By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian police officer stabbed and killed an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, the military said, in an attack that could place more strain on U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s government, which is pursuing a law-and-order drive in the hope of sidelining Hamas rivals and preparing for statehood, issued a rare condemnation of the attack, calling for “peaceful resistance” to Israel.
An Israeli army spokesman said the assailant stabbed a non-commissioned officer as he sat in his jeep at an intersection outside the West Bank city of Nablus. The assailant was then run down by a passing Israeli motorist and arrested.
“The attacker, Mahmoud Khatib, is a Palestinian police officer,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Khatib’s father, Youssef, told Reuters his son had been in the police for 10 years, most recently serving in the office of the chief of police in the West Bank hub city of Ramallah.
He said Khatib, 34, belonged to Abbas’s Fatah faction and had left for work on Wednesday as normal. “My son is very mild-mannered and I do not believe he would do this,” he said.
An Israeli witness, Yossi Sigalit, told reporters Khatib was wearing civilian clothes.
Israel and the United States have praised Palestinian security efforts in the West Bank. But coordination with the Israeli military has at times been strained by distrust.
Some Israelis say Abbas’s forces cannot be trusted to prevent attacks on Jews, especially by renegade Fatah members.
Palestinians say the patchwork presence of Jewish settlements — regarded internationally as illegal — and unilateral Israeli raids undermine Abbas’s credibility.
Major Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said Khatib’s motivation was not yet clear and that there were no plans “to change anything in the field” in response to the stabbing — for example, by erecting new checkpoints.
NOT IN THE “NATIONAL INTEREST”
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned the stabbing, saying in a statement: “This incident contradicts our national interest and the effort which the Palestinian Authority is exerting, and it contradicts our obligations.”
“Our people is united behind peaceful resistance,” he said, referring to measures such as boycotts of settlement products. “The Palestinian Authority will continue taking strong measures in order to prevent a repetition of such incidents.”
The remarks resonated in Israel. “They (Palestinians) are acting on this and I think they do consider this as an extraordinary issue that needs to be dealt with,” Lerner said.
The stabbing followed what Palestinians said was the wounding a day earlier of a 17-year-old Palestinian by a settler who shot him near Nablus.
The Israeli military also said it was investigating reports a Palestinian had been wounded on Tuesday when a settler-guard fired into the air to disperse stone-throwers.
Security is a key factor in any land-for-peace equation leading to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Abbas has been under special pressure to prove his mettle since Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that spurns the Jewish state, seized control of Gaza in a brief 2007 civil war.
Abbas, who has balked at returning to talks with Israel until it halts settlement expansion, has demanded it stop its military incursions in the West Bank, in areas designated by 1993 interim accords as being under Palestinian control.
The soldier killed on Wednesday was identified as Ihab Chattib, a career non-commissioned officer from Israel’s Druse Arab minority. Despite their similar names, Chattib and Khatib had no prior connection, Lerner said.