Turmoil threatens progress in Mideast

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - The day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 Israelis on a bus in Jerusalem on Tuesday, senior officials of the Israeli and Palestinian governments gathered in separate meetings to decide how to respond - and in the process set in motion a chain of events that may determine the fate of the American-backed "road map" to peace.

The Palestinians debated whether to arrest members of Hamas and other militant organizations, and whether to seize the organizations' weapons. According to several Palestinian and Israeli accounts, when that all-night meeting ended in Thursday's pre-dawn hours, a stalemate remained over who would control Palestinian security forces - Yasser Arafat or Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was informed that Arafat wanted another 24 hours before deciding whether to confront Hamas, Sharon spokesman Avi Pazner said in an interview yesterday.

Sharon, unhappy about the delay, worried that the Palestinians would decide to take only small steps against Hamas, Pazner said. And for Israel, the window of opportunity for the Palestinian Authority had closed.


"It was obvious the Palestinians were not going to do anything," Pazner said.

Later Thursday, Israel took action on its own, as an Israeli helicopter strike in Gaza City killed a Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, and two bodyguards. That, with the earlier bus bombing in Jerusalem, brought a seven-week-old cease-fire to a thunderous close.

Palestinian officials, however, give a different account of the Wednesday night meeting that involved Arafat. Several interviewed yesterday agreed that leaders were deadlocked with Arafat over how to consolidate security forces, but they insist that he had approved a sweeping campaign to arrest militants, scheduled to begin Thursday night.

The killing of Abu Shanab, they said, undermined those efforts and threatened the legitimacy of Abbas and his government. "All it did was make matters worse," a high-ranking Palestinian official said yesterday. "We're back to square one."

Israeli officials argue that in the long run, an Israeli war on Hamas will help the Palestinian Authority by removing a mutual enemy and, in effect, make it easier for Abbas to assert real control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian leaders counter that Israel has sabotaged the reform-minded government it pushed to create.

Yesterday in Gaza, tens of thousands of people turned out for Abu Shanab's funeral procession, marching under the banners of militant groups and shouting for revenge. Masked gunmen fired automatic weapons into the air. Young boys marched dressed as suicide bombers - wearing white robes with fake bombs strapped to their waists.

Members of the crowd chanted, "We need to spill more blood."


Meanwhile, the Israeli army sent its tanks back into positions that they had left in the Gaza Strip when the cease-fire started. They partitioned the strip into thirds and again took control of a central north-south road. To prevent mortar and rocket fire aimed at Israeli towns, troops also prepared to reoccupy villages in Gaza's northern fringe.

Israeli troops also shot and killed two Palestinian militants on the roof of a hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus.

But Israel also gave Abbas another opportunity. The Israeli army said it would delay additional attacks against militant groups for 24 hours to give the Palestinian Authority time to act. Israel said the 24-hour period had begun Thursday night.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dispatched his political adviser, Osama el-Baz, to talk with both Israel and the Palestinians, and el-Baz first met with Arafat.

Saeb Erekat, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and close adviser to Arafat, said yesterday that the Egyptian envoy "thinks that things are deteriorating faster than a speeding bullet" and that "damage control is needed."

"We are now trying to preserve the road map, the cease-fire and the situation," he said. "We believe that the Israelis have launched a comprehensive war on the Palestinian Authority. It seems that the Israelis are out for total destruction."


But Erekat, who attended the meeting with el-Baz and Arafat, would not comment on precisely what was decided or whether security forces would move against militant groups. He disputed Israel's contention that Arafat blocked progress this week, saying that Abbas was given full control.

Israel's decision to kill Abu Shanab set up what some Israeli analysts predict will be a final confrontation with Hamas. Israel's actions, they say, will either force the Palestinian Authority to impose its will on the militants, or Israel will seek to eliminate them itself.

"The state of Israel has finally freed itself from its own demagoguery - to regularly blame Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and everyone else for destroying the peace process - and marked the central factor in holding back the process: Hamas," Alex Fishman wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

"Until yesterday, we shouted at the Palestinians that it was not doing anything against Hamas," he wrote. "It did not help. So we shouted louder. It was a waste of time and energy."

Two Israeli newspapers published lists yesterday of militant leaders who could be possible targets for assassination, shown on playing cards similar to those the United States has used in Iraq.

The Hamas suicide attack in Jerusalem, said Pazner, the aide to Sharon, showed that the "Palestinian Authority was completely wrong in its approach of dialogue with terrorist organizations - a complete failure of the policy of nonconfrontation."


Sharon, Pazner said, had three choices Wednesday night: wait for the Americans to increase pressure on Abbas to dismantle Hamas, at the risk of other attacks being staged; order the army back into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in another sweeping military action; or draw up a list of high-profile targets, including Shanab.

The prime minister chose to kill militant leaders. "We will do whatever we can to prevent further attacks," Pazner said, adding that President Bush did not object to retaliation during a telephone conversation with Sharon on Thursday. "If it means eliminating the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, we will do it."

Reuven Paz, an expert on extremist groups for the International Policy Institute on Counter Terrorism in Israel, said that the final confrontation with Hamas and similar groups has not occurred. "I think this is just another round," he said.

Hamas' real intention, Paz said, was to end peace efforts and paralyze the Palestinian leadership by carrying out "more suicide attacks, which makes Israel retaliate more harshly."

"I think that Israel played into Hamas' hands with the assassination," he said.

Such harsh actions by Israel, he said, also drive more Palestinians to extremism. "Even if the Palestinian public does not give direct support to Hamas, they give general support for retaliation and revenge against Israel," he said.


Paz also said he doubts that Israel's military can dismantle Hamas. "During the past three years, we eliminated almost all their military leaders either by killing them or arresting them," he said. "And there are always new commanders and new volunteers for suicide bombings. They don't have any shortage."

Israeli leaders say they are trying to target militant groups while leaving Palestinian institutions intact. Pazner said the Sharon government wants Abbas to stay on as prime minister.

"He is our partner, or potential partner, in the peace process," Pazner said. "And although he didn't do much against terror, we hope that he will remain in power."