Hamas roundup follows attack Suicide car-bomber misses school bus, hits escorting army jeep.

October 30, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian police rounded up Islamic activists and placed the spiritual leader of Hamas under house arrest yesterday after the group claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack aimed at a bus carrying 40 Israeli children in the Gaza Strip.

The suicide bomber was blocked by an Israeli army jeep escorting the bus. The bomb went off when the bomber hit the jeep, killing himself and one Israeli soldier and injuring the other soldier in the jeep. None of the schoolchildren were injured, but three Palestinian girls were hurt when a nearby farm shack collapsed from the force of the explosion.

The potential tragic scope of the attack -- with 40 Israeli schoolchildren as the target -- sent a shock wave through both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps. It came only six days after the Israelis and Palestinians meeting at Wye Plantation signed a new interim peace agreement heavily dependent on the Palestinian commitment to stop terrorist acts by Arabs.

The majority of the Gaza Strip was ceded to the Palestinian Authority as part of the original 1993 Oslo peace accords. Israel maintains security control over the main road leading to a cluster of Jewish settlements in the area.

The bus convoy was taking the children to school from one of those settlements, Gush Katif, when the man driving the car packed with explosives tried to ram the bus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier this week delayed a cabinet vote on the Wye accord until the Palestinians deliver their security plan to U.S. officials, reiterated Israeli security demands yesterday.

He did not say the attack would stop the latest peace progress.

"We know what we're expecting of the Palestinian Authority," he told reporters after visiting those injured in the bus attack. "We know exactly what is a total effort and a total mobilization and if it will be such, the [Palestinian Authority] will meet its commitments and we will meet our commitments."

'Zero tolerance'

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu spoke with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and demanded he live up to his pledge of "zero tolerance" for terrorists and the infrastructure that supports them.

Arafat, speaking in Gaza, said, "I confirmed to Mr. Netanyahu our commitment in the Palestinian Authority to pursue and to exert all efforts to disclose who stood behind this terrorist act which was directed against schoolchildren."

By last night, Palestinian security forces had arrested "a large number" of Hamas activists, including physician and group spokesman Mahmoud Zahar. The Hamas group opposes the historic peace agreement signed in 1993. The group's military wing has waged a campaign of terror that has killed scores of Jews and some Arabs.

The confinement of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin to his house in Gaza was the first such action against Yassin since his release from an Israeli prison in September 1997 and his hero's welcome to Gaza. A dozen Palestinian policemen closed off the area near Yassin's home and barred journalists from the scene.

A Palestinian security official told Reuters the action was taken because Yassin's "recent statements were against Palestinian national interests."

Wye agreement 'worthless'

Since his release from prison, Yassin has been outspoken in his opposition to the Mideast peace accords and Arafat's rule in Gaza. The frail wheelchair user has traveled throughout the Arab world to raise money for Hamas.

Following a grenade attack against an Israeli bus station earlier this month, Yassin said such attacks were justified as long as Israel continued its occupation of Palestinian lands. He also has characterized the Wye peace agreement as "worthless."

Ghassan Katib, a Palestinian political analyst, said the arrests were not surprising. After a series of suicide bombings threatened the peace process in 1996, Arafat ordered a similar sweep of Islamic militants.

"For the PA, this is a reaction to the attack that took place in Gaza," he said. "The civilian society is used to repeated arrests of Hamas leaders, considering there is some power struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority."

Mark Heller, an Israeli political analyst, said the Palestinian actions made sense given what's at stake.

"Arafat has a vested interest in seeing that this [Wye] agreement gets implemented," said Heller, a senior researcher at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "I don't think there's any reason for him to want to try and manipulate terrorism to pursue some political objective."

Throughout the day yesterday, Israeli officials hammered away at the need for the Palestinians to conduct a broadside attack on the terrorists in their midst. But Netanyahu did not use the bombing to back out of the Wye deal.

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