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In Wake of Two Gaza Attacks, Israelis Debate Whether to Go on

Israeli leaders disagreed this week about 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.”

Six Israelis were killed in the first attack. Dozens were wounded both incidents.

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 Leizon; Sgt. Netta Sufrin, 20, of Rishon Lezion; and Cpl. Tal Nir, 19, of Kibbutz Mefalsim.

On Monday, two more people died of wounds sustained in the first suicide bombing, raising the death toll to eight.

One of the two, Aliza Flatow, 20, a student from West Orange, N.J., had been declared brain dead. Israel Television reported that her parents decided to disconnect her from life-support systems and to donate her organs for transplants.

Sgt. Avraham Arditi, 19, of Jerusalem, who was critically wounded in the explosion, also died of his wounds Monday.

The six other soldiers killed in the attack were laid to rest on Monday.

The first attack took place shortly before noon 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 killed 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 at least nine people 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.”

In the wake of Sunday’s violence, the IDF closed off two main Gaza access roads to Palestinian vehicles on Monday.

Palestinian security forces reportedly rounded up some 150 Islamic Jihad and Hamas activists on Monday. In Khan Yunis, located in southern Gaza, Palestinian police exchanged fire with Hamas activists before arresting two of them.

Meanwhile, a Gaza military court sentenced and Islamic Jihad activist on Monday to 15 years in jail for recruiting two others to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis.

This was reportedly the first such sentence of a fundamentalist militant by the Palestinian Authority.

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

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, prevent 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.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal said Monday that unless Arafat takes any real action against the terrorists, Israel will not let any Palestinians into Israel.

According to Shahal, Arafat recently told a senior Israeli official that he tried to reach an understanding with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but that the attempt failed.

“He himself acknowledged that he tried to reach compromise with them and that it did not work,” Shahal said.

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 session Wednesday to discuss the two latest terror attacks.

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