JERUSALEM (Jun. 8)
A fresh round of violence has threatened the diplomatic progress made at two Middle East summits last week, posing a challenge to the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace.
At least five Israelis were killed and five others wounded in separate incidents in the Gaza Strip and West Bank on Sunday.
The attacks came after Israel reimposed a total closure on the West Bank, citing a high number of warnings of terrorist attacks, Israeli Army Radio reported
U.S. officials urged Israel and the Palestinians not to let extremists set the diplomatic agenda, but the weekend’s events showed the difficulties in following up on the steps taken at the summits in Egypt and Jordan.
In the Gaza Strip, four soldiers were killed and four others were wounded when three gunmen dressed in Israeli army uniforms infiltrated an army position near the Erez crossing.
The gunmen were killed in the ensuing exchange of fire.
An inquiry showed that the three attackers had slipped into a line of Palestinian workers entering the Erez industrial zone — and under cover of a heavy fog, crossed a fence and wall separating the industrial zone from the nearby army position.
After reaching the entrance to the outpost, they opened fire and threw grenades at a soldier standing outside, killing him. They then shot and killed two soldiers on guard duty at the outpost gates. The gunmen then entered the outpost and opened fire on the soldiers, killing one and wounding four others.
Soldiers in the base opened fire, killing the three. Duct tape and plastic handcuffs were found on the bodies of the attackers, raising the possibility that they had intended to kidnap soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian security prisoners, Army Radio reported.
Three of the soldiers killed in the attack were reservists: Sgt. Major Assaf Aberjil, 23, and Sgt. Maj. Udi Ayelet, 38, both of Eilat, and Sgt. Maj. Chen Engel, 31, of Ramat Gan. Also killed was Sgt. Maj. Boaz Emet, 23, from Beit She’an.
In other violence Sunday, an Israeli was killed when two gunmen opened fire near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Israeli troops killed at least one of the attackers. Earlier in the day, a border police officer was lightly wounded by a Palestinian gunman at a nearby checkpoint.
Three groups claimed joint responsibility for the attack — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade, which is linked to the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
The Gaza attack was seen as a direct challenge to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who angered some groups by his conciliatory remarks at the summit with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba last week.
Accusing Abbas of conceding on Palestinian demands, Hamas froze cease-fire contacts with the Palestinian Authority and renewed its vow to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis.
Reuters quoted Abbas as telling reporters in Ramallah that dialogue is the only way to achieve Palestinian interests. He also called on Palestinian opposition groups to renew contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Israel, meanwhile, called on the Palestinians to immediate take steps to crack down on terrorism.
Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim of the Likud told Israel Radio that the attacks prove that Palestinian terrorist groups are “not yet ready to accept this process,” referring to the road map, drawn up by the “Quartet” of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Also on Sunday, Cabinet minister Effi Eitam called on the government to cease all contacts with the Palestinian Authority until it takes steps to fight terrorism.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav urged that the road map be given a chance to succeed. But he said Abbas has a limited amount of time to take action, Israel Radio reported.
In the wake of the attacks, U.S. officials urged the sides not to let extremists undermine the opportunity for peace. In media interviews, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said such actions by opponents of the process were expected, and the United States remained committed to advancing the road map.
“This is the time when both leaders have to do everything they can” to move forward on the road map, Powell told “Fox News Sunday.”
Powell also said Sharon is expected to live up to his commitments, and remove illegal settlements.
Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister was on the defensive Sunday night, facing a torrent of criticism from Likud Party convention members for adopting the road map.
In remarks interrupted by boos at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, Sharon declared that most of the Israeli public supports the path he had taken.
“The people have spoken and brought us to victory,” he told party activists. “They chose this path.”
Sharon stressed that in negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel would not yield on its rejection of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees or on any of the reservations to the road map that the Israeli government had when it endorsed the diplomatic initiative.
Before Sharon spoke, Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau accused the prime minister of capitulating to terrorists.
He said the road map would only increase the violence.
In another development, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reportedly met with the Palestinian security affairs chief, Mohammed Dahlan, on Saturday night to discuss implementing the road map. Dahlan was quoted in the Israeli media as having asked that Israel further ease restrictions on the Palestinians.