Talks With P.A. Halted After Shootings

By Guy Leshem, With Additional Reporting by Ha’aretz

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — Prospects for renewal of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, already stalled in the wake of two canceled summits this month, went into a deep freeze this week following a pair of Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank that left three Israelis dead and five wounded over the post-Yom Kippur weekend.

Israel immediately reinstituted a series of tough security measures in the West Bank, including roadblocks and village closures. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered all meetings with Palestinian officials halted at once.

Israel described the new measures as essential to protect Israeli lives, but Palestinian officials condemned them as an Israeli effort to “sabotage” this week’s White House visit by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel faced international pressure — from the Bush administration, Moscow and elsewhere — to ease up for fear that the new restrictions would weaken Abbas and strengthen his archrivals, the radical Islamist group Hamas. But the American message, delivered by Washington’s Middle East negotiator, William Ward, was relatively low key. This suggested that the Bush administration would reserve judgment on the Israeli actions until after Abbas and President Bush met this week.

Israel showed no inclination to back off. A source close to Mofaz told the Forward that the latest attacks showed the Palestinian Authority in fact has no leadership. Abbas is “operating in a vacuum,” the source said, and no one is pressing to fight terrorism. Without security, the source added, all plans for further peace progress in the wake of Israel’s Gaza disengagement could “go down the drain.”

The two shooting attacks took place Sunday, October 16, near Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In one attack, at the Etzion bloc junction near Jerusalem, shots were fired at a group of young Israelis waiting at a hitchhiking station. Two cousins, aged 21 and 23, and a 14-year-old were killed. In a separate incident, shots were fired from a passing car at two teenagers near the settlement of Eli, moderately wounding one.

The Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Abbas’s Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Israeli security officials speculated, however, that Hamas ordered the attacks but avoided taking responsibility in order to prevent Israeli retaliation. The officials speculated that Hamas was eager to keep up the violence in order to weaken Abbas but did not want to arouse negative Palestinian public opinion.

A new poll, released this week by Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University, showed Palestinians opposing a renewal of armed attacks by a three-to-one margin.

Mofaz ordered a series of steps in response to the shooting attacks, including banning Palestinians in the West Bank from using private cars. It was decided to resume the complete closure on the territories and to reinstate blockades of cities, mainly in Bethlehem and Hebron. It was also decided that the main bus stops in Judea and Samaria would be fortified, and the roadblocks that had been removed as a gesture toward the Palestinians replaced. Forces in the Bethlehem area will be beefed up, and the targeted killing policy will continue.

Senior defense correspondent Alex Fishman of Yediot Aharonot said that the army and the Shin Bet security service were monitoring the situation closely in an attempt to discern whether the attacks signal the “outbreak of the third intifada.” The initial consensus was that a major offensive by Palestinian militants was not imminent. Military officials suggested privately that the attacks were timed by Palestinian extremist groups to spoil Abbas’s visit to the White House, and furthermore to send a signal that the armed struggle will continue.

Some officials pointed to the relatively low-tech nature of the drive-by shootings as a sign of weakness, suggesting that groups that lacked the infrastructure to mount deadlier suicide bombings carried out the attacks.

Just hours before the attacks, the Palestinian Authority had issued a report touting its success in preventing actions by armed militants. According to the authority’s Internal Security Ministry, Palestinian security services succeeded in thwarting 17 attacks against Israeli targets during the past month as well as preventing 15 cases of Qassam rocket fire.

The Israeli crackdown prompted harsh criticism from the head of Israel’s leftist Meretz Party, Yossi Beilin, who called the army response a “Pavlovian reaction, the much expected reaction which plays exactly to the tune of the Palestinian terror groups.” Speaking to Israel Radio, he said violence would continue until Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed negotiations toward an agreed peace settlement.

Reactions on the right were no less vitriolic. Leaders of the hawkish National Union Party said the attacks were a direct result of Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to leave Gaza, which had transferred the brunt of violence to Israel’s heartland. Sharon has “permitted the shedding of Israeli blood,” National Union lawmaker Zvi Hendel said.

Residents of the settlements where the attacks took place were no less militant. “If the army does not provide us with security, we will organize and protect our lives on our own,” said an Etzion bloc resident who had helped tend to the casualties. “We too are trained soldiers.”

Feelings were widespread among settlers and their supporters that the shootings were the first in a new wave of terrorist attacks, part of a Palestinian plan to force out Israel from its West Bank settlements as it had been forced out of Gaza. “Now we will turn into Gush Katif,” one Etzion bloc resident said.

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