JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister expressed growing frustration with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) in an interview published Friday, saying he sees little chance of a peace deal in this generation.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) dismissed Abbas as "a one-man show" bereft of support from his own people. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) declared Thursday he would not meet Abbas until he cracks down on militants, and shortly afterward, an Israeli missile strike against Islamic Jihad gunmen in Gaza killed seven Palestinians.
The latest round of fighting and Israel's unprecedented criticism of Abbas pushed the prospect of peace talks — promising after Israel's Gaza pullout last month — further off the table.
The week began with Israeli troops killing the top Islamic Jihad gunman in the West Bank, followed by an Islamic Jihad revenge bombing that killed five Israelis in an open-air market in the central Israeli town of Hadera.
In response, Sharon threatened a "broad and relentless" offensive against militants, including mass arrests and airstrikes. But security officials said Israel would stop short of carrying out a large-scale military operation.
On Thursday evening, in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a car carrying four Islamic Jihad members, killing them and three bystanders. Hospital officials said 15 people were wounded.
Among those killed was Shadi Mohanna, Islamic Jihad's field commander for northern Gaza. Israel said Mohanna was responsible for rocket barrages on Israeli towns and for recruiting attackers.
About 20,000 mourners, among them hundreds of masked gunmen, turned out for the victims' funeral Friday, parading the bodies on stretchers from a mosque near Jebaliya. The gunmen, from both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, fired volleys in the air while women and children, some weeping, watched from balconies.
Late Thursday and early Friday, Israeli helicopters repeatedly fired missiles at northern Gaza, targeting militant rocket launch sites. In the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up 12 Islamic Jihad activists.
Islamic Jihad threatened revenge.
"There will be a painful, immediate response" to the missile strike, said Khader Habib, a spokesman for the group. Late Thursday, Islamic Jihad said it fired rockets at Israel. However, witnesses said they landed inside Gaza and there were no reports of casualties.
On Friday morning, the Israeli army said a single rocket fired from Gaza fell on empty ground in southern Israel, causing no damage.
Israeli aircraft responded with missile attacks on three empty spots in northern Gaza previously used as rocket launch sites, the military said. Palestinian witnesses said nobody was hurt.
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, has condemned the latest suicide bombing, but Israel said he must do much more. Sharon said Thursday he would not meet with Abbas unless he takes "serious and tangible action" against militants.
In his interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily, Mofaz launched a scathing attack on Abbas, saying he had become so ineffective and isolated from his people that he is not a partner for negotiating a peace deal with Israel.
"Abu Mazen is a one-man show," Mofaz was quoted as saying. "Behind him, there is nothing, only emptiness. Governmental vacuum. In fact, there is no one to talk to. Abu Mazen and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership ... have not done a thing so far. The Palestinian Authority is not an address for us."
Mofaz said the best that could be expected was another round of interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I'm not at all sure that we can ever reach a peace agreement with the present Palestinian leadership," Mofaz told the paper. "We shall have to wait for the next generation."
While Israeli leaders have largely avoided personal criticism of Abbas, Mofaz's comments are in line with Sharon's preference for a long-term interim deal that would allow Israel to avoid dealing with explosive issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel does have a partner for peace talks in the Palestinians. But he added Mofaz's statements showed Israeli contempt for Palestinian institutions, bred by years of occupation.
"I don't think Israel's problem is with this generation or that generation of Palestinians or this person or that person. Israel's problem is with the whole Palestinian people," he said.