After Deadly Attacks in West Bank, Worries About New Round of Violence

Two terrorist incidents this week in the West Bank have some Israeli officials warning about a new stage in the 5-year-old Palestinian terror campaign against Israel. Twin drive-by shootings Sunday killed three Israelis in the West Bank and wounded another four. Most of the casualties were teenage settlers trying to hitch rides home.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, a terrorist wing linked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attacks, the worst against West Bank settlers in four months.

Israel accused the Palestinians of abusing recent decisions by the Defense Ministry to ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank out of respect for the Ramadan fast month.

“Unfortunately, the Palestinians have exploited these measures in order to carry out these murderous attacks,” said David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.

Sunday’s bloodshed was an embarrassment for Abbas, who was slated to travel to Washington for talks with President Bush later this week.

“This is unfortunate. It shouldn’t have happened. We should work hard in order to prevent this from happening,” Palestinian Authority Planning Minister Ghassan Al-Khatib said.

Israel has called on Bush to use the talks with Abbas to demand a Palestinian Authority crackdown on terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as required by the “road map” for peace.

In an effort to head off the criticism, the Palestinian Authority said over the weekend that in the month since Israel withdrew from Gaza its security forces had foiled 17 attempted attacks from the territory and confiscated dozens of rockets and bombs from terrorist groups.

Israel does not dispute that violence emanating from Gaza has abated. But officials warn that the various Palestinian factions have merely shifted their efforts to the West Bank.

“We had no direct intelligence warnings about today’s attacks,” a senior Israeli security source said, referring to the shootings outside the settlements of Efrat and Eli. “But the sense of a new groundswell of violence in the West Bank is no surprise.”

Sharon’s opponents in Israel have accused the government of encouraging a new stage in Palestinian terror by withdrawing from Gaza unilaterally. Government officials say the move was meant as a stopgap measure in the absence of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but was never seen as a solution.

Taking no chances, Israel is continuing its own crackdowns in the West Bank. On Sunday, troops arrested five Hamas members, pursuing a dragnet that has already led to the detention of hundreds of suspected West Bank terrorists.

In a separate incident, undercover commandos killed an Islamic Jihad commander near Jenin. Military sources said the unit was on a routine patrol when the terrorist opened fire at it.

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