Sharon demands action on militants

Israeli premier threatens to suspend talks unless Palestinians crack down

Further warning issued to Syria

February 28, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened yesterday to suspend peace talks and escalate military operations unless Palestinian authorities act swiftly to destroy militant groups behind attacks, including a suicide bombing Friday that killed four people in Tel Aviv.

The bombing shattered two weeks of relative calm since Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to a truce. Abbas had sought to win agreement from militant groups to observe a cease-fire.

Islamic Jihad, a militant group with leadership based in Lebanon and Syria, claimed responsibility for Friday night's attack by a 21-year-old Palestinian college student who blew himself up on a crowded sidewalk outside a waterfront nightclub.

Speaking at the opening of his weekly Cabinet session, Sharon said he was certain that Islamic Jihad leaders in Syria had ordered the attack. Still, Sharon said, the Palestinian Authority was not absolved of responsibility and its "immediate test" is to crack down on members of Islamic Jihad.

"Recently, the state of Israel has been showing restraint in order to facilitate progress; however, it is clear that if the Palestinians do not begin to take vigorous action against terrorism, Israel will be compelled to step up military activity that is designed to protect the lives of Israeli citizens," Sharon said. "I re-emphasize that there will be no diplomatic progress as long as the Palestinians do not act in accordance with their commitments and eliminate the terrorist organizations."

Israeli defense officials also increased pressure on Syria, with Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim warning that Israel will not hesitate to target Syria. Syrian officials denied involvement in the suicide bombing.

In 2003, Israeli warplanes bombed an Islamic Jihad base in Syria after a suicide bombing killed 19 people at a restaurant in Haifa.

"There is no doubt that Syria is a center of terrorist activity, this time against Israel, but also regionally," Boim said, according to the Associated Press. "Operations by us against Syria are certainly possible. We have done it in the past. If [President Bashar] Assad needs another message from us, then he will certainly get it."

Sharon's warnings placed new demands on Abbas, who was elected last month on promises of ending violence and reaching a settlement with Israel. Abbas has won significant support from Israel, which last week released 500 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to his new government. Israel also agreed to turn control of five West Bank towns over to Palestinian officials and to end its assassinations of militant leaders.

In return, the Israelis have demanded that the Palestinians disband armed factions, seize their weapons and arrest their members.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has demonstrated a clear commitment to end the violence. He has deployed Palestinian security forces throughout the Gaza Strip to prevent militants from firing rockets into Israel. But he has pursued a softer approach than Israel demanded, urging militant groups to put down their weapons rather than arresting members of the groups.

As part of its response to Friday's attack, Israel announced another delay in the planned handover of authority in West Bank cities. Israel's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, said the government would also delay discussing the release of more Palestinian prisoners, according to Israeli press accounts.

Last night, Palestinian officials asked Israel to look beyond Friday's suicide attack and stay focused on peace talks.

"I urge the Israeli government to continue the dialogue with us and to continue to implement what was agreed to at Sharm el-Sheik," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, referring to the Egyptian resort town where on Feb. 8 the two sides declared an end to violence. "Whoever was behind this attack wanted to undermine the peace process. We should not allow them to succeed."

Erekat said that Palestinians are in the process of rebuilding their security and government institutions but that they would be able to meet Israeli demands to take action against militants "in due time."

On Saturday, Palestinian police announced the arrest of two suspects with reported ties to Islamic Jihad. Israeli forces, meanwhile, arrested two of the bomber's brothers and four neighbors in his village near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, including the local mosque preacher. The bomber's alleged driver was also arrested.

An Islamic Jihad official, identified only as Abu Tarek, said on the organization's Web site that a one-month pause in attacks was over and would not be extended because Israel had continued to kill and arrest Palestinians.

"As long as the other side is not committed, there will be a response from our side," wire services quoted the official as saying.

A video left by the bomber, Abdullah Badran, showed him next to Islamic Jihad banners and vowing to avenge the deaths of Palestinians.

In a statement, Badran sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority, accusing it of collaborating with the United States and Israel.

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