Israel: Grave Doubts

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How did the hijackers die?

The initial accounts were tragically straightforward. Two weeks ago, four Arab men hijacked a bus south of Tel Aviv. Their demand: free 25 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails or else the vehicle and its 39 passengers would be blown up. Then followed a tense, almost ten-hour standoff. Dozens of soldiers ringed the bus; inside, one of the terrorists could be seen holding a grenade launcher. Finally, at 4:45 a.m., Israeli commandos rushed the bus. Two terrorists were killed instantly, and the other two died of their wounds on the way to the hospital. One passenger died and seven were injured in the crossfire. Another grim episode of terrorism, so depressingly familiar to all Israelis, appeared to be at an end.

As it turns out, however, some details remain unclear. There is no doubt that two of the terrorists were killed during the retaking of the bus; photographs of them, one slumped in the driver's seat and the other in the back row, were flashed around the world. But disturbing questions are being asked in Israel about how badly wounded the other two Arabs really were and about the circumstances of their deaths. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who personally directed the rescue operation, is considering whether to hold an official inquiry.

The troubling questions were sparked by pictures taken at the scene by two Israeli newspaper photographers, Alex Libak of Hadashot and Shmuel Rachmani of Ma'ariv. Libak's photograph shows a young man, handcuffed and looking uninjured, being led away from the bus by a pair of security officials dressed in civilian clothes. Rachmani's photograph shows another young man, head down and with a small trace of blood on his face, being hustled away by an Israeli brigadier general and two uniformed soldiers.

Israeli military censors have banned the publication of both pictures. But Hadashot Editor Yossi Klein took Libak's photograph to Banny Shuiel, a village in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip from which the terrorists came. Relatives and neighbors immediately identified the handcuffed man in the picture as Majid Abu-Gumaa, one of the four terrorists. On the other hand, Klein also showed the photo to the bus driver and four passengers; all five said that the man was not one of the terrorists. "I can't say the matter is clear-cut either way," Klein told TIME Jerusalem Correspondent David Halevy. Abu-Gumaa's relatives contend that the picture proves that

Abu-Gumaa was in relatively good shape when he was captured, which would imply he was killed later by the Israelis. The official statements have done little to dispel the mystery. The first announcement, coming about an hour after the commando raid, did not mention the terrorists at all, while the second statement eight hours later simply said all four had been killed. It was not until the next day that an Israeli army spokesman stated that "two terrorists were killed when our forces broke into the bus. The other two died later, on the way to the hospital." It is the last sentence that leaves so many Israelis wanting to know more.