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Airstrike on Hamas Founder, Abbas Resignation Escalate Tensions

September 8, 2003
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Israel stepped up its defenses against terrorist attacks this week after its failed airstrike against Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and the resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Taken together, the weekend’s events threatened to leave the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan in tatters.

The Bush administration urged calm as it struggled simultaneously to keep the plan alive and to join Israel in efforts to sideline Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced hope that a new Palestinian prime minister would steer Palestinian security forces and diplomacy in the direction outlined by the road map.

“Whoever becomes head of the Palestinian Authority must have under his control all of the security forces and he must have a solid political mandate” from the Palestinian Parliament “to go after these terrorist organizations,” Powell told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.

Powell also praised a decision by the European Union to declare Hamas’ political wing a terrorist entity.

Abbas’ resignation on Saturday came amid an ongoing power struggle with Arafat, who grudgingly appointed him prime minister in April under heavy diplomatic pressure, primarily from the United States.

In his short-lived tenure as prime minister, Abbas repeatedly clashed with Arafat over Palestinian Authority policy, particularly regarding control of the Palestinian security services.

But in his resignation speech before Palestinian lawmakers, Abbas placed the blame on Israel and the United States for undermining his government.

“The fundamental problem was Israel’s unwillingness to implement its commitments in the road map,” he said.

He also indirectly criticized Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, emphasizing “harsh and dangerous domestic incitement against his government.”

Abbas could yet return to the post of prime minister, but it might require new obedience to Arafat, who outstrips him in terms of power and popularity among Palestinians.

On Sunday, Arafat apparently chose Ahmed Karia to be the next prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Karia, who is considered a relative moderate, was one of the architects of the Oslo accords.

Others that have been mentioned for the job include Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and West Bank multimillionaire Munib Al-Masri. All three are considered relative moderates.

After Abbas’ resignation, members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet reiterated their calls for harsh measures against Arafat for undermining peace efforts.

The Palestinian leader should “not be immune from anything,” Cabinet minister Uzi Landau told Israel’s Army Radio. Other ministers called for exiling Arafat.

Meanwhile, Israel continued its campaign against Hamas leaders with an airstrike Saturday aimed at the group’s founder and spiritual leader. The Gaza airstrike lightly wounded Yassin, a blind, paraplegic cleric, along with 15 others in an apartment building where Yassin was meeting with other Hamas leaders.

“It’s us or them,” Sharon told Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, referring to the leaders of Hamas. “They are dead men. We won’t give them any rest since they have just one goal, our destruction.”

Hamas responded with fierce vows of revenge, prompting Israeli authorities to seal the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hamas has been on the defensive ever since perpetrating a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem on Aug. 19, which killed 22. The latest victim, Mordechai Laufer, 27, died late last week of his wounds. The weekend’s strike was the latest in a series of Israeli attacks against the group’s leaders.

The group also was put on the diplomatic defensive over the weekend with the declaration by the European Union that the group’s political wing would be considered a terrorist entity. That move was a turnaround from the European Union’s previous stance, and it came after calls by President Bush to outlaw all branches of the terrorist group. The European Union already had outlawed Hamas’ military wing.

The decision was made Saturday at a two-day meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in northern Italy and will block funding to Hamas-run political organizations, charities and social welfare associations.

The ministers at that meeting also deplored Abbas’ resignation.

With Abbas gone and Arafat again in sole control of Palestinian Authority diplomacy, calls in Israel are mounting for Arafat’s removal. Israel and the United States accuse Arafat of supporting terrorist attacks and of blocking Abbas’ efforts to implement the road map.

The idea of deporting Arafat appeals to many Israelis who, a decade after the Oslo peace accords, have learned to distrust the Palestinian Authority president.

Some Israeli officials have even suggested that Arafat be killed.

But Palestinians warn that any successor to Arafat in the West Bank and Gaza would be marked from the outset as an Israeli patsy and that exile would amplify Arafat’s power.

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