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U.S. Shifts From Ally to Target in Gaza Strip

Times Staff Writers

The Americans are easy to spot. They’re the ones in the Suburbans with the diplomatic plates coded “15.” “Everybody,” recalled a former Israel-based U.S. official, “knew it was us.”

The Americans had been warned by Palestinians that they should travel with more subtlety, a Palestinian security official said. But foreigners who work and live in this longtime battle zone have generally thought of themselves as observers or referees, not targets -- and few have taken great pains to protect themselves.

Safety doesn’t seem very certain anymore. On Wednesday, three U.S. security guards were killed on a war-wrecked road in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants set off a remote-controlled bomb beneath a U.S. diplomatic convoy in an attack apparently designed to kill Americans.

Under intense international pressure to track down the culprits, Palestinian police burst into the ramshackle Jabaliya refugee camp at dawn Thursday and rounded up members of an armed Palestinian splinter group. The militants opened machine-gun fire, and a brief battle erupted. At least five suspects were in Palestinian custody by nightfall, security forces said.

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Some Israeli and Palestinian security sources quietly expressed skepticism that these activists could have pulled off what is begrudgingly recognized as a tightly planned, neatly executed strike with a massive bomb.

The suspects belong to the Popular Resistance Committees, an armed umbrella organization that has grown through the three-year Palestinian uprising by attracting people who became disenchanted with factions such as the ruling Fatah party, founded and run by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“The question is whether this kind of ad hoc formation of disappointed activists can come up with an attack [as] sophisticated as yesterday’s,” a high-level Palestinian security source said. “It takes more than a couple of activists to make a bomb as powerful as that.”

Associated Press cited Israeli sources who said the offshoot group had blown up Israeli tanks and that it might have links to Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

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Although a purported Lebanon tie was dismissed by other sources, it would be significant if true, given the escalating violence and rhetoric that has driven a deeper wedge between Israel and the United States on one side and Syria on the other in recent weeks. Syria is the hand behind the Hezbollah fighters on the Israel-Lebanon border.

It’s been less than two weeks since Israel bombed what it called a terrorist training camp near Damascus in its first attack within Syria in three decades. The airstrike was a turning point, as it was the first time Israel retaliated for a Palestinian attack by hitting a foreign country.

The Gaza bombing, too, was a harsh departure from the unwritten rules of engagement that have attended this most recent Palestinian uprising. It was the first time Palestinians killed U.S. government representatives in a targeted attack.

Palestinian officials continued to decry the attack and label it an anomaly -- “more harmful to the Palestinian people than to our friends the Americans,” Arafat told reporters Thursday. And many U.S. citizens in the Gaza Strip opted to ignore Washington’s call to get out.

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“It never happens that Palestinians harm a diplomat or a foreigner,” Palestinian Cabinet member Saeb Erekat said. “This is the first time.”

Still, the timing is uncomfortable. The Americans’ deaths have rocked this region amid fervent anti-Americanism among Palestinians.

The dismal events of recent weeks -- the disintegration of a nascent peace process, the collapse of a fledgling Palestinian government and the relentless violence in Iraq -- have dramatically darkened Palestinian perceptions of the United States, according to a poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

The study portrays a Palestinian public almost unanimous in its distrust and distaste for U.S. policy, which it regards as biased and insincere.

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“Negative perceptions of the United States have always been there, but this is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” said Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director. “There is a prevailing anti-American environment, and if the Palestinian Authority does not take action, we could see more attacks.”

The opinion study found that 96% of Palestinians believed the United States was insincere in its efforts to create a Palestinian state, and 97% believed the United States was biased in favor of Israel.

That’s a substantial shift away from the mood that prevailed a few months ago, when Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon and his former Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, were holding late-night peace talks.

Then, half of the Palestinians surveyed believed the United States was sincere and committed to the “road map” peace plan, which was meant to create a Palestinian state and provide for Israeli security, Shikaki said.

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“Let’s say there’s been a gap between the promises of the Bush administration and its very poor deeds,” said Menachem Klein, a political analyst with Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “The Palestinians are very disappointed the Americans have done nothing to force Israel to follow its promises.”

The Palestinian-American relationship has always been changeable, shot through with mistrust but imbued with a measure of admiration and hope. Most Palestinians have long been convinced that the United States sides with Israel and have in recent times been bitterly disheartened by Washington’s failure to curb Israeli settlement construction or put an end to the military occupation of the West Bank.

On the other hand, Palestinians have generally regarded the United States as their only real guarantor of statehood, the only nation with enough clout to broker a peace deal with Israel. Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton remain icons of American friendship, and the idea of attacking an American has been unthinkable to the Palestinian leadership, akin to throwing away one’s last, best hope.

Palestinian youth often speak of studying or working in the United States, and Palestinians still admire America’s science, technology and economy. In fact, the convoy’s diplomats were en route to interview prospective Fulbright scholars when their vehicles were attacked.

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But Shikaki’s study indicated that the United States’ reputation for upholding human rights and democracy also had taken a hard hit of late. Between 1995 and 2000, Shikaki said, the United States always scored between 60% and 70% approval on these topics among Palestinians.

This time, only 44% gave U.S. democracy and human rights a positive evaluation. “The Palestinians just don’t believe anything the United States is saying,” Shikaki said.

Since the Palestinian intifada began, and violence has grown more intense, U.S. diplomats have been instructed to use more caution.

In the past, they could drive themselves unescorted into the Gaza Strip, cruise around and -- during a particularly calm stretch -- spend the night.

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Recently, U.S. delegations have driven into Gaza with escorts after coordinating with the Palestinian Authority; trips to the West Bank have sometimes been organized with the Israeli army.

Palestinian officials had warned the Americans that their movements weren’t exactly subtle, a Palestinian security source said. But their warnings went unheeded. “The Americans -- if they do [something], they do it the way they want to,” he said.

On Thursday, Palestinian officials publicly dismissed reports in the Israeli press indicating that Palestinian warnings to American officials had been even more serious.

In the Gaza Strip, the American School canceled classes Thursday while teachers and administrators met to discuss “whether there was a major policy shift” in the intifada, Principal Brian Fisher said.

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The 4-year-old, K-through- 11th-grade school has stayed put throughout the intifada, even after it was shelled by an Israeli tank. This week’s blast on a nearby roadway gave the staff pause. But after a discussion, Fisher said, the teachers agreed that they hadn’t felt endangered and they decided to stay. Classes are to resume Sunday.

“We always felt very welcome here in Gaza. They treat us like guests,” Fisher said. “They’ve never even thrown a rock. The neighbors walk down the road and smile and wave at us.”


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