JERUSALEM (Jun. 26)
Terrorism exploded in the face of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s peace mission to the Middle East this week.
Two separate attacks — one in Saudi Arabia, which killed at least 19 Americans, and one in Israel, which killed at least three Israeli soldiers – – prompted renewed calls for cooperation in combating terrorism around the world.
The attacks overshadowed the U.S. secretary of state’s visit and raised new fears about a new round of terrorism in the region.
But even before the explosions, it appeared that Christopher’s talks with Israeli and Arab leaders had done little to ease the recent friction between the two sides.
The tensions stemmed from Arab charges that the new Israeli government has abandoned the land-for-peace principle, and Israeli accusations that the Arabs were trying to set preconditions on negotiations.
Christopher cut short his visit in the Egyptian capital to fly Wednesday to Saudi Arabia, where a powerful truck bomb exploded the night before, killing at least 19 people and seriously wounding nearly 400 at a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Dhahran.
Speaking earlier in Jerusalem, where he met President Ezer Weizman, Christopher vowed that the United States would hunt down those responsible.
“We will not rest until these terrorists are brought to justice,” he told reporters. “We will hunt them down and find them, and will not be deterred in taking the action necessary to protect our forces and carry out our mission.”
President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both extended condolences to the American people in messages conveyed to Christopher.
Although no group had yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Weizman pointed an accusing finger at Iran, which is believed to train, support and direct Muslim militant groups.
“I bet that the Iranians are behind” the bombings, he said, “and it is time the world realized it.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, accused Syria of increasing its support of terrorist activities in the region. The Israeli leader said he would suggest practical and international steps to pressure Syria when he meets President Bill Clinton on July 9 in Washington.
His remarks came after terrorism struck again — this time in Israel’s Jordan Valley.
Israel Defense Force sources said a group of three to five gunmen infiltrated into Israel overnight. They are believed to have laid their ambush several miles north of Israel, in the reeds and bushes that line the banks of the Jordan River.
A Damascus-based splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestine National Liberation Organization, reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack.
When Israeli troops on a routine patrol passed by the gunmen’s hiding place at about 8 a.m., they opened fire at close range. Three of the Israeli soldiers, who were on foot, were killed.
They were identified as (Res.) Staff Sgt. Asher Bardugo, 22, of Kiryat Bialik; (Res.) Cpl. Ya’acov Turjeiman, 33, from Rishon LeZion; and Sgt. Ashraf Shibli, 20.
Another soldier in the patrol’s command car was wounded. A second patrol arrived, and in the subsequent exchange, a second soldier was moderately wounded.
The gunmen then fled, apparently back across the Jordan River into Jordan, leaving behind two Kalachnikov rifles and some personal equipment.
Large numbers of Israelis troops as well as helicopters began sweeping the area in search of the gunmen.
Contact was established with Jordanian security forces, and the Israeli helicopters were given permission to fly into Jordanian territory to try to track down the terrorists.
Netanyahu sent condolences to the bereaved families and wishes for recovery to the wounded soldiers.
He said Israel and Jordan would coordinate efforts to locate the terrorists, and added that the doubted that the incident would hurt relations between Israel and Jordan.
“We will work with Jordan to prevent a renewal of such attacks and assaults” from the other side of the border, he told Israel Radio. “There were incidents in the past of single soldiers, with fundamentalist beliefs, crossing or trying to cross into Israel.”
Jordan’s King Hussein telephoned Netanyahu upon hearing of the attack. He extended condolences and pledged his continuing support in the fight against terror.
Palestinian officials were quoted as saying that terrorism would only stop once a full peace agreement is reached in the region.
The attack in Israel came as Christopher shuttled to Cairo to brief Arab leaders on his talks with Israeli leaders.
His was a critical welcome, as Egyptian papers chastised Christopher for remarks he had made the previous day in Jerusalem. The Egyptian media accused the U.S. official of “blindly” supporting the new Israeli government’s positions.
Christopher had said at a news conference with Netanyahu that he understood Israel’s primary concern for security as it approaches negotiations.
Arab leaders have interpreted Netanyahu’s remarks, and the policy guidelines of his government, as a hard-line approach that rejects the land-for-peace principle accepted by the previous government.
Christopher met in Cairo with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
At a news conference after the meetings, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa said the principle of land-for-peace in negotiations is the only way to achieve positive and sustainable agreements.
Arafat said he was committed to the peace process and hoped that Israel would carry out its end of the agreements.
Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed this week that his government intends to deepen contacts with the Palestinian Authority and has every intention to negotiate with it, even Arafat.
In an interview with Israel Radio, he confirmed that ministers in his government would soon meet with Palestinian representatives.
His office, however, would neither confirm nor deny an Israeli television report that his foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, had met secretly with Arafat’s top aide, Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen.
At the same time, he remained vague on his plans for an Israeli troop redeployment in Hebron, which Palestinians view as the first test of his intentions.
“It is a complicated matter, which must first be studied,” he told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
Israel’s new defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, echoed the premier’s remarks during a tour Wednesday in Hebron.
After meeting with Palestinian and Jewish leaders there, Mordechai said Israel wants to fulfill its agreement with the Palestinians, but must be careful not to make any mistakes that could have grave consequences.