the a narrow alley off the road used as a passage by all Jewish worshipers heading from Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Four Nahal Brigade soldiers on patrol, accompanied by Border Police jeeps were heading out of the "Worshippers Way" after patrol that area. In addition, two additional Nahal soldiers were positioned in an observation post located nearby and several more IDF soldiers were located near the exit gate of Kiryat Arba.
A group of settlers from Kiryat Arba had visited the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron for a Sabbath eve service and were escorted back to the settlement by Israeli military. A few minutes after the all clear signal rang, signaling that all the settlers had safely returned to Kiryat Arba, the first bullets were fired.
At 6:55 pm the Palestinian militants opened fire simultaneously on a group of soldiers guarding the south gate of Kiryat Arba and a patrol passing through a narrow alley leading from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Kiryat Arba. Two soldiers in the alley were wounded. One IDF paramedic was killed trying to evacuate the wounded.
The Palestinian militants moved positions frequently during the more than 4 hours of fighting creating the impression that many more militants were involved. They lured Israeli forces off the "Path of Worshipers" into the narrow alley, later known as the "Alley of Death".
Minutes later Border Police Superintendent Samih Sweidan arrived at the scene and drove immediately into the alley to engage the Palestinian militants and evacuate the wounded. He and his driver were shot to death, apparently at point-blank range, as they stepped out of their jeep. Meanwhile, one of the wounded trapped in the alley died of his wounds. The attack had hardly lasted five minutes and already four Israeli soldiers were dead. A few minutes later a fifth soldier was shot and killed. The killed and wounded soldiers remained in the exposed alley.
Around 7:15 pm the Palestinian militants ceased fire, creating the impression that they had run away. At this time the commander of the IDF Hebron Brigade, Colonel Dror Weinberg arrived at the scene. He quickly organized a force of three jeeps and entered the alley. When Weinberg reached Sweidan’s jeep he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. After being evacuated he died from his wounds, becoming the highest ranking Israeli casualty of the Second Intifada.
Before being hit Col. Weinberg had contacted the settler's security service, the Kiryat Arba Emergency Response Team. Around 7:40 pm the head of the response team, Yitzhak Buanish, entered the alley together with a force consisting of Buanish own men and Border Police soldiers. As in the previous rescue attempts, they were ambushed. Buanish and two of his colleagues were killed and another five wounded. Two Border Police officers were also killed in the incident. The first Palestinian militant was probably killed in this incident as well.
At 7:50 pm the IDF entered the alley with armored personal carriers and started engaging the Palestinians. Firing continued until 8:15 pm when the Palestinians stopped firing back and the dead and wounded soldiers could be evacuated. But fighting flared up again.
Control over the situation was gradually restored with the arrival of reinforcements and commanding officers. Lieutenant Colonel Eran, head of the Nahal Brigade in Hebron, and soldiers from the Duvdevan elite unit, rushed to Hebron from Ramallah, outflanked the two remaining gunmen and killed them. That was close to 11:30 pm, more than four hours after the attack started.
The Palestinian militants
The attack was carried out by three members of the Jerusalem Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. According to a statement by the Jerusalem Brigades the attack was intended as a revenge for Israel's killing of the regional Islamic Jihad leader Iyad Sawalha in Jenin earlier in the week as well as "other crimes against our people". According to Israel, Sawalha was responsible for two suicide bombings that killed 31 Israelis.
The three militants were all in their early 20’s and enrolled as engineering students at the Hebron Polytechnic. According to Palestinian sources they had prepared the ambush for more than two months, scouting the area of the attack thoroughly and especially studying Israeli security arrangements along the road between the Cave of the Patriarchs and Kiryat Arba. The operation was planned as a suicide attack and the participants had written their customary wills.
