JERUSALEM (Dec. 1)
If Al-Qaida operatives were indeed behind last week’s deadly terror attack in Kenya, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vow to bring the perpetrators to justice could prove difficult.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that no concrete evidence had yet been discovered proving the involvement of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Just the same, Israeli and U.S. officials suspect Al-Qaida or al-Itihaad al-Islamiya — Arabic for the Islamic Union — a Somali Islamic group suspected of having links to Al-Qaida.
They voiced the suspicions even though a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli-owned Hotel Paradise in the Indian Ocean resort of Mombasa.
Driving a car packed with explosives into the hotel compound, three suicide bombers killed 13 people — three Israelis and 10 Kenyans.
The attack — as well as another deadly assault that day in Israel — took place as the Likud Party held its leadership primary.
Minutes before the hotel blast, two surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli charter plane taking off from Mombasa’s airport with 261 passengers and crew members aboard. The missiles missed the plane by a matter of feet.
There were no injuries or damage to the Arkia Airlines plane, which later landed safely at Ben-Gurion Airport.
After the deadly hotel attack, Sharon vowed that Israel would pursue those who had spilled the blood of its citizens.
It is the “duty of all countries not only to offer condolences when we bury our dead, but also to support us when we fight terror,” he said.
But it is not clear how much support Israel will get if it begins hunting down members of Al-Qaida.
Terrorism experts said over the weekend that Al-Qaida may have purposely targeted an Israeli site in order to draw Israel into the U.S. war on terror.
Al-Qaida believes that Israeli involvement will convince Arab states that the United States and Israel are teaming up to oppress Muslims around the world, these commentators say.
Such considerations may prompt the United States to pressure Israel to avoid action against Al-Qaida, they add.
Following last week’s attack, Sharon instructed the Mossad to take responsibility for finding those responsible.
A report in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper said Sharon had given instructions to activate “sleeper” Mossad agents in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to track down those responsible for the Kenya attack.
According to the report, such agents are only activated in cases of emergency, with the goal of obstructing preparations by Arab countries to wage war against Israel.
On Sunday, funerals were held for the three Israelis killed in the hotel attack.
The victims are brothers Noy Anter, 12, and Dvir Anter, 13, and tour group leader Albert de Havila, 60. The boys’ mother, Ora, 38, was seriously wounded in the attack. Their young sister, Adva, 8, was slightly injured.
The bodies of the victims were flown back to Israel over the weekend in a military air convoy that also brought back the 18 Israelis injured in the attack and the more than 250 Israelis tourists who were in Mombasa when the suicide bombing took place.
When the planes returned to Israel last Friday, anxious family members gathered at the airport to welcome home their loved ones, while ambulances waited on the tarmac to receive the wounded and take them to hospital.
“My father was hurt in the attack, and my mother was supposed to come together with him on the plane,” Yaniv Kirman told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv as he waited for his parents to emerge from the flight.
“From the moment we heard about the attack, I tried to reach and locate my parents, but it was a nightmare. I couldn’t get through.”
When Kirman’s father came off the plane, he was transferred to an ambulance. His mother, Tzippora, hugged her son and daughter for a long time.
“We were lucky, just lucky,” she said. “We were among the last ones who were in the lobby. I had just gotten to the room and put the key in the lock, and then there was the explosion in the lobby. “
But alongside the joyous family reunions with the wounded was the sorrow of the families awaiting the remains of their loved ones.
“This is my last trip, I will never go back to Kenya,” said Rahamim Anter, the father of the two boys killed in the attack. The family had planned to spend Chanukah at the resort.
Anter recalled the final moments before the fatal blast.
“When we arrived from the airport to the hotel, we felt great, there were local dancers. We received our room keys, and I went up with my wife and children to the room. We entered, and saw a beautiful and large room.
“Ora was thirsty and wanted to drink coffee. She tried to order using the phone in the room, but the line didn’t work. So she went downstairs to order the coffee. Dvir wanted to go with her, and Adva and Noy ran after her. I stayed upstairs in the room, I sat on the bed, took off my shoes and thought how good it was for us to be there.
“Just then, there was a huge explosion, I ran downstairs and started shouting, looking for them. I only found Ora seriously wounded and Adva, also hurt. But more than that, I could do nothing.”
Rahamim described how his wife and children had always wanted to go to Kenya, and that he and his wife wanted their children’s first trip abroad to be special.
A memorial ceremony was held last Friday at the school the two brothers attended. During the assembly, several youths could not take the grieving and left the room.
“It’s bad enough that we can’t leave our city, because they will shoot us on the roads,” one student told his teacher, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “We can’t go to the shopping mall, because there have been attacks there.
“It’s even scary to be at home because terrorists can reach us there,” he added. “Even when we go abroad, to breath some fresh air — even then we’re not safe.”
There may be doubts regarding if and how Israel will retaliate for the Kenya hotel bombing, but there are no doubts that the war on terrorism will be the main issue in Israel’s election campaign.
Along with the attack abroad, terrorists also struck within Israel on Nov. 28, the same day Likud voters headed to the polls to select their leader.
At least six Israelis were killed and 30 wounded when two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on voters at a Likud polling station and passers-by in the northern city of Beit She’an. The terrorists were shot dead by Israeli police and security guards.
Voting in the Likud leadership primary continued despite the attacks, and Sharon won a decisive victory over his challenger, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Final results showed that Sharon received almost 56 percent of the vote, Netanyahu won just over 40 percent and the third candidate, Moshe Feiglin, received nearly 3.5 percent.
Sharon quickly turned his attention to the Jan. 28 national election.
With polls showing Likud far ahead of the opposition Labor Party, Sharon’s win makes him a strong favorite to remain prime minister after the January elections.
In a somber victory speech muted by that day’s terrorist attacks, Sharon reiterated that terrorists had tried to influence the elections.
Sharon also predicted that the Likud would double its strength in the national elections.
After conceding defeat, Netanyahu called on Likud members to unite behind Sharon to ensure a “huge victory” in the January election, and later appeared with Sharon before party supporters.
The question now remains whether Sharon’s popularity, which has grown in the face of the deteriorating economic and security situation, will propel him to another term as prime minister.
A poll published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz showed the right-wing and religious parties gaining in the upcoming elections.
The poll also showed that Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna’s election as Labor Party leader in mid-November did little to build support for Labor.
Labor officials admit they will face a tough campaign against Sharon, who in his 20 months in office has remade his public image from hard-liner to moderate centrist.