JERUSALEM—An Israeli army deserter angry about his nation's imminent plans to shut down Jewish settlements opened fire on passengers in a bus driving through an Arab neighborhood Thursday, killing four Israeli Arabs before a mob besieged and beat him to death, according to police and military officials.
The attack in northern Israel has the potential to inflame tensions at a fragile moment for Israel, which is preparing to dismantle 25 Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian lands.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been working to prevent extremists on both sides from derailing the contentious settlement shutdown. Security forces concerned about Jewish radicals have stepped up security at Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam and a constant flashpoint for violent protests. Palestinian officials have been working to halt a series of rocket attacks on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip slated for closure.
The assailant was identified by the military as Pvt. Eden Nathan Zaada, a 19-year-old Israeli who had recently become a follower of an outlawed right-wing extremist movement and deserted from the army to protest the plans to shut down Jewish settlements.
On Thursday afternoon, Zaada, wearing his army uniform and carrying his military machine gun, boarded a bus in a largely Arab town of Shfaram and opened fire, killing the bus driver and three passengers, police said. Within minutes, angry residents surrounded the bus, chased away police and beat the man to death.
In mid-June, according to Israeli officials, Zaada deserted his unit as the military was preparing its soldiers for the settlement shutdown scheduled to begin in about two weeks.
Zaada's family said he had recently moved to one of the more radical Israeli West Bank settlements, where he reportedly joined followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a fiery political figure who was assassinated in 1990 by an Egyptian terrorist after giving a New York City speech.
One of Zaada's friends called him "the first victim of the sadistic disengagement plan."
"I never heard him say anything about an intention to kill people, but I hope that he was not killed in vain and his murder will put an end to the expulsion plan," Yekutiel Ben-Yaakov told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned the attack and immediately appealed for calm.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the shooting "a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist" and "a deliberate attempt to harm the fabric of relations among all Israeli citizens."
Shaul Goldstein, a settlement leader who has helped organize weeks of largely peaceful protests that have brought out tens of thousands of activists, denounced Zaada as "a crazy man and a lunatic" whose actions couldn't be justified.
"He is a terrorist just like any other terrorist with Hamas or Islamic Jihad," Goldstein said. "There is no purpose on Earth that can justify the killing of innocent people."
Zaada's aunt voiced surprise at her nephew's actions.
Yardena Cohen said she knew Zaada had fled the army, opposed the government's settlement shutdown and started living at the West Bank settlement. But she called him the "nicest, warmest person" and never thought he was capable of such violence.
Under the plan, Israel will remove all 8,500 Israeli settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip, along with about 500 others from four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank.
Sharon has cast his initiative as a way to bolster Israel's security, but settlement leaders have condemned it as cowardly capitulation to terrorists.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian leader, called the attack "a very dangerous incident" and urged Israel to press ahead with the settlement shutdown "in a peaceful and orderly manner."
The incident was the worst such attack since 1994, when a U.S.-born settler opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a religious site sacred to Muslims and Jews, killing 29 Palestinians.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map