Published June 12, 2003
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The death toll continued to rise Thursday in the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, further jeopardizing the U.S.-backed plan for Mideast peace.
It was the third Israeli air strike against Hamas targets in 24 hours, and came shortly after the Islamic militant group ordered its fighters to continue their attacks on Israelis. The group issued a statement, urging its military cells to "blow up the Zionist entity and tear it to pieces."
The increasingly deadly confrontation — with 38 killed and more than 130 wounded on both sides in two days — left little hope President Bush's Middle East peace initiative, launched just a week ago, will survive.
The U.S.-backed peace plan calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups and on Israel to refrain from actions that undermine trust.
However, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) insists he cannot use force against the militants who have rebuffed his truce offers. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) says he will not wait for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to negotiate a deal with them.
"If I need to choose between the war on terror and supporting Abu Mazen, I will choose the first option," Sharon told his Cabinet. He ridiculed Palestinian leaders as "crybabies" for saying they can't crack down on Hamas.
Palestinians, in turn, accused Sharon of doing everything he can to sabotage the "road map" peace plan. "(Sharon's) aim is to discredit the Palestinian government and to assassinate his real enemy, which is the road map," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
In Thursday's strike, Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at a car carrying Yasser Taha and Ibrahim Abu Srour, two Hamas fugitives. Both wanted men were killed, along with five other people, including Taha's wife, Fatima, 25, and their 2-year-old daughter, Asnan, doctors said. A baby bottle and baby shoes were pulled from the burning car. Twenty-nine people were wounded.
Israel army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold expressed regret at the civilian casualties. "A result of a mistake, family members were also killed," she said. "They were not targets."
The car was attacked in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, just as mourners were leaving a nearby cemetery where 11 dead from two previous airstrikes were buried. Witnesses said one missile hit as Palestinians surrounded Taha's car.
Thursday's funeral procession was attended by about 35,000 mourners, who chanted: "Abu Mazen, listen closely. There is nothing except jihad (holy war)."
Later Thursday, an Israeli motorist was killed in a Palestinian shooting attack in the West Bank.
The chain of events began last week with a summit at which Sharon and Abbas promised Bush to get started on the peace plan.
Two days later, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi announced the group was breaking off truce talks; over the weekend, Islamic militants killed five Israeli soldiers.
On Tuesday, Israel launched a missile strike on Rantisi's car; he was wounded. Hamas vowed revenge and on Wednesday, a Hamas homicide bomber killed 16 people on a bus in central Jerusalem. That attack was followed by three rocket strikes against Hamas fugitives that killed 18 Palestinians in Gaza City, half of them civilians.
In the wake of the bloodshed, Israel and Hamas exchanged new threats that suggested a new stage in 32 months of fighting.
In perhaps its harshest warning since it first set off homicide bombings in the mid-1990s, Hamas said it was ordering "all military cells to act immediately and act like an earthquake to blow up the Zionist entity and tear it to pieces." The group said foreigners should leave for their safety. Hamas has generally acted on its threats.
Sharon, in turn, said he would fight militants "to the bitter end," regardless of the road map for peace.
Defending himself against a U.S. rebuke over the botched attempt on Rantisi's life, Sharon said he never promised Washington to halt the campaign against militants. However, targeting Rantisi, who considers himself a political leader without ties to the military wing, was seen as an escalation in Israel's battle against Hamas.
Mohammed Saleh, 19, a Hamas supporter carrying an M-16 assault rifle in Gaza on Thursday, declared: "Sharon will feel the revenge in his house. Nothing can protect him from my bullets. If not me, my brother, or the coming generation will fulfill our mission of liberation."
After nightfall Thursday, Israeli forces killed two Islamic Jihad activists who drew guns on soldiers who came to arrest them in the West Bank town of Jenin, the military said. Witnesses said special forces entered the town and opened fire on the two.
The Israeli airstrikes have further weakened Abbas at a time when expectations are fading that he will be able to rein in the militants. Abbas has said he does not want to unleash civil war and that the Palestinian security forces — in tatters after being targeted in repeated Israeli strikes — are unable to do the job.
Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to meet in Jordan next week with leaders of Russia, the European Union and the United Nations to try to repair the tattered peace process, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf also will arrive in the region in coming days to head a team of U.S. monitors who will supervise implementation of the road map. However, it appears unlikely either side will move forward on the plan in the current tense climate.
Difficulties in meeting the requirements of the plan had been expected, but many were taken by surprise by such a rapid return to bloodshed. There have been deadlier days in the past 32 months, but despair was perhaps more keenly felt because there had been hope of a new beginning.
"Bush, too, cannot compel Hamas to stop terror," Israeli commentator Sever Plotzker wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "And the all-powerful Bush cannot compel Sharon to stop the assassinations (of Palestinian militants). The cause and effect, the effect and cause, it's all jumbled. Who remembers who started?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.