The Killing of the Terrorist With Nine Lives Changed the Course of the Second Intifada

Until January 2002, Fatah did not openly perpetrate attacks in Israel. But a bomb that ended Israel’s long pursuit of Raed Karmi, among the most wanted men of the time, led to a policy change

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Raed Karmi (on the left) at a funeral in Tul Karm in 2001.
Raed Karmi (on the left) at a funeral in Tul Karm in 2001. Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On January 14, 2002, at the height of the second intifada, the death of Raed Mohammed Ra’if al-Karmi brought cries of joy to war rooms in Israel. Karmi, who was number 1 on Israel’s most wanted list and had been operating in the West Bank, was killed near his home in Tul Karm. The Fatah terrorist, who had murdered at least 12 Israelis, was killed when a bomb exploded as he passed it.

Israel did not claim responsibility for the bombing, and at first denied involvement. But Palestinians reported Karmi left his home following a phone call he had received, and that an aircraft circling overhead set off the bomb by remote control.

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The assassination marked the end of a lengthy and widespread manhunt by security forces of Karmi, which demanded many resources. Soldiers planned ambushes and observed his moves, while intelligence units used every means they had to collect as much information about his movements as they could, even from his lovers.

But the challenge was complex. Karmi knew well that he was being followed. He repeatedly fooled Israeli forces and gave them the slip, sometimes at the very last second. There were at least four such times. One of these happened in September 2001, when an Israel Air Force Apache helicopter fired missiles at the jeep in which he was riding. Not many people could survive an attack like that, but Karmi, like a cat with nine lives, escaped the vehicle after the first missile hit it and before the second could do so. He was injured in the face and some claimed he was almost blinded, but he stayed alive. Two of his comrades in the vehicle were killed.

Four months later, he was not so lucky. But the joy in Israel following the assassination was short-lived. Revenge came three days later, on January 17. A Fatah militant from Nablus snuck into the David’s Palace banquet hall in Hadera during a bat mitzvah celebration. He sprayed it with bullets from an automatic weapon and murdered six people – a security guard, a singer and four guests.

Very soon it became clear that Karmi’s death had become a turning point in the history of the second intifada, which began 20 years ago this week. Until Karmi’s assassination, Fatah avoided open terror attacks in Israel – as opposed to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. After that, it changed its policy; the coming months were the bloodiest that Israel knew in the second intifada, with suicide bombings almost every day.

A question of timing

Karmi was 28 years old when he was killed, the father of a six-month old girl. No one doubts that the man considered the rising star among the terrorist groups in the West Bank at that time had to be neutralized – almost at any cost. The dispute, in his case, was over the timing. The assassination happened at a time when attacks were relatively on a decline, and some people hoped for a moment that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s call for a cease-fire – real or imagined – would receive a positive response. Others were less optimistic, both about the chances for the success the potential cease-fire and about Karmi’s part in it. Either way, the argument over the utility of the assassination policy persists to this day, and the question of “what would have happened if” has come up in endless discussions in the security forces, the government and the media.

Born in 1974, Karmi was a teenager in the first intifada when he joined Fatah and took part in stone-throwing against Israel. In 1991, he was injured and arrested by Israel. He was released a few years later following the Oslo Accords. Those who followed his activities at the time called him a “punk.” Nobody predicted then that a few years later he would become one of the symbols of the second intifada.

Like many others in Tanzim, the military wing of Fatah, a combination of opportunities transformed him from a street criminal and neighborhood bully – who according to reports drank alcohol, smoked drugs and harassed women – into a wanted terrorist. First, Tanzim, under the command of Marwan Barghouti, funded his activities and guided him. Karmi, the loyal and successful mercenary, delivered the goods. He organized a cell of armed men, some criminals and some members of the Palestinian security forces, and slowly but surely made himself a reputation as a semi-independent terrorist.

He earned his status in his home town of Tul Karm with many Israeli lives. Even then it was known in Israel that as long as Karmi was alive, every road trip in the vicinity of Tul Karm and Nablus, where he operated, posed a clear and present danger to life and limb for both settlers and soldiers. Almost every action Karmi perpetrated ended with dead and wounded Israelis. Karmi was so consumed with planning and executing attacks at a rate unmatched by any other terrorist of his time that he soon earned the title “ticking bomb.” He occassionally tested the limits of his powers; in one case, he stole a car from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and tried to use it to infiltrate a settlement. In another case, he sent a car thief to put a bomb in the house of an army colonel in Ra’anana.

