To Go on or Not? Israeli Officials Disagree

Israeli leaders disagreed this week whether to continue the peace process with the Palestinians in the wake of Sunday’s two terror attacks in the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed Sunday that the peace process would continue, saying the terrorists were out “to murder the peace.”

But President Ezer Weizman, along with at least one Cabinet member, called for a suspension of the negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We have to take some time to look at the situation anew,” Weizman said. “This was a grave attack.”

At least seven Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in the two terror attacks in the Gaza Strip on Sunday. The israel Defense Force said four male and two female soldiers were among the dead.

The IDF identified the soldiers as Staff Sgt. Yuval Regev, 20, of Holon; Staff Sgt. Meir Sheinvald, 20, of Safed; Sgt. Etai Diner, 19, of Rishon Lezion; Sgt. Zvi Nirbet, 19, of Rishon Lezion; Sgt. Netta Sufrin, 20, of Rishon Lezion; and Cpl. Tal Nir, 19, of Kibbutz Mefalsim. The name of the civilian casualty was not immediately made public.

The first attack took place shortly before non Sunday near the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom.

Six people were killed and about 30 wounded when a car bomb blew up next to an Egged bus carrying soldiers and settlers. The bus was traveling from Ashkelon to the Gush Katif bloc of settlements in Gaza along a road jointly patrolled by the IDF and the Palestinian police.

The suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden van into the bus near Kfar Darom, detonating the charges and causing massive damage.

Helicopters evacuated the wounded to local hospitals. Residents of the area said the site of the attack was a vulnerable one, adding that shooting incidents had taken place there in the past.

The Islamic Jihad fundamentalist group claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement, the group identified the suicide bomber as Muhammed Al-Khattib.

The organization said the attack was in response to the April 2 explosion at a bomb factory in Gaza City, which willed at least six people, including a leading member of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat blamed the explosion on Hamas, which in turn accused Arafat and Israel of conspiring to set off the blast.

Israeli security officials had been expecting terror attacks in the wake of the Gaza City explosion.

The second attack on Sunday took place two hours after the first, when a car bomb exploded near an Israeli border police jeep near the settlement of Netzarim.

Hamas, in a phone call to an international news agency, claimed responsibility for that attack, in which one person was killed and nine were injured.

Hamas denied that the two attacks had been coordinated.

In a statement issued Sunday from Los Angeles, President Clinton condemned the terror attacks, but said the attacks should not prevent Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization from reaching their goal of a regional peace.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of these terrorist outrages,” the Clinton statement read. “But those responsible must not and shall not be allowed to deny a better future of hope and reconciliation to the region.”

On Saturday, one day before the two attacks, Arafat accused Muslim extremists of using Gaza as a “launching pad” for attacks on Israelis.

Arafat, who issued the statement after the Weekly meeting of the Palestinian Authority, said the ongoing terror attacks were meant to embarrass his self- rule government and to give Israel a “pretext for delaying its withdrawal from the West Bank.”

Palestinian security officials have reportedly arrested several children younger than 11 who were allegedly being trained to carry out suicide bombings against Israelis.

On Sunday night, in the wake of the two attacks, Palestinian officials detained more than 100 suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists in Gaza.

Arafat phoned Rabin on Sunday to extend condolences to the victims’ families and to reiterate his commitment to fight terror.

Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Arafat, told Army Radio that the Palestinian police had prevented at least nine attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in the past three months.

Rabin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak traveled Sunday to the site of the first attack.

Shahak told reporters that most of the passengers on the bus were soldiers who were returning to protect Jewish settlements in Gaza after their weekend leave.

Rabin said a government-imposed closure of the territories will continue in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks from taking place inside Israel. The closure, imposed by Israel in the wake of previous terrorist incidents, prevents tens of thousands of Palestinians from working in Israel.

Rabin said he will demand that Arafat take steps to fight terrorist groups operating in Gaza. But he added that the peace negotiations will continue.

“We will not stop the peace talks,” said Rabin. “We will demand from them to prove, here in Gaza, that they can fight against” the terrorists.

The Cabinet was holding its weekly meeting when the attack near Kfar Darom took place.

Ministers emerged from the session, saying continuation of peace talks would depend on Arafat’s ability to meet his commitments.

“I think this attack requires us to do some serious thinking about the July 1 target date,” said Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, referring to a deadline previously set by Israel and the PLO to complete negotiations on Palestinian elections and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

In contrast, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc called for an acceleration of the peace talks.

He also rejected criticisms he elicited from members of the opposition for remarks he made over the weekend suggesting that the isolated Netzarim settlement should be dismantled.

“They are again blaming us for terror attacks, instead of blaming the Hamas,” Sarid told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Knesset was scheduled to convene in a special Wednesday to discuss the two latest terror attacks.

NEXT STORY