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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 15:55 GMT
Human tragedy of Middle East conflict
Palestinian funeral
Funerals are now a common event for both sides
By Orla Guerin in Jerusalem

After 27 years of marriage, the last conversation Siham had with Thabet was about nothing in particular - a few snatched words over an early morning coffee in the kitchen.

Assassination is Israel's quick-fix way of dealing with its enemies

It was New Year's Eve and they were rushing out to work. Would they travel together? No, he needed five more minutes to get ready, so she would go first.

Siham was already well on her way when she heard a volley of gunshots. She drove on.

Gunfire is routine in the Palestinian town of Tulkarem in the West Bank.

But these bullets had ripped through her husband's body just steps from their own home.

Israel does not deny that its forces killed Thabet Thabet.

Thabet Thabet's car
Thabet Thabet was killed by five bullets to the chest
Assassination is Israel's quick-fix way of dealing with its enemies - shooting dead Palestinian activists who it claims have attacked Israelis, or are even thinking of doing so.

International Human rights groups accuse Israel of using a policy of liquidation.

Siham looks lost - sitting stiff and alone - on the red, velvet sofa in the living room of the home she and Thabet built together. She is wrapped in the misery and the black clothes of mourning.

All the sounds of normal life have been sucked out of the house - no radio, no banging doors, no kids on the phone, no music blaring in teenage bedrooms. There is only her voice.

"We met in college in Cairo," she says. "We studied together to be dentists, came back and got married.

"Thabet was a lot of things you don't find only in one man. Everybody loved him.

An armed Palestinian man stands guard next to a model of the Dome of the Rock
Muslims and Jews claim Jerusalem's holy sites
"He was a friend to our three children as well as a father. He understood them better than I do. He liked to take us all for picnics. He did that just two days before he died."

She proudly lists his activities - General Director of the West Bank Health Ministry, lecturer in the Open University, local leader of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and manager of the PLO office in the area.

But to all this, Israeli peace activists add something else - to them Thabet Thabet was a peace-maker.

As far back as the late 1980s he was talking peace with Israelis. He brought them to his home, hosting them in the same living room where Siham welcomes me.

The Israeli army says Thabet Thabet ran a cell of Palestinian gunmen attacking Israeli troops and towns - though they have produced no proof.

If the Israelis had their suspicions, Siham says, they could have arrested him. Instead she says, they killed him as the mafia kills.

A Palestinian protester uses his slingshot to hurl stones at Israeli soldiers
There have been angry recriminations on both sides
As the whole world waits for Israelis to vote on the future of the peace process, in the prime ministerial election on 6 February, Siham is waiting for something else - the outcome of a court action.

She has sought an injunction to prevent Israel from assassinating any more Palestinian activists.

The government's reply is expected in Israel's High Court any day now.

"I am more civilised than them," she tells me. "I have used the law."

We drink small cups of bitter coffee, according to Arab tradition, and Siham shows me pictures of her dead husband.

In one, the smiling family man in a pale green suit, is flanked by his wife and children. In another he stands alongside former US president Jimmy Carter.

Three innocent Israeli families have paid for this killing

Siham's youngest child, 15-year-old Mohammed, walks me back to my car, and shows me the scene of the killing.

The automatic gunfire gouged fat holes in the stone wall which borders the family's home. He must pass the spot every time he goes out. Mohammed will suffer for a lifetime, but three innocent Israeli families have paid for this killing.

Not far from the home of Thabet Thabet is a restaurant called Abu Nidal, in the centre of Tulkarem. Israeli cousins Motti Dayan and Etgar Zeituni stopped off there for a plate of hummus with an Israeli Arab friend.

They had been bargain hunting, looking for pots for their own restaurant - Yuppies. It is in cosmopolitan downtown Tel Aviv - a world away from the West Bank.

Within minutes Motti and Etgar were dragged from the table and shot dead. One of those arrested for the killings was a nephew of Thabet Thabet.

Prayers before shooting

According to one report, Muselma Thabet has confessed, saying: "We let them say some prayers and then we sat them down and shot them.

"We shot each one with two or three bullets in the head and chest. If I ever leave prison I am prepared to kill 100 Israelis."

The killing did not end there. This week a Jewish settler was shot dead in a drive-by shooting near the town of Ramallah, another revenge attack in the name of Thabet Thabet.

So the grave of one man has become the grave of four. Siham Thabet says she feels for the Israeli wives and mothers, and hopes they grieve for her. Perhaps they do.

But it is more common here for both Israelis and Palestinians to mourn only their husbands, and their sons - and refuse to see the suffering on the other side.

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See also:

09 Jan 01 | Middle East
Israel's 'assassination policy' on trial
31 Dec 00 | Middle East
Mid-East killings spark revenge fears
01 Jan 01 | Middle East
Killings fuel Mid-East hatred
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