Suicide attack kills guard, sets off debate in Israel

Bombing shows difficulty Palestinian premier faces in effort to halt violence

April 25, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR SABA, Israel - Hours after a Palestinian prime minister who says he is determined to end violence formed his first Cabinet, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a train station here yesterday, killing himself and an Israeli security guard.

It was a small-scale attack by Israeli standards and was unlikely to prompt a severe retaliatory strike by the army. But it sent a powerful message to both sides that one teen-ager with a bomb hidden under an overcoat can still dictate the agenda.

The bombing sparked considerable debate among Israelis across the political spectrum. Those on the far right were saying it proves that no Palestinian can be trusted to negotiate a settlement. Those on the left were urging restraint to give the new Palestinian government a chance to prove itself.

None of that really mattered to yesterday's victims.

"There always were attacks, there always will be attacks," summed up Rotem Alfi, a 22-year-old railroad worker who was close enough to the explosion to get a nail from the bomb embedded in his back.

Palestinian officials identified the bomber as Ahmed Khatib, an 18-year-old from the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus. He was a member of a splinter group of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party.

Arafat's aides argue that the fractured militia has spun beyond his control, with various groups isolated by Israeli army maneuvers and decimated by arrests. Israeli officials contend that Arafat can stop attacks by the group with a simple order.

"This terror attack clarifies more than anything else that we cannot continue to work on two tracks in parallel: one track of terror and another track of negotiations," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told state radio. "Arafat has proven once again that he is the obstacle to peace."

Arafat, in a statement, vowed to "spare no effort to stop such attacks against civilians." He also condemned the Israeli army for killing a Palestinian teen-ager and a taxi driver yesterday in the West Bank during a stone-throwing incident, calling it a "continuation of the daily Israeli crimes."

This is the contentious atmosphere that the new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, will inherit after his Cabinet is approved by the Palestinian parliament, perhaps as early as next week.

Abbas has spoken out against the armed uprising, and he and his new security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, will be expected by leaders in Israel, the United States and Europe to disarm Fatah's militia wing and confront independent militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

After emerging victorious from a power struggle with Arafat, who proved he is still very much in charge, it remains to be seen whether Abbas will have the freedom to crack down. Already, militant leaders have warned Abbas that they are ready to launch more attacks if forced into a showdown.

Once Abbas' Cabinet is in place, the Bush administration has promised to publish its long-awaited "road map" to peace, which calls on both sides to make substantial and simultaneous concessions. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to visit the Middle East next month, and White House officials have indicated that they might invite Abbas to Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that he, too, would meet with Abbas, inviting him to Jerusalem after the Cabinet is approved.

Ghassan Khatib, who is to be a minister in Abbas' new Cabinet, said that without conciliatory gestures from Israel, such as moving troops out of West Bank cities, easing checkpoints and lifting travel restrictions, Abbas will not be able to confront the militant groups.

"That can happen only in the context of the road map," Khatib said. "It has to be part of a process that promises the public the end to Israeli occupation. Without that, it is difficult to have public support, and without public support, cracking down on these groups would be political suicide. The Israelis have to move in a way that will enable Abu Mazen to be successful."

Some Israeli politicians echoed those thoughts yesterday. On the left, Shinui Party chairman Tommy Lapid said: "We must give Abu Mazen a chance to fight terror." But on the far right, National Religious Party chairman Effi Eitam said only the army can stop the violence. Of more talks, he said, "We have already paid for such illusions with blood."

It appeared doubtful that yesterday's bombing was connected to the new Palestinian Cabinet; Palestinians said the attacker had moved from Nablus to the West Bank city of Qalqilya, a mile east of Kfar Saba, two months ago in order to prepare.

Leaders of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which had announced that it would stop attacks in Israel and concentrate on settlers and soldiers in the West Bank, distanced themselves from yesterday's bombing and called Khatib a renegade. Israeli officials say there are constant warnings of attacks regardless of the political atmosphere.

Yesterday's blast occurred at a train station that opened 10 days ago in this upscale suburb. It went off at the main entrance moments before a full train pulled away from the station on its 22-minute commute to Tel Aviv.

Alfi, the railroad worker, was waiting for a ride to take him to his job inspecting the tracks for bombs when the bomber brushed by him wearing a heavy overcoat, despite a hot and sunny day. He had no bag.

"The guard at the entrance stopped him," Alfi said from a wheelchair in the local hospital as he awaited physical therapy. "I turned to help the guard, and the man put his hand in his back pocket and then there was an explosion."

The guard, Alexander Kostiok, 23, was killed, and 14 bystanders were injured. The blast tore apart light fixtures and spattered blood on the low concrete ceiling of the entrance.

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