School bus bombing forces Barak’s hand

JERUSALEM, Nov. 21 (JTA) – A terror bombing against an Israeli school bus in the Gaza Strip this week is forcing Prime Minister Ehud Barak to re-evaluate his response to Palestinian violence.

Since violence erupted across the region in late September, Barak has adhered to what he has described as a policy of restraint in hopes of avoiding an escalation of the conflict and leaving the door open for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Monday’s attack – which claimed the lives of two Israeli civilians and wounded nine others, including five children – has raised new questions about whether the Palestinian Authority really wants to resume talks.

Hours after the attack, Israeli army helicopters and navy ships rocketed Palestinian targets in Gaza City.

Barak said Israel would continue to strike back against the violence, and he denied reports that the hands of the army are being tied by the political echelon.

“We will continue to act as needed to ensure that the violence stops. We are not going into a picnic, but a difficult battle,” Barak told reporters during a visit to the Beersheba hospital where the Israelis wounded in the bombing attack were being treated.

That battle continued Tuesday – on the diplomatic front as well as on the ground.

Egypt announced it was recalling its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the attack on Gaza City.

Also on Tuesday, a senior Palestinian Authority official said Palestinian police can now fire on Israeli troops who shoot at Palestinian demonstrators. Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the Palestinian Authority’s general secretary, said the self-rule government made the decision after Israel”shot the peace process in the heart” with its missile strikes a day before in Gaza City.

The same day, Palestinian police opened fire on Israeli troops guarding the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza, the Israeli army said. A Palestinian intelligence officer was killed by return fire.

Palestinian gunmen also shot at an army patrol along the Israeli-Egyptian border in southern Gaza, prompting fire from the Israeli troops.

In yet another incident in Gaza, an Israeli civilian was critically wounded after Palestinian gunmen shot him in the head as he was traveling in a convoy, Israel’s army said. The attack occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited a nearby military base.

By Tuesday night, the Israeli army was sending heavy armored vehicles to Gaza to support Israeli troops stationed along the road connecting the Gush Katif settlement bloc and the Kisufim Crossing into Israel, which has become a focal point for clashes in recent days.

Israeli media reports said the action was part of an overall effort to”divide” Gaza, preventing Palestinians in the northern part access to the southern part, where the majority of Jewish settlements are located.

There were heavy exchanges of fire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops across Gaza on Tuesday.

In the West Bank, exchanges were also reported around Jericho and Tulkarm. There was also a reported firebombing of a bus traveling in the Galilee that lightly wounded two passengers.

Israel Television quoted Israeli military sources as saying that the Palestinians have apparently reduced the overall violence, but are now engaging in more serious attacks.

The Israeli air and sea strikes on Gaza City on Monday were the most serious Israeli retaliation for Palestinian attacks this week.

That response stood in marked contrast to what happened over the weekend, when an Israeli soldier was killed.

On Saturday, a Palestinian policeman infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza, killing the soldier and seriously wounding two others before being shot dead by Israeli troops at the site.

The soldier killed in the attack, Staff Sgt. Baruch Snir Flum, 21, of Tel Aviv, was among the last Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon in May. He had four months left until his army discharge.

On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that he did not plan to retaliate for the attack.

But Monday’s attack against civilians put new pressure on Barak to retaliate harshly against Palestinian violence.

Following the explosion, the words”This Is What We Get for Restraint” were spray-painted in Hebrew on the wreckage of the school bus.

And Jewish demonstrators blocked the main entrance to Jerusalem, demanding that the army respond more forcefully to Palestinian violence.

Jewish settler leaders, who met with President Moshe Katsav on Monday to discuss the security situation, said the prime minister must let the army do what it takes”to win.”

Monday’s developments came just a few days after Arafat said he ordered Palestinian gunmen to stop firing at Israelis from Palestinian-ruled areas.

Arafat’s call came after U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross met separately last week with Arafat and Israeli leaders.

Ross reportedly made some progress in getting the two sides to agree to talks aimed at not only reducing the violence, but also leading back to negotiations.

On Monday, Danny Yatom, Barak’s security chief, rejected Arafat’s public call last week to halt shooting at Israeli from Area A, which is under sole Palestinian control, as”cynical.”

“That he told them not to carry out attacks in Area A, he basically gave them permission to attack in areas B and C,” where Israel has overall security control.

Yatom said the Security Cabinet had approved a number of other measures, including economic actions, and that the government would also launch an information campaign to explain to the world that”this is an unacceptable situation” in which Arafat”expects to conduct some sort of dialogue with us, alongside shootings, incitement and terrorist attacks.”

Some Israeli observers suggest that Arafat still considers violence the most effective means to attain his political goals.

There are also some who question whether Arafat really has the ability to stop the violence.

In addition to the renewed activities of Islamic militants – many of whom were released from Palestinian jails during the ongoing violence – members of Fatah have joined armed militias that may or may not respond to calls for a cease-fire.

The Palestinian Authority denied any involvement in Monday’s bombing, and a senior Palestinian official was quoted as saying that the self-rule government would launch an inquiry into the attack.

But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh later said there was a clear connection linking the attack to the Palestinian security establishment.

“This puts heavy responsibility, grave responsibility, on the Palestinian Authority,” Sneh told reporters.

Claims of responsibility for the bombing came from three little-known groups: Palestinian Hezbollah, Al-Aksa Martyrs and Omar al-Mukhtar.

Israeli security officials did not rule out possible links between the groups and the more well-known fundamentalist militant groups, Islamic Jihad or Hamas.

The school bus had left the settlement of Kfar Darom early Monday. Students and teachers were en route to an elementary school in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza.

The Israeli army said it appeared that three assailants hid in the bushes near the road and detonated the explosive by remote control when the school bus approached.

The bus, which according to the army was heavily armored and under a military escort, was badly damaged by the explosion of a heavy mortar shell that was attached to a detonator.

The shell was surrounded with pieces of metal”to inflict as many injuries as possible,” an army statement said.

The attack occurred on a road controlled by Israel. The surrounding area, indeed most of the Gaza Strip, is under Palestinian control.

The attackers fled into the self-rule area after detonating the explosion, according to Israeli authorities.

Witnesses said several pieces of shrapnel went clean through the bus, which held about 30 passengers.

Israeli military officials said the protective covering of the vehicle prevented additional casualties.

The two victims were teachers at the school: Miriam Amitai, 35, a mother of four; and Gavriel Biton, 34, a father of six. Both were residents of Kfar Darom.

Among the injured were three young siblings who had to have their arms or legs partially amputated, according to medical workers.

The blatant attack on a school bus filled with children has prompted some observers to suggest that the attackers were trying to kill off any chances that negotiations would be resumed any time soon.

In a possible sign of the premier’s own emerging conclusion that there really is no Palestinian partner in the diplomatic process, Barak reportedly has renewed contacts with the nation’s opposition parties to consider forming a unity government.

For the time-being, though, he has no takers.

Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon said he would not enter into a government with someone whom he claimed would divide Jerusalem and give back the Jordan Valley.

Sharon also accused Barak of holding secret negotiations with the Palestinians despite the violence – a charge Barak denied.

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