Col. Sheikh Describes Failed Effort to Quell A Bloodthirsty Mob
RAMALLAH, Palestinian Authority -- By the time the lynch mob climbed over the police-station gates, forced their way into the lobby, and broke through two doors into the second-story briefing room, all that stood between two Israelis and their brutal murder was the authority of police chief Col. Kamel Al Sheikh.
"I tried with all the power God gave me to save them," Col. Sheikh said in an interview. He said he thought the Palestinian mob "would respect me and my uniform. And I am ashamed to say they did not."
It was in Col. Sheikh's headquarters, and under his custody, that Israeli reservists Vadim Norzhich, 33 years old, and Yosef Avrahami, 38, last week were cornered by a crowd of several hundred vigilantes and killed, after the two had mistakenly entered this Palestinian city en route to their base. One of the bodies was mutilated by the mob and, according to local news reports, dragged through the streets.
The atrocity escalated the Middle East crisis to a new, grisly level. Video footage of the attack showed a bloodthirsty crowd dumping Mr. Norzhich's body head-first into the compound and descending on it with knifes and clubs, while one of the attackers stood in the police-station window and raised his bloodied hands in exaltation. Shocked Israelis demanded to know how police officers could allow such a thing to happen.
Speaking in his office adjacent to the half-demolished precinct house, which was attacked by Israeli helicopters hours after the murders, Col. Sheikh offered an intimate, chilling look at the pathology of mob violence and the fury that has caused nearly three weeks of fighting. "We were helpless," he said of himself and his officers, 16 of whom were treated at Ramallah Government Hospital for what director Musa Abu Hmeid said were "a variety of contusions, bruises and trauma to their chests, heads, and extremities." Col. Sheikh was treated for respiratory problems and a gash to the shin, according to hospital records.
Most Israelis are unimpressed, however, by Col. Sheikh's efforts. "It sounds like a fraud," said Maj. Yarden Vatikay, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force. Israel is conducting an inquiry into the incident, said Maj. Vatikay, but is limited in what it can do because there is little, if any, cooperation between the two sides.
Col. Sheikh, who was born in a village only a few miles from the police station, spent much of his life waging war on Israel. As a refugee from the 1967 Six-Day War, he abandoned his plans to become a teacher and joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. He led guerrilla operations against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon until 1982, when Israel drove Mr. Arafat out of the country and scattered his fighters across the Middle East. Col. Sheikh spent several years in Damascus, Syria, and then Amman, Jordan, before returning to his birthplace in 1994 after the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
Col. Sheikh said he is a supporter of the peace process, or what's left of it after 19 days of violence that has caused the deaths of more than 100 people, mostly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis. He said he has welcomed Israeli peace activists to his headquarters for briefings. Several times, he said, he has arrested Israelis who mistakenly found their way into Palestinian territory, each time offering them tea and cigarettes while they waited for the authorities to come pick them up. "We welcomed them as guests and then said goodbye," he said. "It was a very routine process."
Last Thursday was different. While attending a weekly meeting of municipal officials at about 10:20 a.m., Col. Sheikh received a call informing him of a disturbance at the station. By the time he and his three guards arrived by car, the station was surrounded by a frenzied crowd so dense that Col. Sheikh and the others had to park several yards away and approach by foot. He learned from a bystander that two Israeli undercover agents were being held in the station, after having been stopped by a group of Palestinians while driving through the area in a Ford Escort bearing Israeli license plates.
At least a dozen of the rioters, hungry for revenge on Israel after attending a nearby funeral for a victim of the previous day's violence, were toting guns. Only by climbing the gate could Col. Sheikh get into the station compound.
He raced upstairs to find one panicked Israeli reservist bleeding from the face and another with no shirt. Standing with them were a half-dozen of his officers, wounded in a scuffle to separate the reservists from the Palestinians who had captured them. The reservists apparently didn't speak Arabic and none of the policemen spoke Hebrew.
Col. Sheikh said he offered the two men cigarettes, which one accepted, and dispatched a deputy to see if the reservists could be spirited to safety through the back entrance. He then took off his shirt and offered it to them.
"We tried to make them understand through sign language that their lives were our lives, and we were going to try and smuggle them out," said Col. Mohammad Ishmael, one of the few policemen at the precinct when the violence erupted; the majority of the force was out on patrol.
By the time the deputy reached the back door, however, the crowd had stormed into the compound, opened the arms store and taken three automatic rifles. The officers were outnumbered. "Had any one of my officers opened fire," said Col. Sheikh, "there would have been a massacre of my men as well as the Israelis."
As the vigilantes broke through the station door, Col. Sheikh said he appealed for calm from the open window. "I screamed down to them that we are human beings and what they were doing was completely inhumane," he said. "They yelled back that I was a spy, a collaborator for protecting the Israelis, and that there were already 110 martyrs to avenge."
The policemen retreated to the corner of the briefing room as the mob broke through the door, the last barrier to their terrified prey. Col. Sheikh said he tried to protect one of the Israelis -- probably Mr. Avrahami -- by lying on top of him, but the mob threw him aside. An assailant picked up a metal chair and swung it down at Col. Sheikh's head, but officer Hamodeh Al Jundi deflected the blow with his arm. At that point, the police officers said, their efforts were futile. "They had knives and steel bars," Col. Ishmael said.
Immediately after the first murder, warnings of an Israeli air raid shuddered through the mob. They emptied out of the compound, leaving behind the bloodied officers and Col. Sheikh, who ordered the surviving Israeli to be taken in his car to a nearby Israel-Palestinian liaison office, where he could get protection and medical treatment. The reservist died en route.
Israel responded a few hours later with air strikes on the police station and on targets throughout the Palestinian Authority, including Mr. Arafat's personal compound in Gaza. The retaliation fanned tensions in the Middle East to the point where even Arab leaders began pushing for an emergency summit at the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El-Sheikh; that summit ended yesterday with a cease-fire agreement, and a commitment to form a panel to investigate the recent violence.
The Palestinian Authority is conducting its own investigation into the murders of the two Israeli reservists. It has called on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to open an inquiry into how the reservists could have wandered into Ramallah, given that access routes are controlled by Israeli checkpoints and signs clearly identify the approaches in Hebrew and Arabic.
For his conduct during the lynchings, Col. Sheikh has earned the enmity of Israelis for not preventing the murders, and the contempt of his own people for trying to stop them. "People I don't know come up to me in the street and call me a traitor," he said. "But my conscience is clear."
He added: "As a soldier, I understand that what happened is a violation of the rules of war. As a Muslim, I know it is against the rules of God."