SDEROT, Israel (Jan. 17)
The optimism that accompanied Mahmoud Abbas’ recent election to the post of Palestinian Authority president appears to be vanishing. In the latest evidence of the pressures that both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are facing, a dusty Israeli border town went on strike this week.
Sderot’s businesses and municipal services were shut Monday in a strike declared to mourn six residents lost to Palestinian terror and demand action from the government.
Yeshiva students held a prayer vigil in the main square.
Children, on an impromptu day off from school, spoke of mounting a protest march toward Beit Hanoun, a Palestinian town just over the nearby Gaza Strip boundary favored by Hamas for launching its rocket and mortar salvoes.
“Without even noticing, the Israeli government has turned 20,000 townspeople into hostages,” said Itzik Ohayon, whose son Afik was killed by a Hamas-made Kassam rocket last year. “I am sorry to say it, but this is not a civilized country.”
Many in Sderot, a hardscrabble industrial town that has slumped into poverty during the last four violent years, accused Sharon of ignoring them and of failing to provide a military solution.
The strike occurred just a day after the prime minister gave Israeli security forces an unofficial carte blanche to crack down on Palestinian terrorists. This move would lift restrictions put on them after Yasser Arafat’s death last November in an attempt to boost Abbas.
Although Israeli troops killed two Islamic Jihad gunmen who tried to attack their vehicles in central Gaza overnight, this was far from the major sweep many expected. Some observers speculated that Sharon wanted his tough talk to be heard in Ramallah before becoming a fact on the ground.
Abbas responded quickly. Convening ministers for the first time since being sworn in, Abbas ordered Palestinian Authority security forces to prevent all attacks.
“Abu Mazen and the Cabinet gave clear instructions to the security chiefs to prevent all kinds of violence, including attacks against Israel,” a Palestinian minister without portfolio, Kadoura Fares, told Reuters, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.
Israeli officials were cautiously optimistic at the order, the strongest issued by the Palestinian Authority against terrorists since the years of the Oslo peace process. But they emphasized that Sharon wanted to see a crackdown on terrorists before resuming contacts with Abbas, which he suspended after Palestinian terrorists killed six Israelis at Gaza’s Karni crossing late last week.
Such a crackdown seemed unlikely. Abbas’ office offered no explanation of how security forces would confront the roving gunmen in Gaza and the West Bank with whom, in many cases, they have family or ideological ties. And spokesmen for the various terrorist groups lined up to say that they would not lay down their arms unless Israel agreed to a cease-fire, although it was unclear what this meant.
But there was no talk of civil war in the West Bank and Gaza, a bright spot for Abbas, who some political experts fear could be at risk of assassination given his calls to end armed attacks. One media report said the Palestinian Authority president sought to incorporate gunmen from the Al-Aksa Brigade, a terrorist group linked to Abbas’ Fatah movement, into his security forces, a tacit bid for calm that Israeli officials were not quick to rule out.
Sderot residents said they want some stability after days spent waiting for the wail of custom-designed radars that warn of incoming rockets.
Many are concerned that the security situation will only worsen after Israeli troops and settlers leave Gaza under Sharon’s withdrawal plan.
“The army can go in hard, and do what needs to be done,” said Sderot’s deputy mayor, Shai Ben-Yaish. “But then we have to find some sort of peace settlement. There is no way of avoiding negotiations, in the end.”