JERUSALEM (Oct. 27)
As Israel and the Palestinians warily eyed a new U.S. peace proposal, the cycle of violence continued this week with another suicide attack.
At least three Israelis were killed and 15 wounded in a suicide attack Sunday at a gas station near the Israeli settlement of Ariel.
Three people were seriously wounded and the rest sustained light to moderate injuries, hospital officials said. All of the fatalities were army reservists, and at least one was an officer.
The Al-Aksa Brigade, the military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Along with facing the continuing problem of how to deal with Palestinian terror, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also had to try to stave off a coalition crisis over the country’s 2003 budget.
The Labor Party has threatened to withdraw from the coalition if its demands for changes in the budget are not met.
Among its demands, Labor has demanded cuts in funds allocated for settlements. Sources close to the prime minister said he would not give in to Labor’s demands.
On Sunday, following the attack at Ariel, Sharon said the incident underscores the need for unity among all members of the governing coalition.
At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon said he would not tolerate any “political trickery,” adding that a strong national unity government is needed now more than ever.
Cabinet Secretary Gideon Sa’ar also called for unity among the coalition members, saying the attack “illustrates why there is no need at this time to create an artificial crisis.”
Sa’ar said the country is already facing many security challenges, including the ongoing fight against terrorism and the potential U.S. campaign against Iraq.
“This all brings into focus the need to create political and economic stability,” he said.
Sunday’s attack occurred around noon. According to reports, the terrorist was spotted by a group of soldiers near a snack bar.
The troops ordered the terrorist to raise his arms, and at least one person fired at the bomber. The terrorist was hit, but still managed to detonate his explosives belt. According to some reports, the gunfire directed at him set off his explosives.
“A woman started shouting, ‘Suicide bomber, suicide bomber,’ ” Yitzhak Zahavi, 27, a soldier who was lightly injured in the attack, told Israel Radio. “Three or four soldiers starting yelling” at the terrorist “to stop. He lifted his arms and starting walking backward, then they tried to disarm him. They saw he had explosives and shot at him, twice. Then he blew up.”
Another witness, Ilan Ben Yishai, was unloading his truck at a nearby store.
“People started shouting ‘Kill him,’ ‘Don’t kill him.’ The struggle went on for about a minute and a half. There were about 20 soldiers. Everyone drew their guns, but no one knew whether to shoot or not. They tried to distance” the bomber, “but then one of the soldiers fired on him, one shot — and then there was the explosion,” the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot quoted Ben Yishai as saying.
The attack followed an Oct. 21 suicide bombing of a bus in northern Israel that killed 14 people. The two suicide bombers who carried out the attack came from the Jenin area.
That attack prompted a large-scale Israeli incursion last Friday into Jenin.
Four Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank on Sunday. One of them, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in Jenin, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. In Nablus, three Palestinians were killed and two soldiers were lightly wounded during an exchange of gunfire.
On Saturday, Sa’ar said the Jenin operation, aimed at cracking down on the terrorist infrastructure in the city, would continue for as long as necessary.
During the operation, Israeli troops clamped a tight curfew on the West Bank city.
In another development, Israeli forces left Palestinian parts of Hebron last Friday, withdrawing troops and military vehicles.
The latest violence also came as Israel and the Palestinians weighed their response to the “road map” for a peace agreement presented by the U.S. assistant secretary of state, William Burns, in separate talks with both sides last week.
Both sides said they welcome the latest effort by the United States to renew political dialogue. At the same time, each side made clear it had reservations to the plan, which proposes a three-phase process to set up an independent, interim Palestinian state by the end of 2003.
Sharon told Burns last week that the road map does not have a strong enough security element and does not place enough emphasis on ending terrorism and dismantling terrorist organizations.
Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer also met with Burns and said that the roadmap could not interfere with Israel’s right to self defense.
For their part, the Palestinians are seeking fixed timetables for Israeli moves, a greater stress on freezing Israeli settlements and speedy Palestinian elections.