In the wake of last Friday’s suicide bombing that claimed the lives of three Israeli army reserve officers, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has demanded that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat disarm Islamic militants operating in the Gaza Strip.
The bombing, which occurred near the isolated Netzarim settlement in Gaza, underscored the problem for Israeli security forces in combatting fundamentalist terror.
It also highlighted the difficulties in providing security for Israeli settlers who live alongside hostile Palestinian neighbors.
The suicide attack, which also wounded six Israelis and five Palestinians, came at a time when Israel and Palestinian negotiators are attempting to tackle the issue of an Israeli army withdrawal from Arab population centers in the West, a move timed to coincide with upcoming Palestinian elections.
Speaking at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Rabin said that Arafat was not doing enough to crack down on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, two fundamentalist groups responsible for recent terrorist attacks against Israelis. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for last Friday’s bombing.
In the wake of the Gaza attack, Palestinian police have rounded up more than 170 suspected Islamic Jihad activists, including the brother of the movement’s leader in Gaza. But many of the movement’s top officials evaded detention by going into hiding.
Arafat ordered similar roundups following recent terror assaults on Israelis, only to have the suspects released in a matter of days.
At a meeting with Arafat last week, Rabin had demanded that the PLO leader take more aggressive measures against fundamentalist terror groups.
As the Cabinet discussed the bombing, the three Israeli army reserve officers killed in the attack were laid to rest Sunday.
They were Capt. Dror Elad, 24, of Kibbutz Nahshon; Lt. Yotam Rahat, 31, of Tel Aviv; and Capt. Yehezkel Sapir, 36, of Kfar Saba.
The attack occurred around 1:45 p.m., when a Palestinian carrying about 22 pounds of explosives strapped to his body rode his bicycle past an army checkpoint some 200 yards from the entrance to the Netzarim settlement and blew himself up.
The three reserve officers, who were at the checkpoint to brief soldiers on how to deal with Palestinian demonstrations, were killed immediately.
Four Israeli soldiers and two police officers were wounded, two of them seriously.
Four Palestinians in a nearby car were also wounded in the explosion, as was a Palestinian police colonel.
The suicide bomber was identified as 21-year-old Hisham Hamad, from Gaza City’s Sheik Rejwan neighborhood. Hamad had been jailed in 1991 because of his activities with the Islamic Jihad.
When the attack occurred, the fundamentalist group was holding a rally in Gaza City attended by some 3,000 Palestinians.
An Islamic Jihad spokesman said at the rally that Friday’s bombing was in revenge for the death of one of its leaders, Hani Abed, who died after a bomb demolished his car on Nov. 2.
Palestinians have blamed Israel for the bombing, saying it came in revenge for recent terror attacks on Israelis.
In addition to rounding up suspects, the Palestinian Authority imposed new rules regarding demonstrations, after television broadcasts of last Friday’s rally showed protesters firing guns and burning flags.
Freih Abu Medein, Justice Minister in the Palestinian Authority, said the Islamic Jihad had crossed a red line during the rally.
“What you saw on television is very dangerous, and will be a bad sign to potential investors and the international community,” he told Army Radio. “We are not a Lebanon, we are not an Iran. We ate in Gaza, and everybody should comply with the rules.”
The Islamic Jihad canceled a Monday funeral procession for Hamad after Palestinian police stationed large numbers of forces at intersections throughout Gaza City.
Meanwhile, Israel and the PLO have asked several countries to send monitors to the Palestinian self-rule areas of Gaza and the West Bank district of Jericho.
Under the Cairo agreement signed last May for implementing Palestinian self- rule, Israel and the PLO agreed to deploy a 400-member temporary international presence in both areas for six months.
The Palestinian Authority said in a statement that the observers would monitor any violations of the self-rule accord by the two sides. A similar mission was deployed earlier this year in the West Bank town of Hebron after a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians at a local mosque.
Commenting on the difficulties involved in combatting fundamentalist terror, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, said at the bombing site last Friday, “Such an act, when someone is intent on carrying out an attack and killing himself in the process, is very difficult to prevent.”
Barak said the Palestinian Authority was responsible for preventing terror attacks in Gaza.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal said the attack near Netzarim proved that Arafat’s leadership was totally ineffective.
The attack near Netzarim, a community of some 180 residents that is isolated from other Jewish settlements in Gaza, dramatically highlighted the question of how to provide security for Israelis living in autonomous Palestinian districts.
At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Rabin warned against rushing forward with a redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank. He said that ensuring the safety of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank was even more complex than in Gaza and that negotiations could take a long time.
While the self-rule accord specifies that no existing Jewish settlements would be moved or dismantled during the five-year interim period of Palestinian autonomy, several Cabinet ministers have implied that moving the settlements might be a good idea.
Agriculture Minister Yakov Tsur called for a total separation between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, even if that meant relocating Netzarim.
Opposition members reacted to the attack with a call for an immediate half in negotiations with the PLO.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to the next stage of negotiations for extending Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank, said Rabin must stop setting up other regions like Gaza in which terrorists could operate freely.
Raphael Eitan, leader of the right-wing Tsomet Party, said the attack was proof the Palestinians did not want peace.