JERUSALEM (Jan. 9)
Two bomb explosions this week in Tel Aviv added new tensions to a region already suffering from badly frayed nerves.
The explosions, which took place within minutes of each other Thursday night near Tel Aviv’s former central bus station, occurred as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Hebron appeared to have reached an impasse.
They also came amid warnings from Israeli officials of terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the anniversary of the slaying of Yehiya Ayash, a Hamas fugitive who was killed Jan. 5, 1996, in the Gaza Strip by a boody-trapped cellular phone.
With prospects for a Hebron agreement looking gloomier with each passing day, both Israeli and Palestinian officials have warned that the confrontational atmosphere surrounding the stalled talks was conducive to acts of violence by extremist elements from either side.
In one such act, Noam Friedman, an off-duty Israeli soldier, last week opened fire in Hebron, wounding seven Palestinians, in an effort to thwart an agreement for redeploying Israeli troops in the tension-filled West Bank town.
Islamic militants have threatened to avenge last week’s attack.
The Tel Aviv bombings took place on the eve of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a period of intense religious fervor.
Israeli security officials said it was likely the bombs, which were packed with nails and caused at least 13 injuries, were the work of Arab terrorists.
But at the same time, they did not rule out criminal motives for the blasts, which went off in garbage cans next to a theater that shows pornographic movies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after visiting the wounded at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, said, “All signs indicate that this was a terrorist attack and not something else.”
Netanyahu said Israel would respond gravely if it was discovered that the terrorists came from the Palestinian self-rule areas. “If it becomes clear that the terrorists came from the Palestinian autonomous areas, we will not let this pass,” he said.
The explosions took place near Neve Sha’anan Street, a low-income area populated primarily by foreign laborers.
The south Tel Aviv neighborhood, generally more active during the daytime hours when a vegetable market is open, was mostly deserted when the first blast occurred about 8:20 p.m.
Police and rescue workers arrived within minutes to cordon off the area, when the second explosion went off nearby. Two police were among the wounded.
“We are lucky it was at this hour and not in the middle of the day when there are thousands of people here,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ronni Milo told Israel Radio.
In the hours before the explosions, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross continued his efforts to mediate a Hebron deal, meeting with Netanyahu and senior Palestinian officials.
Netanyahu cut short his meeting with Ross to visit the wounded.
Ross met Tuesday with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to discuss a U.S. compromise aimed at bringing 13 weeks of negotiations regarding the redeployment of Israeli forces from most of Hebron to fruition.
Palestinian officials described that session as stormy, with Arafat flatly rejecting the compromise.
No further talks have yet been scheduled between Ross and Arafat, who was due to fly Friday to Paris to attend a conference in memory of the late French President Francois Mitterrand.
Israeli officials said this week that the sides had wrapped up an agreement for an Israeli troop redeployment in Hebron and that what was holding up an agreement had nothing to do with the pullback itself.
The Palestinians, looking beyond Hebron, were seeking an Israeli commitment to carry out further troop redeployments in rural parts of the West Bank according to the timetable spelled out in the Interim Agreement signed in September 1995.
Netanyahu charged Wednesday that the Palestinians had been “trying unceasingly to postpone the implementation of the agreement.”
“The other side has apparently decided not to conclude the negotiations,” he told reporters. “When the other side decides, then we will conclude the negotiations.”
Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Irdeineh said Thursday that the Palestinians would continue to demand that Israel stick to completing three phased redeployments in the rural West Bank by September 1997.
Under the terms of the Interim Agreement, Israel was to begin the first of the three redeployments within six months after the inauguration of the Palestinian legislative council last March.
The third and final redeployment was to take place this September, but Netanyahu has said the timetable was thrown off by events that were not under Israel’s control — such as the series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel last February and March.
Netanyahu said he would agree to a first pullback within weeks of the implementation of the Hebron agreement. He added that the final redeployment would be completed by September 1999.
Ross proposed a compromise date of mid-1998, but Arafat rejected the proposal.
The Palestinians want the series of redeployments to be completed before the final-status talks get into full swing.
They are concerned that the Netanyahu government will attempt to use the redeployments as a bargaining chip in those talks, which are scheduled to be completed by May 1999.
Meanwhile, settlers living in Hebron were continuing their campaign against the redeployment.
On Thursday, settlers cleared away rubble for the construction of a new apartment building in the Jewish Quarter.
Opposition Knesset members criticized the construction plans, saying that they had not received the requisite government permits.
Settlers also blocked Shuhada Street, a thoroughfare near the Jewish Quarter that Israel closed off for security reasons and that the Palestinians want reopened as part of the Hebron agreement.
Hebron, with its population of 500 settlers living among 130,000 Palestinians, has long been a flashpoint for violence.
Palestinian security officials have recently confiscated some 500 weapons from Arabs in Hebron, according to Jabril Bachri, head of Palestinian security forces in the area.
There are some 5,000 weapons still being held illegally by Hebron Arabs, Bachri said in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.