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Israeli Shooter was AWOL from Army

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Police in northern Israel are on high alert after a shooting rampage. The man who opened fire was an Israeli army deserter, and by the time the soldier himself was killed, four Israeli Arabs were dead and 20 wounded. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports on what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the act of a bloodthirsty terrorist.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Israeli media report that 19-year-old Eden Natan Zada deserted the army about two months ago after refusing orders to help prepare for Israel's impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Taking his army-issued M-16 rifle with him, Natan Zada moved to the Jewish settlement of Tapuach near Nablus in the West Bank. The settlement is known as the stronghold of Kach, an outlawed extremist movement that calls for the expulsion of all Arabs from both Israel and the occupied territories.

Last night, Natan Zada, still in army uniform and carrying his gun, boarded a bus going from the northern Israeli city of Haifa to the town of Shfaram Amer. When the bus entered the Israeli Arab town, the 56-year-old driver called Natan Zada forward and asked him if he was sure he was on the right bus. It was at that point, according to Israeli media reports, that Natan Zada opened fire, shooting the driver in the head. He then emptied an entire magazine into the bus, killing a Christian shop owner and two Arab sisters who were students at a teachers college in Haifa.

As the shooting stopped, angry residents of Shfaram Amer stormed the bus and beat Natan Zada to death. It took police several hours to calm the situation before they were able to get on the bus and retrieve the bodies. The killings angered Israel's Arab citizens, who make up close to 20 percent of the population. Police braced for trouble Friday, ahead of the funerals for the victims of the rampage. But Jafar Farah, the director of an advocacy center for Israeli Arabs, denied there would be any unrest, and he charged the police with incitement.

Mr. JAFAR FARAH: There's no plans for demonstration. The plan is to have funerals of the victims. And the fact that this question is raised again and again, it's the fact that the security forces, especially the police, is inciting since last night about such riots that nobody's planning such a thing.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli investigators say they're still not certain what prompted the rampage by Natan Zada, but his mother, Debbie(ph), speaking on Israel radio, blamed the army.

DEBBIE (Eden Natan Zada's Mother): (Through Translator) I begged the army to go and get him. The army is guilty. They gave him the gun. They knew he didn't want to go to the army and they still gave him a gun. Now my child is gone.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say they have long feared this kind of an attack by an extremist, hoping to derail the government's plan to withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza. Joseph Alpher, an Israeli analyst and former intelligence official, says the rampage showed a clear intelligence failure.

Mr. JOSEPH ALPHER (Israeli Analyst): It seems to me that the mistake was not to put people like this, known extremists who have weapons--one, not to disarm them, and, two, not to put them under some kind of administrative detention, at least for the duration of the disengagement. Beyond that, I think the army has to ask itself how it doesn't succeed or does--perhaps doesn't even try to weed out people like this and get them out of the service and get them away from weapons.

GRADSTEIN: With the start of the Israeli withdrawal now less than two weeks away, Alpher thinks another extremist attack is likely. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.