Israeli responsive actions
The Palestinian-administered part of Hebron was re-occupied by Israeli forces and a curfew was declared throughout the city. The curfew remained in force for more than six months. According to the Israeli Human Rights Organization B'Tselem the imposition of the curfew was "unrelated to the attempt to arrest the Palestinians who are responsible for the shooting or to prevent the gunfire" but served as "collective punishment of an innocent civilian population". Scores of young Palestinians were arrested. Four Palestinian houses were demolished by the IDF.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told IDF commanders in Hebron two days after the incident that "the opportunity that now presents itself in the wake of the attack... must be exploited to establish new facts on the ground" by creating a "territorial continuity between the settlement of Kiryat Arba and the Jewish section of Hebron". Sharon also told the officers that "the army must create a situation that will ensure the safety of the Jews living in the divided city, and reduce to a minimum the presence of Palestinians in the area in which the settlers live."
The mayor of Kiryat Arba, Zvi Katsover, called on the government to "clean up the area" by destroying hundreds of Palestinian homes along a road connecting the settlement to Hebron. The Kiryat Arba Council and the council of settlers in Hebron's Jewish enclave announced a plan to build 1,000 housing units between Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky supported the plan and ordered his ministry's workers to review the possibility of expropriating lands in the city and using them for Jewish residential purposes.
On 29 November 2002 the Israel Defense Forces issued the "Decree Number 61/02/T to Expropriate Property" with the purpose to expropriate an 8.2 dunam large area in Hebron and to create a 6 to 12 meter wide corridor linking the Jewish settlement in Hebron with Kiryat Arba. The area contained 22 Palestinian-owned buildings of architectural and historical value in the Old City that the army intended to demolish. According to the American administration and Israeli sources close to the planning, the aim of the expropriation of the land and the building of the promenade was to create territorial contiguity between Kiryat Arba and Hebron. The military order was appealed to the High Court of Justice. The petition was rejected by the High Court after the IDF declared that they intended to demolish only two of the houses. In August 2004, three of the 22 buildings originally considered for demolition were destroyed while eleven others were damaged in the process.
There were numerous reports about by excessive brutality by IDF soldiers and especially Border Policemen against the Palestinian civilian population in Hebron. One incident occurred on 30 December, involved a Palestinian teenager, Imran Abu Hamadiya (17 years old). He was apprehended by a Border Police patrol from his home near the Cave of the Patriarchs and was found dead near the Hebron Industrial zone 20 minutes later. Spokesmen for the Border Police initially denied that any of its personnel had been involved in the incident. After an investigation four border policemen were arrested. Apparently the young man had been beaten and then thrown out of the patrol car at full speed. According to The Independent the unit specialized in an especially cruel form of persecution. Its randomly selected victims were forced to take part in a macabre lottery, by picking a slip of paper, determining the specific nature of the punishment: "Break your hand, break your skull, beat you to death, push you out of a Jeep at a 120km/h and good luck another time."
Haaretz reported in April 2003 that no fewer than 30 separate Internal Affairs investigations were pending against Border Policemen in Hebron, following complaints by Palestinians of physical abuse, beatings, humiliations, and looting.
Reports and reactions
Initial reports and reactions
Official Israeli spokesmen initially described the battle as a massacre of civilian Israeli settlers returning from Sabbath prayers. Gilad Millo, spokesman of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, originally called the attack as the "Sabbath massacre," when he said "This sabbath massacre is the second time in a week that innocent civilians have been senselessly murdered either in their beds or on their way to prayers. No political process can take root while these atrocities continue to be carried out by terrorists." Israel’s Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement, saying: "The cold-blooded attack on civilians whose only ‘sin’ was to go to a holy place of worship on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath and on those people assigned to protect them - such as happened tonight in Hebron - is one of the most despicable acts imaginable."
Uzi Landau, Minister of Internal Security, called for the Palestinian Authority to be dismantled and said, "We need not only catch the mosquitoes but to dry up the swamp". Avigdor Lieberman said that Yasser Arafat needed to be either killed or arrested. Arafat would, however, not be exiled due to international constraints. Benjamin Netanyahu called for capturing all the territory and cleansing it, and then withdrawing upon completion of the separation fence. Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky was working on a detailed plan, that would include expropriating properties from Palestinians, while Tourism Minister Yitzhak Levy ordered his ministry to speed up its preparations for a "tourism promenade" between Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
International media outlets and world leaders initially credited the official description of events. CNN used the term "Sabbath massacre" on its website, and wrote that Palestinian militants had "ambushed a group of Israeli Jews on their way home from prayer services".
