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To Hamas, I was a Zionist Prod, to the Israelis, an IRA sniper

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HEAD TO HEAD: A soldier and a young man square up to each other in one of the world's most
enduring conflicts.

HEAD TO HEAD: A soldier and a young man square up to each other in one of the world's most enduring conflicts.

HEAD TO HEAD: A soldier and a young man square up to each other in one of the world's most enduring conflicts.

We drove around the back streets of Gaza City with an Irish tricolour taped to the car aerial.

I had brought the flag to Gaza as a gift for a Palestinian friend, but ended up employing it as part of a pathetic attempt at diplomatic immunity.

It was obvious to anyone looking at our battered old Hyundai that this was no consular mission, just a scared television crew trying to look like neutrals in this nasty war.

We were looking for the home of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. But we knew that the Israeli army was looking for him too. We wanted an interview. It wanted to kill him.

In the previous months, several Hamas leaders had been targeted by the Israelis. Their homes had been hit by bombs dropped by F16 planes. Apache attack helicopters had fired rockets at their cars. Gaza was a very nervous place.

The conventional wisdom was that killing Yassin, who was not only the spiritual leader of Hamas but a paraplegic to boot, would be a step too far. Surely the Jewish state would not risk the ferocious backlash and international condemnation that would follow the killing of such a figure? But the buzz of the spotter plane overhead and the sighting of Apache helicopters suggested otherwise. The Israelis were clearly waiting for an opportunity.

According to Israeli intelligence, Yassin gave his blessing to the suicide bombers who killed innocent Israeli civilians as they sat on buses on their way to work or to school. According to some, Yassin was the man who gave the actual go-ahead.

Israel's policy of so-called "targeted assassination" has left hundreds of Palestinian militants dead in the last few years. But these extrajudicial killings are not always targeted. Often, innocent bystanders also die. So, that day, we hoisted the tricolour, stuck bright yellow "TV" markings on the roof of the car and drove on in search of our interviewee.

Yassin's "hideout" was a small grey, single- storey building on the edge of one of the city's refugee camps. There was no lookout that I could see, and no visible security outside or inside the building. Perhaps Yassin believed he was immune from attack.

After we made our way into the tiny house and began the interview, I asked him whether he believed the Israelis were trying to kill him. He just gave me a smile and a facial shrug that I took to mean, "Who knows?" When I asked if he was worried that his life was in danger, he gave another shrug and told me that God would protect him.

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Maybe, I thought. But what about the rest of us?

Someone must have told him about the Irish flag on our car because, as we prepared to leave (I had never seen the TV crew move so quickly), the sheikh wanted to discuss the Irish struggle for freedom. Or at least I thought he did. What he really wanted to know was whether I was a Catholic or a Protestant.

As I struggled to avoid giving him a straight answer, he told me he thought I was the latter. The giveaway, as far as he was concerned, was that I had pressed him hard on the question of suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians. In his eyes, that made me an Israeli sympathiser. And he knew all about the Protestants' support for the Israeli cause.

Discussing the IRA's endorsement of the Palestinian cause was not something

I really wanted to do. And certainly not with the spiritual leader of a fundamentalist Islamic organisation who was on Israel's death list. So I explained that the editors of the Six One news were anxious to get his words of wisdom on air, and bolted.

Two weeks later, Yassin narrowly escaped death when the Israelis dropped a bomb on an apartment building in Gaza city where he was meeting other Hamas leaders. Some months later, as Yassin was being wheeled from a Gaza mosque after prayers, he was hit by a rocket fired from a helicopter gunship. When the smoke cleared, nothing remained but a few pieces of burnt wheelchair.

If Yassin had me marked as a "Zionist Prod", the Israelis had me down as an IRA man freelancing for the Palestinians. I was not the only one. For a few weeks in early 2002, just about every Irishman had been looked at as the infamous IRA sniper who was roaming the West Bank hills in search of Israeli victims.

The Israeli security forces at the airport were very keen to know what knowledge I had of the "Irish sniper" who had already shot dead several IDF soldiers in the West Bank.

The tale of the alleged IRA sniper who joined the Palestinian fight had spread like wildfire but there was little or no evidence to support the theory.

What we knew for sure was that in March 2002 a lone gunman had taken up a position high above an Israeli army checkpoint on a stretch of road between Ramallah and Nablus. shortly after first light he opened fire and, with single shots fired from a rifle of WWII vintage, picked off several of the army reservists manning the checkpoint.

The gunman was so patient that on several occasions the soldiers believed he had gone. As they began to emerge from behind their concrete barriers, he opened up again. He fired 15 shots and killed 10 people. Then he dropped the rifle and simply walked away.

The operation was so markedly different from the suicidal nature of previous attacks that in Israel, word quickly spread that it couldn't possibly have been the work of a Palestinian.

Some British journalist decided it had to be the work of the IRA. Or at least an IRA sniper. A gun for hire. The right-wing Jerusalem Post picked up on the story.

So, when I told the Israeli security officers at the airport where I was from and where I had been, I was questioned at length. For 30 minutes, they asked seemingly simple questions about my career as a journalist, (I neglected to mention that I had worked for the Derry Journal); my time in the West Bank, and even the corporate structure of RTE (they didn't understand it either). Then they asked exactly the same questions again. They were coming around for a third lap when I lost my patience.

"Look," I said, "all this stuff about an IRA sniper is just bullshit; I spent two weeks on this story and there is no evidence of any Irishman being involved."

The security officer pretended to be confused. "So why would the English newspapers say that an Irishman was involved?" she asked.

"What? You think the English are capable of being anti-Semitic but not anti-Irish?"

She laughed. "Thank you sir, you are free to go."

Richard Crowley is RTE's Jerusalem Correspondent; his book 'No Man's Land' has just been published by Liberties Press


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