Just days before a planned visit to the region by U.S. President George W. Bush, a terrorist attack that killed two Israelis in the West Bank is shaking Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation efforts.
Two off-duty Israeli soldiers from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba were shot dead by Palestinian terrorists during a hiking trip last Friday. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigades, which is the military arm of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbasâ€™ Fatah political faction, took responsibility for the attack.
But Fatah swiftly denied the claim by the Al-Aksa Brigades, and Abbas’ administration announced that it had arrested several suspects in the attack.
“Anytime something like this happens, it pains us, too — for sure,” P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, also of Fatah, said after the attack in an English-language speech delivered in Israel. “Our heartfelt condolences go to the families of those who were killed in this bad incident.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Sunday that such attacks could threaten Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
“As long as the Palestinian Authority does not take the necessary measures, with the necessary strength, in order to act against the terrorist organizations, the State of Israel will be unable to carry out any changes on the ground,â€ Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday. “We do not intend to compromise on these issues and they will certainly be an inseparable part of any dialogue that we hold with the Palestinian Authority.”
The attack and Olmertâ€™s strong reaction threatens to spoil the momentum Israel and the Palestinians reached at Novemberâ€™s peace summit in Annapolis, Md., when both sides pledged to renew peace negotiations and push to achieve a final-status settlement by the end of 2008. Since then, negotiations have progressed little amid mutual recrimination.
Israel sparked Palestinian anger by announcing the construction of some 300 new housing units in a controversial Jerusalem neighborhood Palestinians claim as their own land. Hamasâ€™ firing of dozens of rockets from Gaza into Israel prompted warnings from Israel that a full-scale invasion of Gaza may soon be at hand. And last weekâ€™s attack against the Israeli hikers raised questions in Israel about the Palestinian Authorityâ€™s willingness and ability to confront terrorists.
The slain soldiers, David Ruben and Ahikam Amihai, both members of elite commando units, managed to kill two of their assailants. At least two others were wounded in the attack and fled to Hebron for treatment.
Signaling its reluctance to depend on the Palestinian Authority’s security measures, Israel sent special forces to Hebron’s hospital to round up Palestinian suspects in the attack.
The message was clear: Israel will rely only on itself for security. In the last few weeks, Israeli officials have criticized the sluggishness with which the Palestinian Authority is tackling terrorist groups in the West Bank, the only territory it controls after losing the Gaza Strip to Hamas in June.
Armed Palestinian Authority police have since fanned out in Nablus, Tulkarm and Bethlehem — cities that Israel and Western mediators see as proving grounds for P.A. security forces. If they succeed in suppressing terrorism from those cities, Israel may consider handing over to the Palestinians more sweeping security controls.
But progress has been hindered by what Israel describes as Palestinian foot dragging and Palestinians describe as Israeli meddling.
A shipment of Russian armored vehicles for the Palestinian Authority was held up by Israeli military authorities until it was agreed that the cars will not be equipped with onboard machine guns. Israel has continued its own raids on West Bank areas nominally under Palestinian Authority control, a perceived snub to Abbas. And even indirect actions have had a deleterious effect. Abbas’ administration regularly inveighs against Israel’s air strikes on Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, though it does not suggest an alternative way of stopping cross-border rocket strikes from the territory.
Finally, there is the question of complicity: Israeli forces raided the West Bank city of Ramallah last week in search of a Fatah man wanted for gunrunning, only to shoot him dead when he drew a weapon. He turned out to be bodyguard for the Palestinian Authority’s chief peace negotiator, Ahmed Qurei.
“What’s clear is that the Palestinian Authority, at this stage, is, even by its own account, is not capable of controlling the field and prevent terrorist attacks,” Israelâ€™s deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, told Israel’s Army Radio.
But there was good news from Bethlehem over the weekend after three Israelis, one of them an armed off-duty soldier, were arrested after entering the West Bank city without a permit. They told P.A. police they wanted to see the cityâ€™s Christmas decorations, but the sightseeing trip could have cost them their lives given still-simmering popular Palestinian anger at Israel.
“Had the public in Bethlehem spotted them before the police, there would have been a disaster,” said Daoud Jitt, a local security chief. The three were returned to Israel to face trial. Israeli civilians are not permitted to enter West Bank cities under P.A. control.