He took the full list of his victims with him to his grave. It included 12 Israelis that he certainly murdered, along with many injured. Two of his victims were the Tel Aviv restaurateurs and cousins Etgar Zeituni and Moti Dayan, ages 27 and 36. In January 2001, a few months after the Al-Aqsa intifada broke out, the two men went to Tul Karm to shop. An Israeli Arab friend drove them to the city, which is in Area A, completely off-limits to Israelis – evading the roadblock on the way. They sat down for lunch that afternoon at the Abu Nidal restaurant in the city center, and the rumor that they were there soon spread. Karmi was dining in the same restaurant; he later said he heard them speaking Hebrew. As usual, he wasted no time and called his comrades. They raided the place, wearing masks, and abducted Zeituni and Dayan at gunpoint, putting them in a car. They shot them at close range near the Nur al-Shams refugee camp, and discarded their bodies before fleeing the scene.

The scene of the attack on the halls of the Palace of David in Hadera, 2002. Credit: Alon Ron

‘I have no pangs of conscience’

To Karmi, the murder of Zeituni and Dayan was revenge. Two weeks before, on the last day of 2000, Israel assassinated Dr. Thabet Thabet, a 50-year-old dentist who was Fatah’s secretary general in Tul Karm. Palestinians reported at the time that a special force on a military truck shot at his car from 100 meters away. He then crashed into an electric pole and was injured. A few soldiers got off the truck, approached his vehicle and killed him using M-16 rifles.

Thabet’s killing, it turned out later, was a significant turning point in that intifada. Palestinians considered him a political leader. Some portrayed him as a member of the peace camp. Israel, however, attributed numerous attacks to him. Either way, Thabet was the highest-ranking Palestinian that Israel had assassinated to date. His death spurred Karmi, who admired him, to commit ceaseless acts of revenge against Jews.

On May 31, four months after the murder of Zeituni and Dayan, Karmi struck again. School bus driver Zvi Shelef of the settlement of Mevo Dotan, was driving his regular route to Netanya, his hometown. Near the entrance to the village of Baka al-Sharkiya, a passing car opened fire. Karmi pulled the trigger, spraying Shelef’s vehicle with bullets, some of which penetrated his upper body and chest. Shelef, 63, died at the scene. It was the second tragedy in a row for Shelef’s wife, Rachel. Their son Omer had been killed in July 1999 during a trip to India.

Eighteen days later, Karmi and another Tanzim militant murdered Danny Yehuda, 35. Yehuda, a renovations contractor and father of three, had wanted to leave the settlement of Homesh because of the security situation, but he hadn’t been able to do so yet. He had survived a shooting attack on his car on the Nablus bypass road a week earlier.

On June 18, Yehuda was on his way from the settlement of Shavei Shomron to Homesh with his 16-year-old neighbor, Alex Briksman, who helped him at work. Near Nablus, a Mercedes taxi with a Palestinian license plate slowly passed them. Karmi and the other militant, both masked, were sitting inside. After confirming the identity of target, Karmi shot bursts of fire at Yehuda’s car, killing him instantly. He then approached the car to confirm the kill. Briksman played dead, saving his life.

Karmi murdered his next victim on July 4. It was Eliahu Na’aman, 31, of Petah Tikvah. Na’aman, who grew up in Bnei Brak, was a mechanic and a bus driver. On that afternoon he was driving toward the community of Bat Hefer. He was shot and killed instantly at a nearby roadblock, leaving behind a wife and three children. Other victims of Karmi in 2001 were Netanya businessman Dov Roseman, 58, a father of three, murdered near the village of Zeita in August while there to buy textiles; army officer Erez Merhavi, 23, killed in a shooting attack near Kibbutz Bahan in September; Elad resident Hananya Ben-Avraham, 45, of Elad, a father of six who was shot to death on the Avnei Hefetz road on October 5; soldier Yaniv Levi, 22, who was shot to death near Kibbutz Metzer at the end of that month.

“I have no pangs of conscience, Karmi told a reporter who interviewed him in late 2001. “I killed soldiers and settlers, and I say that without fear.” Karmi added he knew he was living on borrowed time, but he warned: “The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Bridades will continue the military struggle. They will take my place. Our will is to continue the intifada as long as there is an Israeli presence in PA areas.”

This attitude, along with the growing number of his victims, raised Karmi’s status in the PA. He was given a security detail. He was fictitiously “arrested” by the PA on Israel’s demand, and appeared in the international media, which was covering the intifada closely.

This status, along with his charisma, also helped him conquer the hearts of many women in the West Bank, which eventually led to his end. Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service enthusiastically followed his betrayals of his wife and documented the details of the women he was with.

He was assassinated while he was on his way to one of those women. A bomb hidden in a wall on one of the streets in eastern Tul Karm blew up when Karmi passed it as he tried to avoid being seen by Israeli aircraft or targeted by snipers. That time, he did not escape death.

The scene of Karmi's assassination, 2002. Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

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