A period of relative calm in Israel and the Palestinian territories was shattered this week after a suicide bomber killed 20 people in Jerusalem and Israel retaliated by striking Palestinian militants. Analysts say the new wave of violence is a major blow to the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace.
Washington, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For several weeks it seemed that Israelis and Palestinians were finally making progress as they took symbolic steps down the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace.
Palestinian radical groups announced a cease-fire on 29 June, raising hopes that the cycle of violence that had left thousands of victims in its wake since late 2000 was losing steam. But the tit-for-tat violence has returned with a vengeance -- the killing of a leader of Islamic Jihad by Israeli troops on 14 August was followed by the suicide bombing in Jerusalem on 19 August that killed 20 people and further Israeli reprisals.
All this has left the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush scrambling to save its peace plan. On 21 August an Israeli helicopter gunship struck a car which killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior political leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Afterwards, Hamas and another militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, announced an end to their June cease-fire.
On 22 August, they were joined by a third group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, after Israeli forces shot dead one of its members and wounded two others in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Earlier, tens of thousands of Palestinians took part in a funeral procession for Abu Shanab. Many chanted that moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, were traitors collaborating with Israel. Speaking to reporters at the funeral march in Gaza, Hamas official Ismail al-Haniyah said, "Israel will regret this and we will prove to the whole world that Israel only understands the language of power and resistance."
All three militant groups, which seek Israel's destruction, have called now for "jihad until victory or martyrdom."
Israel, which has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to disarm the militant groups, promised what one security source called "serious retaliation on the terrorist infrastructure." The Bush administration is now faced with the stark question: How to save the road map from what appears certain death? U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on 22 August that "the end of the road map is a cliff that both sides will fall off."
He added: "It is not the end of the 'road map' [ peace plan]. I believe that both parties understand that a way has to be found to go forward. The alternative is what? Just more death and destruction? Let the terrorists win? Let those who have no interest in a Palestinian state win? Let those who have no interest but killing innocent people win? No. That is not an acceptable outcome."
Powell also called on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to turn over full control of his group's security services to Abbas and Dahlan, saying they could not tackle the Palestinian militants without those resources.
Powell also urged all countries, including Arab nations, "to step up now and insist that the terror perpetrated by organizations such as Hamas must come to an end." He did not mention Syria, a past target of U.S. warnings for its support for Hamas.
Analysts say Israel is trying to bring its conflict with Hamas to a boil in hopes of defeating the group. Hamas, which enjoys immense popularity, also runs an extensive network of social services for destitute Palestinians.
David Mack is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Now a vice president of the Middle East Institute, Mack told RFE/RL: "Basically, the Israelis want the Palestinian Authority to have a civil war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I doubt whether they have the capability of effectively doing that."
After taking some steps in recent weeks to ease living conditions for Palestinians, Israel has now renewed search-and-arrest operations in Nablus and other occupied West Bank cities. It has also reimposed a curfew on the city, considered a stronghold of militants. On 22 August, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush's main focus now is on restoring the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue that was severed after the assassination of Abu Shanab.
Asked if Washington will urge restraint from both sides, McClellan reiterated the administration's position that Israel has a right to defend itself but must keep in mind the consequences of its actions on the peace process.
On 22 August, Bush also announced a freeze on the assets of six Hamas leaders and five organizations accused of financially supporting the group. But Mack said that if Bush hopes to stop a new and perhaps even deadlier cycle of violence from emerging, he will probably need to put more pressure on Israel to show restraint. Mack said that "the U.S. has not carried through, has not pressed the issue as it should; it hasn't pressed hard enough with Arab governments, and particularly it has not pressed hard enough with the Israeli government, where we do have influence if we choose to use it."
The same day, a troubling-shooting envoy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah to deliver what he called a warning of impending catastrophe. Osama el-Baz said that all sides must take steps to avoid escalation and return to the road map, which sets out reciprocal steps for both sides and envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. The plan is supported by the U.S., UN, European Union, and Russia.
El-Baz was later quoted on Israel Radio as saying Palestinian Authority leaders requested "more time" from Israel before they pressure Hamas and militant ally Islamic Jihad to stop attacks. He declined to elaborate.