Israelis shocked by death of elite commander, deadly tank ambush

The Israeli army has suffered a debilitating double-blow in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the commander of one of its…

The Israeli army has suffered a debilitating double-blow in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the commander of one of its elite commando units killed in a freak incident and one of its hitherto near-invincible Merkava tanks blown up by a bomb and three members of its crew killed.

Lieut-Col Eyal Weiss, the commander of the "Duvdevan" undercover unit, died yesterday morning during a raid on the West Bank village of Saida, inside Palestinian-held territory near Tulkarm. The unit had surrounded the home of an Islamic Jihad activist, Mr Jasser Ghdad, and began bulldozing the building when Mr Ghdad fired on soldiers and refused to give himself up.

Eventually, witnesses said, Mr Ghdad surrendered. Col Weiss (34) took him aside to search him, and a wall of the part-demolished building collapsed on the officer, killing him. "It was the worst case of bad luck imaginable," said Gen Yitzhak Eitan, the army's commander for the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian sources said that an Islamic Jihad member, Mr Anwar Rani, was also killed in the same raid, and that five men were arrested - all of them alleged by Israel to have been involved in Intifada violence. The army also made two arrests in a second West Bank raid.


The death of so prominent a soldier came hard on the heels of an even heavier psychological blow - the destruction of a Merkava tank in the Gaza Strip on Thursday night.

In what was clearly a well-planned guerrilla-style operation claimed jointly by Hamas and Mr Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO, a large explosive device was detonated under the tank, which was heading to the scene of a shooting and bombing attack on an Israeli civilian convoy.

The Merkava is the most advanced and best-protected tank in the Israeli army, and arguably the safest in the world, and had previously been regarded as virtually indestructible. But the bomb, estimated to contain 220 lb of explosives, blew it on to its side and blew off its turret, and the driver and two crew members were killed.

A spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, said the dead men were victims of "our battle against Arafat's terror." The army yesterday demolished several Palestinian homes and police positions in the area, which it said had provided cover for the attackers.

A Hamas spokesman called the attack legitimate "resistance to occupation" and said it was carried out to avenge the deaths of five Palestinian policemen during a large Israeli military raid in Gaza on Wednesday - itself launched in response to the firing of two Kassam rockets into Israel and Hamas threats to fire the rockets at Israeli cities.

Writing in yesterday's Ma'ariv daily, an Israeli military analyst, Rafi Mann, said the blowing-up of the Merkava was a telling strike against "one of the symbols of the Israeli army's power" - akin to "terrorists, with their Kalashnikovs and home-made rockets, downing an F-16." The attack, he added, signalled that the Intifada had now metamorphosed into the kind of guerrilla war Israel fought in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s.

AP reports:

Israeli F-16 warplanes attacked a Palestinian security compound north of Gaza City last night, setting off three explosions.

A fire broke out in the compound in the town of Jebalya. Witnesses said many Palestinian security officials were in the compound at the time of the attack.