Bombing of U.S. Convoy in Gaza Strip Overshadowed by New Mideast Violence

U.S. officials are learning the hard way what Israel long has known: When Palestinian Authority officials promise to do their utmost to fight terrorism, it can be far from satisfying.

P.A. security officials met with the FBI team investigating last week’s murder of three U.S. security men in a roadside bombing in the Gaza Strip. The P.A. officials briefed the FBI team on their investigation, but wouldn’t let the Americans visit those arrested in connection with the attack, let alone interrogate them.

The three guards were killed and a U.S. Embassy official was wounded Oct. 15 when a 220-pound bomb was set off by remote control under a Chevrolet Suburban traveling in a U.S. diplomatic convoy near the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun.

Palestinian security forces arrested seven suspects a day later. At least three of them were associated with the Popular Resistance Committees, a terrorist organization composed in part of disenfranchised P.A. members.

The group sometimes has challenged the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but both Palestinian and Israeli sources said the members arrested in connection with the convoy bombing have strong ties to P.A. security services. Such ties are typical among sponsors of terrorist attacks.

The arrests came after U.S. officials criticized the Palestinian Authority for its actions since the bombing, the first to target Americans since the Palestinian intifada began three years ago.

After the bombing, President Bush said in a statement, “Palestinian authorities should have acted long ago to fight terror in all its forms.”

The Popular Resistance Committees denied any role in the bombing, as did all other Palestinian terrorist groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, whose bombings have killed U.S. citizens in the past.

“We consider our fight to be solely with the Zionist enemy, and we do not want to be involved in controversial secondary issues,” the Popular Resistance Committees said in a statement issued Oct 16.

The day of the bombing, the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, told a Senate subcommittee that Hamas and Hezbollah probably helped in the attack.

Just days later, discussion of the bombing was overshadowed by further deadly developments in the region.

Gunmen from the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, ambushed and killed three Israeli soldiers in the West Bank on Sunday. Palestinian militants also fired six Kassam rockets at Israeli settlements on Sunday.

Those attacks brought renewed calls for Arafat’s ouster, including remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he opened the winter session of Knesset.

Sharon said the world gradually is becoming convinced that Arafat must be removed from power, especially after “he brought down the Mahmoud Abbas government, and he continues to undermine Ahmed Karia’s attempt to establish a serious government.” The references were to the former and current P.A. prime ministers, respectively.

Just a few days before, Sharon had suggested a softening of Israel’s position, telling the Jerusalem Post that expelling Arafat “would not be good for Israel.”

Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, also announced over the weekend that if Karia remained as prime minister rather that resigning, as he has threatened, Israel would be interested in renewing negotiations with his government.

Mofaz’s remarks were a departure from the initial disinterest Israeli officials showed following Karia’s appointment in early September. In any case, such sentiments seemed destined to be overshadowed by renewed violence.

Mofaz decided to mobilize several hundred reserve soldiers to bolster the Israel Defense Forces after terrorists threatened renewed attacks following Israel’s weekend military operations in Gaza. Hamas leaders vowed to stage an attack of such magnitude that it would “shake Tel Aviv.”

Meanwhile, Israel followed up attacks on Israeli settlements and on IDF soldiers with a series of airstrikes in Gaza on Monday, killing at least five people. At least two of those killed were Hamas members, Ha’aretz reported.

Israeli officials said the Hamas members were involved in producing and storing weapons, including rockets and mortars, The New York Times reported.

The IDF has stepped up its operations in Palestinian areas since Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide bombing in Haifa on Oct. 4, killing 21 people.

Israeli officials say Arafat seems more concerned about diplomatic maneuvering than about taking any concrete steps against terrorists.

This week, a delegation of Palestinians flew to the United States to press their case against Israel. The group was headed by Palestinian legislator Hatem Abdul Kader, who said the main purpose was to discuss Israel’s security fence and construction in Israeli settlements.

Observers said the unspoken subtext was to convince U.S. officials that the Palestinians are interested in peace, despite Arafat’s weak response to the bombing of the convoy.

Another Palestinian Authority official, Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath, suggested over the weekend that U.S. officials commit troops to the region. In a speech in San Francisco, he said the presence of U.S. troops would lead to a sustained cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sha’ath is considered a possible candidate to succeed Karia as P.A. prime minister if Karia follows up on his threat to resign in two weeks.

Israel rejects proposals to send foreign troops to the area, believing that they will not be able to stop clandestine groups of Palestinian terrorists but will complicate the Israeli army’s anti-terror measures.

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