JERUSALEM (Aug. 28)
After months of focusing on its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel returned to an all-too-familiar experience this week: Palestinian terror. A suicide bomber wounded 20 people Sunday at the central bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the first such attack since the evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank earlier this month.
It could have been bloodier. The bomber was blocked from boarding a bus, thanks to the vigilance of two guards who chased him away. Both were seriously hurt. It was not immediately clear what terrorist group was responsible for the attack.
Those who opposed the pullout said the attack proved that the Gaza withdrawal emboldened Palestinian terrorism. But the government, which approved the handover of Gaza’s southern border to Egypt, placed the blame on the Palestinian Authority.
“There are groups and individuals who are trying to disturb to the process of peace,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres told reporters. “Now we shall draw the necessary conclusions. We hope that the Palestinian Authority will do likewise, because terror is damaging, not only to the security of Israel but also to the destiny of the Palestinians.”
For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the attack could not have come at a worse time. Just minutes earlier, he broadcast a statement on Israel Radio assuring listeners that the truce he declared with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February would stay in force indefinitely.
With Gaza emptied of Israeli settlers — and, within weeks, soldiers too — Abbas is under heavy international pressure to ensure a quiet hand-over of power to the Palestinian Authority.
“Now that Israel has withdrawn, the way forward is clear. The Palestinians must show the world that they will fight terrorism and govern in a peaceful way,” President Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
In harsh rhetoric, Abbas condemned the Beersheba bombing as a terrorist attack but also suggested that Israel had provoked it with a special forces raid last week that killed five Islamic Jihad gunmen in the West Bank city of Tulkarm.
At the same time, Israel and Egypt reached an agreement on a deal that will result in Israel’s relinquishing control of Gaza’s border with Egypt.
Instead, 750 Egyptian troops will be posted along the 8-mile frontier to stop arms smuggling from Sinai to Palestinian terrorists in Gaza.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the arrangement by a vote of 18-2.
Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, is due in Israel next week to seal the deal. But the hand-over has its opponents, including the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, who said it would effectively rescind a clause in the 1979 Camp David peace accord requiring that the Sinai Desert remain demilitarized.
Meanwhile, efforts to clear Gaza of the last vestiges of its 9,000 settlers continued. Israeli military rabbis began exhuming 48 bodies buried at the main Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif on Sunday, for reinterment inside the Jewish state.
Another sensitive issue has been the fate of Gaza’s synagogues. Israeli officials said the government, in response to objections from rabbis that were backed by Israel’s High Court of Justice, may reverse an earlier decision to blow up all of the larger structures in Israeli settlements. Under a new plan, the synagogues may be moved to Israel.