Wanted Palestinian Believes he's Marked for Death by Israel

Mahmoud Tawalbeh couldn't sit still any longer. The Islamic militant, who believes he is marked for death by Israel, broke off an interview after spotting an Israeli plane hovering over this West Bank town.

An hour later, Tawalbeh's friend and fellow militant, Nazih Abu Sabaa was killed in a car explosion. Palestinian security officials said the bomb in the car was detonated from the plane Tawalbeh had seen earlier.

The explosion went off just 500 yards from where Tawalbeh, 23, had been meeting with a reporter.

In the past 16 months of fighting, Israel has used missiles and bombs to kill dozens of Palestinian militants accused of involvement in attacks on Israelis.

Tawalbeh has every reason to fear what the Israelis call targeted killings. The Palestinians say they are assassinations.

Since fighting broke out in September 2000, Tawalbeh, a local leader of the Islamic Jihad group, has sent more than a dozen gunmen and suicide bombers to Israel, including his younger brother Morad, 22, who was intercepted and killed by Israeli security forces shortly before he was to carry out a suicide bombing.

For his interview with The Associated Press, Tawalbeh switched venues several times before finally turning up hours late, flanked by bodyguards and disguised as a Palestinian policeman.

In the Jenin area, Tawalbeh is the successor of Islamic Jihad leader Iyad Hardan, who was killed in April when he picked up a booby-trapped phone.

Tawalbeh is filled with a desperate urgency to inflict as much damage on Israel as possible. Asked what would prompt him to lay down his arms, he said: "Only death can stop me."

Tawalbeh is unrepentant, even about sending his brother to his death. "It was hard, but I feel really strongly about it," Tawalbeh said of his brother's suicide mission. "I'm the leader, I can't send others and save my brother."

A thin, slightly built man with dark features, Tawalbeh said he joined Islamic Jihad after violence broke out in September 2000. Watching his friends being killed in fighting made him "very desperate to do something."

He recalled an explosion last year which killed two members of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Tawalbeh said he had been speaking to them only moments earlier. "I was the first one who saw them, I saw their bodies burning, I couldn't help them, I lost my mind," Tawalbeh said.

The popularity of radical Islamic groups has soared in the past 16 months, as Israel has blockaded several Palestinian towns.

Palestinians angrily attacked Palestinian security headquarters in Jenin when they heard Tawalbeh had been arrested and placed in a Nablus jail several months ago. He was released two weeks ago, during an Israeli air strike.

There is no room for compromise or peace with Israel, Tawalbeh said.

Addressing Israelis, he said: "If you want peace, go back to the United States, or the lands you came from."

"This is the only way we can make peace with the Israelis."