JERUSALEM, June 24 (JTA) — Prime Minster Ariel Sharon heads to Washington this week seeking more American pressure on the Palestinian Authority to uphold an increasingly shaky cease-fire agreement.
Sharon has won American approval for his “policy of restraint” in the face of ongoing Palestinian violence, but Israeli commentators said Sunday the prime minister is likely to stress in his meetings with Bush administration officials that his patience cannot continue indefinitely.
During his visit to Washington, Sharon is likely to find that U.S. officials are anxious to announce the beginning of a “cooling-off” period, after which diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are to be renewed.
Many Israelis and Palestinians, however, might not conclude that the cease-fire is working.
On Sunday, funerals were held for two Israeli soldiers killed last Friday by a suicide bomb attack in the Gaza Strip.
Sgt. Ophir Kit, 19, of Jerusalem, and Sgt. Aviv Izak, 19, of Kfar Saba, were killed when they tried to help a jeep with Israeli license plates that supposedly was stuck in the sand. As they approached the jeep, the bomber inside set off his explosives.
The Palestinian Authority dismissed the incident as an Israeli army training accident, but Hamas later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Also on Sunday, a Fatah militant was killed when a public telephone he was using in the West Bank city of Nablus exploded.
Palestinian officials immediately blamed Israel for slaying 26-year-old Osama Jawabri. Israel denied comment.
The Al-Aksa Brigades, an armed group linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, said Jawabri was one of its members. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on Israelis, including a series of ambushes last week that killed several Israeli settlers on West Bank roads.
A senior Israeli official accused Arafat of ignoring an Israeli demand to arrest terrorists. If that continues, “Israel will have to invoke its right of self-defense,” the official told Reuters on Sunday.
The comments appeared to hold out the possibility that Israel may resume targeting Islamic militants — if they hadn’t already done so with Jawabri.
After Sharon meets with President Bush on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is slated to visit the Middle East to press Israel and the Palestinian Authority to go beyond the cease-fire and begin setting a timetable for implementing steps recommended by a U.S.-led fact-finding panel.
Over the weekend, the U.S. special envoy to the region, William Burns, held talks with the two sides on implementing the Mitchell Commission’s recommendations.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted Burns as telling Israeli officials that Arafat is concerned Israel may halt the process once a full cease-fire is achieved, and that Arafat therefore needs some assurances from Israel in order to move forward with diplomacy.
But Sharon reiterated over the weekend that Israel will not conduct any diplomatic negotiations while Palestinian violence continues.
Israel has accused the Palestinians of failing to uphold the cease-fire pact mediated by CIA Director George Tenet earlier this month — and allowing terrorism to continue in areas outside of the Palestinians’ sole control.
Last week, three Israelis were killed in West Bank shooting attacks that took place in areas in which Israel has overall security control.
Contradicting his aides, Arafat said last Friday that the Palestinian cease-fire applies to all areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including those under Israeli control. Other Palestinian officials, as well as leaders of the various Palestinian militias, have said that Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain legitimate targets for violence.
“The cease-fire understanding applies to all territories,” Arafat reportedly told a group of Israeli journalists invited to a meeting at his Ramallah office.
At the same time, Arafat accused Israel of failing to fulfill the cease-fire, by continuing to impose a closure on Palestinian cities and towns.
He also denounced rampages by Israeli settlers, who in some cases have responded to terrorist attacks by burning Palestinian-owned lands in the territories and causing other damage to Arab property.