HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli soldiers killed a 65-year-old Palestinian in his bedroom Friday during a pre-dawn raid to seize a Hamas suspect who lived in the same building, in what the army admitted was a mistake.
The man was shot as troops swooped on houses in the occupied West Bank to re-arrest five members of the Islamist Hamas group who had been freed from Palestinian jails just the day before.
The U.S.-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which often coordinates West Bank security with Israel, rejected Hamas charges of responsibility for Amr Qawasme’s death and said the blame was exclusively Israel’s.
Soldiers broke into Qawasme’s home, one floor above a Hamas militant, and stormed into his bedroom, his wife Sobheye said. She heard shots and found Qawasme lying in a pool of blood.
“I was praying when they entered. I do not know how they opened the door. They put their hand to my mouth and a rifle to my head,” she told Reuters.
“I was shocked. They did not allow me to talk. I asked them, ‘What did you do?’ They asked me to shut up.”
Reuters Television video showed Qawasme had been shot in the head and body. Bullet casings were scattered on the floor of his room, his pillow and mattress left soaked with blood.
The Israeli army expressed regret that soldiers who went to arrest Wael Mahmoud Said Bitar — who it said had helped plan a 2008 suicide bomb attack in which an Israeli woman was killed — had killed a man in the house during the raid.
“Unfortunately, during this operation a man uninvolved in terror got killed in Hebron,” Brigadier General Nitsan Alon told reporters. “We’re investigating this case and we’ll inform you when we have more information.”
Violence in the occupied West Bank has largely tapered off in the past few years as a result of security measures by Israel and Abbas’s bolstered and foreign-trained Palestinian police.
But tension has resurged in the past week, coinciding with a deepening deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Last Friday, a Palestinian woman died following a protest against an Israeli barrier built across the West Bank. A local medic said the woman died after inhaling tear gas.
Sunday, an Israeli soldier shot dead a Palestinian who approached a West Bank checkpoint holding a glass bottle.
General Alon said there was no link between the incidents and no concern that rules of engagement were being violated. The army was in touch with Palestinian officials and would show that tear gas did not cause the woman’s death, he said.
Israel and Abbas’s self-rule administration have a common foe in Hamas, which rejects co-existence with the Jewish state and controls the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory.
Several hundred Hamas followers have been rounded up by Abbas’ forces since the Palestinian split in 2007. Hamas in Gaza has similarly cracked down on members of Abbas’s Fatah movement.
The Israelis sometimes chafe at Abbas’s handling of the group. They were clearly irked by the Palestinian Authority’s decision to release the Hamas militants Thursday. Israeli reports said the militants, who had been on hunger strike, were freed at the request of the emir of Qatar.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said the Hamas men were freed to foster intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and Hamas had been “warned that they may be arrested by occupation forces.”
But a Hamas spokesman in Gaza nevertheless said the movement “holds the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank responsible with the (Israeli) occupation for the crime.”
Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat said a complaint had been filed with the United States and European Union over the incident.
“We strongly condemn this cold-blooded killing and the arrest of brothers from Hamas. The Israeli government shoulders responsibility for the lives of those arrested,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Douglas Hamilton in the West Bank; Writing by Dan Williams and Douglas Hamilton; editing by Mark Heinrich