Israel Seeks Tighter Grip on Militants
Israeli officials issued fresh demands Sunday that the Palestinian leadership clamp down on militias after a suicide bomber blew himself up near a bus station in southern Israel, causing numerous injuries.
The bombing in the Negev desert city of Beersheba, about 45 miles southwest of Jerusalem, was the first such attack on Israel since it withdrew from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank. The last settlers were removed Tuesday.
“Israel, for its part, has taken necessary steps to further progress with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, for their part, continue to refuse to take the necessary steps to prevent terror against Israel,” said David Baker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “This has been an impediment to making progress.”
Palestinian leaders sharply condemned the bombing; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas labeled it a “terrorist attack.” He urged all sides to maintain the relative quiet that has existed since Israel and the Palestinian leadership announced a cease-fire in February.
Israeli authorities said the explosion, which came during morning rush hour, would have caused greater damage if not for the intervention of a bus driver who grew suspicious and summoned security guards. Two guards chased the bomber, who detonated his explosives on the street. Both guards were injured, one gravely. At least 40 other people were treated, mostly for minor injuries and shock.
The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, Israeli media reported late Sunday.
Islamic Jihad and several other Palestinian groups vowed vengeance last week after Israeli soldiers fatally shot five Palestinians during a raid against suspected Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. Israeli military officials said all five were wanted for their roles in attacks, including a February bombing by Islamic Jihad outside a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five Israelis. But Palestinians said two were unarmed teenage boys.
Israeli officials said Sunday’s bombing, the first such attack since a suicide bomber killed five Israelis outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya on July 12, proved the need for the separation barrier that Israel is erecting in and around the West Bank. The bulwark, which Israel says has reduced the number of attacks, has not been completed in the southern West Bank, the area nearest Beersheba. Israeli politicians urged speedier construction.
“We have to complete the fence, and we are making an effort in that direction,” Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio.
But Palestinians have charged that the barrier allows Israel to impose de facto borders of its liking and to swallow portions of the West Bank that the Palestinians want as a part of a future state. Palestinian leaders expressed outrage last week over Israel’s plan to seize land in the West Bank around the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, to make way for construction of the partition.
In other developments Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan under which Egypt would deploy 750 guards on its side of the Gaza Strip border to provide security and deter arms smuggling.
The agreement was opposed by hawkish Israeli politicians who contended that it would leave Israel vulnerable and that it violated the 1979 peace treaty with Cairo by allowing an Egyptian military presence in the Sinai peninsula. But Sharon and his aides argued that the new agreement put limits on Egyptian forces and allowed them only light weaponry.
Israeli officials hope the Egyptian border guards will prevent arms from being smuggled into Gaza once Israeli soldiers leave the volatile, eight-mile frontier, where they have clashed frequently with Palestinian fighters in recent years. Israel plans to exit the so-called Philadelphi corridor during the coming weeks in the final step in its Gaza withdrawal.
The accord with Egypt is expected to win approval Wednesday in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.
Israel and the Palestinians have not resolved other key issues related to the pullout, including to what extent Israel will be able to control border crossings between Gaza and Egypt and the method by which people and goods will move between Gaza and the West Bank. In the short term, merchandise will probably be transported via convoys escorted by the Israeli army.
In Gaza on Sunday, Israel began removing bodies from the Jewish cemetery in Gush Katif, which had been the territory’s main cluster of settlements before the evacuation. All 48 bodies are to be reburied this week, nearly a third of them in a cemetery on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem’s walled Old City.
Also Sunday, Omri Sharon, a lawmaker and the elder son of the Israeli prime minister, was indicted on corruption charges stemming from his role in his father’s 1999 campaign for leadership of the conservative Likud Party.
Omri Sharon is accused of exceeding fund-raising limits in gathering contributions for his father and using fake companies to hide the sums. Ariel Sharon went on to win the Likud primary en route to his election as prime minister.