JERUSALEM - A sudden rise in Palestinian attacks from the Gaza Strip has presented the Israeli government with a difficult choice: send in the Israeli army for a confrontation with militant groups or give the days-old Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas time to restore order on its own.
Abbas, while offering no details yesterday, directed his security forces to end the violence in Gaza - the attacks that now involve mortars and primitive, short-range rockets, many of them targeting the Israeli town of Sederot. Though neither he nor his aides explained how those orders would be carried out, Abbas clearly recognized the attacks' importance to Israel.
"There are intensified instructions to the Palestinian security forces to assume their responsibilities," Communications Minister Azzam al-Ahmed told reporters after Abbas finished an emergency Cabinet meeting. "We have a decision to stop the cycle of violence. The attacks by the Palestinian side must come to an end, but Israeli military operations must also end."
Uncertain grace period
It remains unclear how much of a grace period Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is willing to give Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. He was sworn into office Saturday as president of the Palestinian Authority.
Last week, Sharon cut off formal contacts with the authority after an attack from Gaza killed six Israeli workers, including three from Sederot.
Ze'ev Boim, Israel's deputy defense minister, told state radio yesterday that the army was prepared to wait. "From a diplomatic standpoint, we want to give a window of time, even if short, for [Abbas] to get organized," he said.
Caught in the middle is Sederot, where angry residents staged a strike yesterday and demanded the government provide better protection. Many of the town's 24,000 hung black flags from their windows and announced plans for a march today to the Gaza border.
"I am not willing to give anybody time at the expense of the blood of Sederot people," the town's mayor, Eli Moyal, said at a rally. "Whoever wants peace should first stop the murders, and then go to the negotiating table."
Moyal, who keeps a disarmed rocket on display in his office, said Israelis might come to regret the death in November of Yasser Arafat. "Arafat could stop violence but didn't want to," he said. Abbas "wants to stop it but can't."
Analysts point to Abbas' high standing in the international community as one reason why Sharon is unlikely to order large-scale military reprisals.
"Until the Americans say that Abu Mazen is no good, that he is the same as Arafat, then we will be limited in our actions," said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, and a critic of Abbas' first days in office. "Meanwhile, the people of Sederot will pay the price for the folly of the world being once again fooled by the Palestinians."
The Islamic militant group Hamas fired about a dozen Kassam rockets over the weekend at Sederot, seriously injuring a teenage girl and a boy. Rockets have killed four townspeople in the past year.
Abbas has said he will not confront Palestinian militias with force and instead wants to bring them into mainstream Palestinian politics. Yesterday, he ordered that the armed wing of his political faction, Fatah, be incorporated into the police forces.
Abbas has scheduled a trip to Gaza tomorrow to meet with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to try to negotiate a cease-fire. But yesterday, a Hamas representative rejected any cessation in violence, a stance that has been backed by the group's leaders in Damascus, Syria.
Israeli troops fatally shot two members of Islamic Jihad yesterday after military officials said they were spotted shooting at Israeli cars on a road used by Jewish settlers.
Yesterday, Sederot seemed to be at the center of Israelis' attention. Israeli newspapers published letters from children in Sederot, describing nightmares about rockets and wanting to move away.
The Israeli government has designated Sederot a "front-line" town, qualifying it for special government grants. Some of the grants have been used for a system that gives a 20- to 30-second warning of incoming missiles. A woman's voice blasts over loudspeakers with the words, "Red Dawn."
On Saturday, Ella Abukasis, 17, heard the warning as she walked home. She grabbed her 10-year-old brother as a rocket fell nearby. Her brother emerged unscathed; she was knocked unconscious and remains hospitalized in critical condition.
Schools have reinforced their "safe rooms" with more concrete and keep students away from windows that could shatter. Sleeping pills are flying off pharmacy shelves, and residents complain that houses that were worth $150,000 four years ago are now on the market for half that price.
Mary Sinai, who works in the nearby city of Ashkelon, said she worries about leaving her children behind every morning. She has had to return to Sederot to pick up her children after a rocket fell near their school.
"We don't have quiet," she said yesterday. "My dream is to leave. People aren't optimistic anymore. When we hear the warning `Red Dawn,' we go to our safe room in our house and wait for the explosion. If it is close, we say, `Thank God it didn't fall on us.'"