Independent News

UN rejects Israeli account of British official's killing

By Eric Silver in Jerusalem

25 November 2002

The United Nations dismissed as "not credible" yesterday an Israeli army claim that Palestinian gunmen fired from inside a UN compound in the West Bank city of Jenin on Friday before its soldiers shot dead Iain Hook, a 52-year-old British relief worker.

Paul McCann, a spokesman for the UN relief agency, said: "Our preliminary findings are completely contrary to what the Israeli army said. The compound is quite small. At no point did we lose control of the site. There were no militants on the site. I am very sad and angry that the man was shot dead while working in a clearly marked UN compound."

A security expert from UN headquarters in New York began immediately to investigate in greater depth how Mr Hook, who was heading a £17m project to rebuild the Jenin refugee camp razed in an Israeli invasion in April, met his death. He was transferred last night to an Israeli forensic medicine laboratory near Tel Aviv, but UN officials were awaiting his family's decision on where to hold a post-mortem examination. Palestinians showed up in big numbers with flowers when the dead man was put into a UN ambulance for transfer to Jerusalem.

The Israelis said Mr Hook was shot by a soldier who mistook a mobile phone he was holding for a grenade. They maintained that militants were firing from inside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency compound and from neighbouring alleys, using civilians as defensive shields. In one case, the army said, a gunman shot from behind a woman carrying a blue flag of the agency.

The troops were on a search mission for a top Islamic Jihad operative, Abdullah Naji Wahash, when they came under fire. Israel blames Mr Wahash for plotting many bombings, including a suicide attack on a bus that killed 14 Israelis last month. He surrendered after the shooting abated.

Although Israel apologised for the "error", the shooting provoked a crisis in its relations with the UN and Britain. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, demanded a full investigation. Mr Hook is the first foreign UN official to be killed since the Palestinian intifada broke out 26 months ago.

Elsewhere on the West Bank, Israeli troops yesterday barred worshippers from attending services in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They reoccupied the city of Jesus Christ's birth on Thursday after a Hamas suicide bomber killed 11 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus.

Thursday's bus bombing provoked a series of attacks by angry Jews against Arabs and their property in Jerusalem. Such reprisals have been surprisingly limited inside Israel after previous atrocities.

On Saturday night, dozens of Jewish youths stormed an Arab-owned bakery near the site of the bombing and caused heavy damage. Others had earlier tossed a firebomb into the building. The two owners, who were on the premises, escaped unhurt. Police arrested three Jewish suspects.

Other youths pelted an Arab car and attacked two female Arab students at the Hebrew University who were returning to their dormitory. Across Jerusalem, in the mixed Arab-Jewish neighbourhood of Abu Tor, vandals slashed the tyres of 14 cars owned by Palestinians.