Subsequent reports and reactions
Chicago Tribune initially reported that the Palestinian ambush had targeted both settlers and soldiers. The following day it published a retraction, with the headline "Gunmen targeted troops, not settlers". Army officials said that only soldiers or security personnel were hurt in the ambush. Army spokesman Yoni Schoenfeld confirmed to Chicago Tribune that none of the settlers who returned from the Tomb of the Patriarchs were killed or wounded. The Israeli daily Haaretz wrote two days after the attack that "The Foreign Ministry's successful "spin" on the Islamic Jihad attack in Hebron… lasted only a few hours." The attack was not a massacre, and the Israeli victims were not "peaceful Jewish worshippers" but rather armed fighters, who were more or less trained, and killed in combat.
The Christian Science Monitor wrote a few days after the incident that "[a]s details about the clash filter out, it seems less like a "Sabbath massacre," as it was described initially, and more like a military failure for the Israelis". Matan Vilnai a former general and a leading Labour Party politician said that "[i]t wasn't a massacre, it was a battle."
The Swedish Journalist Union’s magazine "Journalisten" wrote that Israel often tried to conceal military victims of Palestinian attacks. Swedish newspapers did not publish corrections even when early official versions of violent incidents in Israel failed to mention that the Israeli victims were soldiers. The magazine mentions four such incidents during 2002-03, including the Hebron ambush. The other incidents referred to in the article were the killing of three Israeli soldiers south of Hebron, 23 January 2003, the killing of three soldiers 19 October 2003 and a further three soldiers killed at Netzarim, 23 October 2003. In all these instances Swedish media only referred to "Israelis" being killed, implying that they were civilians. In most cases Swedish mainstream media would not correct information when the identity of the victims became clear.
On 15 November, the Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned "the despicable terrorist attack... that today killed 10 Jewish worshippers on their way to the Sabbath eve prayers... [a] terrorist act against Israeli civilians". On 19 November, the Spokesman for Secretary-General said, "The information available to us when the statement was issued was that the victims were Israeli civilians returning from religious service...Subsequently, it now appears that the Israeli victims were in fact soldiers and security personnel" and urged "a broad approach to resolving the Middle East conflict".
On 16 November, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned in the strongest possible terms "the shocking and reprehensible attack on Jewish worshipers... gunned down on the way back from Sabbath prayer".
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) protested against these and other similar statements in an article published on 18 November, claiming they were based on a false account of the events. The official Israeli version that these statements apparently were made was described as "absolute fiction" and "deliberate deception" by the organization. No Jewish worshipers or civilians were hurt in the attack. ADC also warned American media to "treat all Israeli claims in future with due skepticism".
There was reportedly a consensus in the Arab press that the Hebron ambush was a "legitimate act of resistance against Israeli occupation". Arab newspapers stressed that the target of the attack were soldiers or armed settlers and that no Israeli civilians were hurt. Jordan’s Ad-Dustour accused Israel of deceiving the world that the victims of attack were civilian worshipers, The UAE daily al-Khaleej decried the hypocrisy of the leaders of the International Community who condemned a legitimate guerrilla operation as a terrorist act.
