A terror bombing against an Israeli school bus in the Gaza Strip thisweek is forcing Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reevaluate his response toPalestinian violence.
Since violence erupted across the region in late September, Barak hasadhered to what he has described as a policy of restraint in hopes of avoidingan escalation of the conflict and leaving the door open for the resumptionof negotiations with the Palestinians.
Monday’s attack – which claimed the lives of two Israeli civiliansand wounded nine others, including five children – has raised new questionsabout whether the Palestinian Authority really wants to resume talks.
Hours after the attack, Israeli army helicopters and navy ships rocketedPalestinian targets in Gaza City.
Barak said Israel would continue to strike back against the violence,and he denied reports that the hands of the army are being tied by thepolitical echelon.
“We will continue to act as needed to ensure that the violence stops.We are not going into a picnic, but a difficult battle,” Barak told reportersduring a visit to the Beersheva hospital where the Israelis wounded inthe bombing attack were being treated.
That battle continued Tuesday – on the diplomatic front as well ason the ground, as Egypt announced it was recalling its ambassador to Israelin the wake of the attack on Gaza City.
Also on Tuesday, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the authority’s general secretary,said Palestinian police can now fire on Israeli troops who shoot at Palestiniandemonstrators, a decision he said was made after Israel “shot the peaceprocess in the heart” by attacking Gaza City.
The same day, Palestinian police opened fire on Israeli troops guardingthe Gush Katif settlement in Gaza, the Israeli army said. A Palestinianintelligence officer was killed by return fire. Palestinian gunmen alsoshot at an army patrol along the Israeli-Egyptian border in southern Gaza,prompting fire from the Israeli troops.
In yet another incident in Gaza, an Israeli civilian was criticallywounded after Palestinian gunmen shot him in the head as he was travelingin a convoy, Israel’s army said. The attack occurred as Barak visited anearby military base.
ByTuesday night, the Israeli army was sending heavy armored vehiclesto Gaza to support Israeli troops stationed along the road connecting theGush Katif settlement bloc and the Kisufim Crossing into Israel, whichhas become a focal point for clashes in recent days. Palestinians and Israelitroops engaged in heavy exchanges of gunfire across Gaza on Tuesday.
Israeli television quoted Israeli military sources as saying that thePalestinians apparently have reduced the overall violence but are now engagingin more serious attacks.
The Israeli air and sea strikes on Gaza City Monday were the most seriousretaliation for Palestinian attacks this week.
That response stood in marked contrast to what happened over the weekend,when an Israeli soldier was killed.
On Saturday, a Palestinian policeman infiltrated the Jewish settlementof Kfar Darom in Gaza, killing the soldier and seriously wounding two othersbefore being shot dead by Israeli troops at the site.
The soldier killed in the attack, Staff Sgt. Baruch Snir Flum, 21,of Tel Aviv, was among the last Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanonin May. He had four months left until his army discharge.
On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that he did not plan to retaliatefor the attack.
But Monday’s attack against civilians put new pressure on Barak toretaliate harshly against Palestinian violence.
Following the explosion, the words “This Is What We Get for Restraint”were spray-painted in Hebrew on the wreckage of the school bus. Jewishdemonstrators blocked the main entrance to Jerusalem, demanding that thearmy respond more forcefully to Palestinian violence.
Jewish settler leaders, who met with President Moshe Katsav on Monday,said the prime minister must let the army do what it takes “to win.”
Monday’s developments came just a few days after Arafat said he orderedPalestinian gunmen to stop firing at Israelis from Palestinian-ruled areas.
Arafat’s call came after U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross metseparately last week with Arafat and Israeli leaders.
Ross reportedly made some progress in getting the two sides to agreeto talks aimed at not only reducing the violence, but also leading backto negotiations.
On Monday, Danny Yatom, Barak’s security chief, rejected Arafat’s publiccall last week to halt shooting at Israeli from Area A, which is undersole Palestinian control, as “cynical.”
“That he told them not to carry out attacks in Area A, he basicallygave them permission to attack in areas B and C,” where Israel has overallsecurity control.
Yatom said the Security Cabinet had approved a number of other measures,including economic actions, and that the government would also launch aninformation campaign to explain to the world that “this is an unacceptablesituation” in which Arafat “expects to conduct some sort of dialogue withus, alongside shootings, incitement and terrorist attacks.”
Some Israeli observers suggest that Arafat still considers violencethe most effective means to attain his political goals, while other questionwhether Arafat really has the ability to stop the violence.
In addition to the renewed activities of Islamic militants – many ofwhom were released from Palestinian jails during the ongoing violence -members of Fatah have joined armed militias that may or may not respondto calls for a cease-fire.
The Palestinian Authority denied any involvement in Monday’s bombing,and a senior Palestinian official was quoted as saying that the self-rulegovernment would launch an inquiry into the attack.
But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh later said there was a clearconnection linking the attack to the Palestinian security establishment.
“This puts heavy responsibility, grave responsibility, on the PalestinianAuthority,” Sneh told reporters.
Claims of responsibility for the bombing came from three little-knowngroups: Palestinian Hezbollah, Al-Aksa Martyrs and Omar al-Mukhtar. Israelisecurity officials did not rule out links between the groups and the morewell-known militant groups, Islamic Jihad or Hamas.
The school bus had left the settlement of Kfar Darom early Monday.Students and teachers were en route to an elementary school in the GushKatif settlement bloc in southern Gaza.
The Israeli army said it appeared that three assailants hid in thebushes near the road and detonated the explosive by remote control whenthe school bus approached.
The bus, which according to the army was heavily armored and undera military escort, was badly damaged by the explosion of a heavy mortarshell that was attached to a detonator. Witnesses said several pieces ofshrapnel went clean through the bus, which held about 30 passengers.
The attack occurred on a road controlled by Israel. The attackers fledinto the self-rule area after detonating the explosion, according to Israeliauthorities.
The two victims were teachers at the school: Miriam Amitai, 35, a motherof four; and Gavriel Biton, 34, a father of six. Both were residents ofKfar Darom.
Among the injured were three siblings who had to have arms or legspartially amputated, according to medical workers.
The attack has prompted some observers to suggest that the terroristswere trying to kill off any chances that negotiations would be resumedany time soon.
In a possible sign that the premier may be giving up the idea of findinga Palestinian partner in the diplomatic process, Barak reportedly has renewedcontacts with the nation’s opposition parties to consider forming a unitygovernment.
For the time being, though, he has no takers.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon said he would not join political forceswith someone he claimed would divide Jerusalem and give back the JordanValley. Sharon also accused Barak of holding secret negotiations with thePalestinians despite the violen
ce – a charge Barak denied.