Published May 19, 2003
JERUSALEM – The progress of a U.S.-backed Mideast peace initiative appeared to be in jeopardy after Hamas militants attacked Israelis four times in two days.
The spate of bombings by the Islamic militant group underscored how difficult it will be to carry out the U.S.-backed "road map" plan, a three-stage prescription for ending violence immediately and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.
Sharon was to have discussed the plan with President Bush (search) at the White House this week, but canceled his trip after Sunday's bus bombing. The Palestinians have accepted the plan as is.
In a special Cabinet session Sunday evening, Sharon responded to calls from several ministers to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) by saying it was not the time for such action. According to a senior Israeli government official speaking on condition of anonymity, Sharon said that deporting Arafat would create a worse situation for Israel than the present one, with Arafat traveling from capital to capital stating his case.
In a telephone interview with Fox News, Arafat said he would "definitely not" agree to expulsion as a condition of the peace plan, or even in exchange for an independent Palestinian state.
But Arafat denied a role in the attacks, condemned violence against civilians and said he hoped President Bush would convince Sharon to accept the road map.
"I am committed completely to the peace of the brave. ... And now we are committed also, as we have declared from the beginning, to the road map ... which has been declared by President Bush," the Palestinian leader said.
After the interview, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin told Fox News, "(Arafat) continues not to deliver peace of the brave, but peace of the grave."
Israel also implied that any good faith surrounding the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search), who was expected to crack down on militants, had been squandered by the attacks. Arafat acknowledged to Fox News that he still had an active leadership role, though he would not say whether he considered himself the true leader of the Palestinian people or if that position had been assumed by Abbas.
Sharon spokesman Gissin said that Arafat was still very much in charge.
"(Arafat is) the leader, alright -- leading his people down the drain. Arafat is second only to Saddam Hussein in defiance and non-compliance," Gissin told Fox News.
Israel charges that Arafat encouraged the violence that surrounded the Saturday meeting between Sharon and Abbas.
Hamas (search) said Monday it has no intention of halting attacks, despite Egypt's ongoing efforts to have Palestinian militant groups agree to a one-year suspension of shootings and bombings. The armed groups have said they might agree to a truce if Israel promises to stop hunting militants -- a proposal Sharon has turned down.
Instead, Israel reaffirmed there will be no letup in its campaign against those involved in violence. Israel "will continue to fight terror everywhere, at any time and in any way possible," a Cabinet statement said Sunday, after a Hamas homicide bomber killed seven Israelis on a Jerusalem bus earlier in the day.
The Cabinet also decided to isolate Yasser Arafat further, saying Israeli officials would not meet with foreign officials who also want to see the Palestinian leader. Arafat has been confined by Israel to the West Bank town of Ramallah (search) for more than a year.
Abbas has denounced violence against Israelis, but also told Sharon in a weekend meeting -- the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in three years -- that he wants to persuade the militants to stop attacks, rather than disarm them by force.
The argument over how rein in the militants and halt violence has been holding up implementation of the road map. The plan calls for parallel steps in the first stage, including a Palestinian crackdown on militants, an Israeli troop pullback from Palestinian towns and a construction freeze in Jewish settlements.
However, Sharon has expressed major reservations, insisting the Palestinians make the first move.
In Monday's bombing, a 19-year-old Palestinian rode a bicycle toward an Israeli army jeep near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza (search). When he got close, he detonated a 66-pound bomb strapped to his body, said Col. Avi Ashkenazi, an Israeli commander in the area. Hamas sources identified the bomber as Shadi Nabaheen from the nearby Bureij refugee camp.
About an hour after the bombing, Palestinians fired on an Israeli convoy of civilian cars escorted by jeeps near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim. There were no injuries, but the bus was damaged, the army said.
The latest wave of attacks began Saturday evening when a Hamas bomber blew himself up in a square in the West Bank city of Hebron (search), killing an Israeli settler and his pregnant wife. On Sunday morning, another Hamas assailant blew up the Jerusalem bus and about half an hour later, a third bomber from the group detonated explosives on the outskirts of Jerusalem, killing only himself.
Israeli analyst Mark Heller said that "Hamas is trying to ensure that the road map doesn't go anywhere and that Abu Mazen (Abbas) doesn't go anywhere either."
The three bombers came from Hebron and at one point studied at the Polytechnic Institute in the city. Two bombers, Fuad Qawasmeh, 18, and Bassem Takrouri, 19, lived in the same Hebron neighborhood and were friends. The Israeli military on Monday demolished the Qawasmeh family home, part of a policy of trying to deter attacks by punishing assailants' relatives.
The three bombers released farewell videos, apparently taken in the same wooded area. In frame grabs published in the Yediot Ahronot daily, the three struck identical poses, holding up assault rifles. Each wore a green headband with Quranic verses and an olive-colored vest with pockets for ammunition and grenades.
A Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said Monday that "legitimate resistance will continue as long as occupation exists on our holy land."
Asked whether Hamas was challenging Abbas, Rantisi said only that there was no point in trying to negotiate with Sharon, whom he called a "terrorist."
Hamas has carried out most of the 94 homicide bombings that have killed more than 300 Israelis in the past 32 months of fighting.
Israeli also put a tight closure on the West Bank (search), banning Palestinians from entering Israel. However, the measure made little practical difference, since Israel has been enforcing stringent travel bans since the outbreak of fighting.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) urged Palestinians "to begin to take immediate and decisive action to eradicate the infrastructure of terrorism and violence."
Fox News' Rita Cosby and The Associated Press contributed to this report.