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Monday January 22, 2001

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Israeli boy apparently lured to his death through Internet

By The Associated Press

ASHKELON, Israel - Ophir Rakhum, a quiet computer-obsessed Israeli teen-ager, had a secret he shared only with a few friends: he had made contact with an American girl, a tourist, through the Internet and was planning to meet her.

On Tuesday, the 16-year-old Rakhum left his home in the coastal town of Ashkelon for his date in Jerusalem, reportedly carrying a large sum of money. A day later, he was found dead in the West Bank town of Ramallah, his body riddled with 15 bullets.

The girl turned out to be Palestinian, an accomplice either of criminals or Palestinian militants. Rakhum's classmates are struggling to understand what happened to their friend and how he ended up in Ramallah at a time when the Israeli army bars Israelis from entering Palestinian towns.

Rakhum's friends described him as intelligent and curious, but naive. One friend said Rakhum was not familiar with Jerusalem and might not have known he was leaving the city and entering Ramallah, where in October two Israeli soldiers were killed by a mob of Palestinians.

The cruelty of Rakhum's killing stunned Israelis and prompted Prime Minister Ehud Barak to call another delay in negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he could not hold talks in an atmosphere of violence.

In all, the past four months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have left 368 people dead: 315 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs, 39 other Israelis and a German doctor.

Eulogizing Rakhum, Israeli Cabinet Minister Michael Melchior said the killers had preyed on the boy's innocence.

"All of Israel is crying today," Melchior said. "What a horror that we raise our children to be merciful, to care about others ... to get close to them, but then, when they get close to them, the cruelest thing of all happens."

Hundreds of people stood in the rain and cried in a muddy cemetery next to a field of orange trees Friday as Rakhum was buried.

Shahar Kommi, 17, said his friend was obsessed with computers. He had his own Web page where he posted popular song lyrics and pictures.

"The computer was his whole life," said 18-year-old Liron Vaitzman, another friend.

On Tuesday, Rakhum left Ashkelon for a second date with a woman he had been e-mailing; they'd already met once, six weeks ago at the central bus station in Jerusalem. The woman wrote to Rakhum in English and told him she was an American tourist living in Jerusalem.

Vaitzman said his trip was a secret Rakhum shared only with a few friends. "He said that if he didn't return in the evening that he would be back in the morning and would tell his friends everything," she said.

After meeting Rakhum in Jerusalem, the woman - Israel TV said she called herself Sally - drove him to the Sateh Marhaba neighborhood of Ramallah, where her accomplices pulled him from the car and shot him, Palestinian security officials said. Israel TV said shots were fired from at least two weapons.

A witness said he saw one man dragging a body down the road. A long streak of blood about 30 feet long marked the path.

The killers buried Rakhum in a different neighborhood of Ramallah, where he was found Wednesday. His body was handed over to Israel a day later because of initial confusion over his identity. Palestinian police initially believed he was a Palestinian informer for Israel, killed by Palestinian militants.

Police have since detained a large number of known car thieves and drug dealers, said Col. Mohammed Abu Salah, head of the West Bank police investigation unit.

Rakhum's friends said they suspected the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks in recent years.

When news of a 16-year-old boy being killed in Ramallah was broadcast Thursday, those who were in on Rakhum's secret trip knew right away that it was him.

They said they had been worried since Wednesday when he didn't come to school. One friend sent a written message to Rakhum's mobile phone. A written reply came back that said, "I'm OK, everything is fine and I'll tell you all about it later."