Palestinian Jerusalem Brigades
- Akram 'Abd al-Muhsen al-Hinuni, 20, of Hebron
- Walaa’ Hashim Da’ud Surour, 21, of Hebron
- Dhiyab Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mu’ti al-Muhtasib, 22, of Hebron
Israel Defense Forces
- Col. Dror Weinberg (commander of the Hebron brigade), 38, of Jerusalem
- Lt. Dan Cohen, 22, of Jerusalem
- Sgt. Igor Drobitsky, 20, of Nahariya
- Cpl. David Marcus, 20, of Ma'aleh Adumim
Israeli Border Police
- Ch.-Supt. Samih Sweidan (Chief of Operations of Hebron's Border Police unit), 31, of Arab al-Aramshe
- Sgt. Tomer Nov, 19, of Ashdod
- Sgt. Gad Rahamim, 19, of Kiryat Malachi
- St.-Sgt. Netanel Makhlouf, 19, of Hadera
- St.-Sgt. Yeshayahu Davidov, 20, of Netanya
Kiryat Arba Emergency Response Team
- Yitzhak Buanish (head of Kiryat Arba Emergency Response Team), 46, of Kiryat Arba
- Alexander Zwitman, 26, of Kiryat Arba
- Alexander Dohan, 33, of Kiryat Arba
The IDF conduct during the Hebron ambush was exposed to a lot of bitter criticism. Many settlers blamed the death of the three Kiryat Arba security men on the "cowardice" of IDF soldiers. Three Israeli officers were dismissed from their posts in December 2002 for their personal failures in the Hebron ambush. The death of several high-ranking officers created a "command vacuum" that the remaining officers proved unable to fill, creating "a situation in which the decision-making fell into the hands of civilians (local settlers)". "When civilians command the army - this is not an acceptable situation as far as we are concerned."
In the site where the battle took place the "Giborim outpost" (מאחז הגיבורים) was constructed which originally included a small number of temporary structures and tents housed by the number of young people and families who demanded to build a neighborhood in the site in memory of the fallen. 30 days after the incident the outpost was evacuated by the Israel military forces. Since then the area has been declared as a 'closed military area' by the local IDF commander.
The three Response Team members, who all worked full-time in the security service, were accorded military ceremony funerals "due to their involvement in Hevron security". A month after the incident, the three killed civilian security men were formally recognized by the Ministry of Defense as "fallen soldiers." The Israeli Chief of Staff posthumously granted the Chief of Staff Medal of Appreciation to Yitzhak Buanish, Alexander Zwitman and Alexander Dohan - the Kiryat Arba Emergency Response Team, as well as to Elijah Liebman, the chief of security of the Jewish community in Hebron. After his death, Sgt. Gad Rahamim was granted the Medal of Courage for his part in the battle.
On 12 December, a Palestinian fighter from Hamas walked up to two Israeli Military Policemen, from the Sahlav unit, doing guard duty outside the Cave of the Patriarchs / Ibrahimi mosque and shot them point-blank. The two soldiers were identified as Cpl. Keren Ya'akobi, and Sgt. Maor Kalfon. The former was the first female operational fatality of the IDF in the Second Intifada. The Israeli army destroyed five Palestinian houses in the area. The initial news reports mentioned two "persons" or "Israeli[s]" being shot without mentioning that both victims were IDF soldiers.
On 27 December four yeshiva students, two of them IDF soldiers, were killed in an attack on the settlement of Otniel, south of Hebron. The attack was carried out by the same unit of the Islamic Jihad that carried out the Hebron ambush. The fact that two of the victims were IDF soldiers was not reported in the initial news reports.
Israel has repeatedly claimed to have killed or captured the people behind the lethal ambush in Hebron. In August 2003 Muhammed Sidr, described as the head of Islamic Jihad in Hebron, was killed in an arrest operation in Hebron. The Hebron ambush was claimed to have been carried out "under Sidr's guidance".
A month later Majid Abu Dosh was killed in similar circumstances outside Hebron. According to Haaretz Abu Dosh was "considered the "operations officer" of Islamic Jihad in the Hebron area, and the right-hand man of Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed Sidr, who was killed by the Police Special Anti-Terror Unit in August. Abu-Dosh is said to have planned the attack on Worshipers' Way in Hebron."
In December 2003 Nour Jaber, also described as the head of the Islamic Jihad movement in Hebron, was sentenced to 17 life sentences for his role in planning the Hebron ambush operation as well as another attack on the Hesder yeshiva (military religious academy) of Otniel, where two IDF soldiers and two teenage yeshiva students were killed.
Palestinian sources confirm that Jaber was indeed actively involved in the planning of the ambush. A web page connected to Islamic Jihad celebrating the attackers mentions, apart from the three dead, only Jaber's role in the attack and described him as "the planner" of the operation. No mention was made of the others' eventual contribution to planning or execution of the attack.
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