Grenade attack stirs questions on security Incident illustrates fears of Israelis, underscores the lack of guarantees

October 20, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A grenade attack at a crowded Israeli bus station yesterday graphically illustrated Israel's security concerns voiced in negotiations under way in Maryland to end a 19-month stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

The early morning attack injured 64 people, two seriously. A Palestinian suspect apprehended at the scene was identified by Palestinian security authorities as Salem Rajab al-Sarsour, a 29-year-old father of five from the West Bank city of Hebron. Visitors to his home said a poster of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder of the radical Islamic group Hamas, hung on a wall.

Israeli police, who did not identify the suspect, said he admitted lobbing two hand grenades into an outdoor area in the southern city of Beersheba, where many Israeli soldiers were waiting for buses.

While the attack illustrated Israel's case for seeking security commitments, it underscored the Palestinians' argument that a 100 percent effort to combat terrorism cannot guarantee security nor thwart an individual's terrorist act, any more than Israel can guarantee against acts by its own people.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has noted that more Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks since the signing of peace accords in Oslo, Norway, in 1993 than the 254 killed in the 15 years before.

Among the most deadly incidents have been bus bombings and suicide attacks carried out by the military wing of Hamas.

Jibril Rajoub, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's security chief in the West Bank, said the suspect in yesterday's grenade attack was a Hamas sympathizer.

Hamas did not claim responsibility for yesterday's attack, but Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, said Palestinians have the right to defend themselves and resist Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The scores injured in yesterday's attack gave it prominence against the backdrop of the peace talks. But it followed several incidents in recent weeks in which Israelis were killed or injured. They include:

The Oct. 13 shooting of two religious men as they bathed in a spring outside Jerusalem; Itamar Doron, 24, was killed and his friend Ilan Mazon critically injured.

A soldier, Lt. Michal Adato, was fatally stabbed Oct. 9 while standing at the entrance to a rural community in the Jordan Valley.

Two hand grenades were thrown into a public area of the West Bank city of Hebron on Sept. 30, injuring 14 Israeli policemen and eight Palestinians.

A bomb exploded Sept. 24 at a bus stop near Hebrew University in Jerusalem; a waiting soldier suffered minor injuries.

David Bar-Illan, a top aide to Netanyahu, referred to these incidents and five others in comments yesterday at the Wye Plantation summit on the Eastern Shore.

"The prevailing mood here is of great anger. This is not the first incident in recent weeks and it is not the incident itself, as horrible as it is, that is creating this anger, but the fact that the Palestinian authority, in the nine preceding incidents, nine preceding murderous incidents in the past few weeks, has done absolutely nothing to cooperate with us, to try and apprehend and punish the terrorists," Bar-Illan told Israel Radio.

"This is a signal to the terrorists to continue with their acts. We have said over and over again you can't control the last fanatic, the last criminal, the last nut everywhere in the world, but you can invest the kind of effort that will discourage them and make it difficult for them to operate."

The Israelis repeatedly have called on the Palestinian authority to crack down on the "infrastructure" of terrorist groups such as Hamas. But the recent incidents have not been claimed by Hamas, which is the group's usual practice. This month, Yassin attributed the dearth of Hamas-sponsored terror attacks to the work of the Palestinian security forces.

"There is no doubt the military wing is facing many difficulties, particularly since there is Palestinian, U.S., Israeli cooperation," said Yassin.

The attacks of recent weeks suggest either that individuals frustrated with the peace process have acted on their own or that Hamas has refrained from accepting responsibility for the attacks to shield itself.

"We do not have any indication that the second theory is the right one," said Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist. "But we know from the past, each knife attack during the intifada was an individual decision."

Klein, a professor at Bar-Illan University near Tel Aviv, added: "A LTC hand grenade is not infrastructure."

If Hamas were to change its strategy and move toward smaller-scale attacks, Klein said, he would "expect the movement to take responsibility and express the view that we are fighting the Israeli occupation while Arafat achieves nothing from talking to Netanyahu."

Klein said "the most useful means to combat any terrorist attack is to change the whole political and social context in which the terrorist is operating."

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a former minister in Arafat's government, said Palestinians are being provoked.

"People see their lands being stolen, their houses being demolished, their children being tortured in Israeli jails, their friends and relatives killed at checkpoints," Ashrawi said. "Let us stop all the actions that are causing violence."

The question, she said, is "how do you create conditions that are not conducive to violence?"

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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