Sunday, 7 September 2003

Mideast peace plan in tatters

Israel bombs Hamas luncheon; Abbas steps down

Sunday, September 7, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The Israeli military bombed a Gaza City apartment on Saturday in a failed attempt to assassinate the entire Hamas leadership just hours after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned, sending prospects for peace in the Middle East plunging to new lows.

The resignation of Abbas after just 100 days in office -- the result of a power struggle with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- will likely freeze the U.S. peace initiative known as the road map. Israel and the United States both refuse to deal with Arafat.

The Israeli bombing slightly wounded Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, and 14 other people. The 550-pound bomb was launched during a lunch meeting of the Hamas political and military leadership.

The group included two men who had already survived rocket assassination attempts -- Abdel Aziz Rantisi and terror mastermind Mohammed Deif. Yassin, a frail, 68-year-old, managed to flee the building as the jets approached.

A senior Israeli security official told the New York Times that the attack failed because the Israeli Air Force used a "relatively small bomb" to minimize civilian casualties.

Rantisi, who was in the building when it was hit, said his followers would "open the gates of hell" with a new suicide-bomb campaign against Israeli civilians.

Israeli security chiefs braced for more suicide bombings, ordering hundreds of extra police and soldiers onto the streets late Saturday. Security checks were stepped up at shopping malls, movie theaters and other public places.

Hamas was also stung by a decision on Saturday by European foreign ministers to outlaw its political wing as a terrorist organization. Previously, only its military wing had earned that designation.

The Palestinian political structure is struggling with a power vacuum that makes statehood -- a major tenet of the road map -- even more remote. While Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke of reviving the peace plan, observers said U.S. policy was in tatters and would have to be rewritten.

"Abbas is the victim of what many Palestinians see as a botched attempt by Israel and the U.S. to sideline their elected leader," said Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh. "The writing was on the wall from the very beginning.


"It was clear that Arafat -- who has never agreed to share power with any Palestinian -- would do his utmost to undermine Abbas and bring about his downfall. But the Americans seemed to underestimate Arafat and refused to see the clear messages emanating from the rubble of Arafat's compound in Ramallah."

"Arafat has only one choice for leader: himself," Abu Toameh said. "Arafat has won another battle, but the Palestinian people have undoubtedly lost."

The Palestinian president has two weeks in which to name a new prime minister, but there are few obvious candidates.

Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qureia is the only veteran leader still in the frame, but he says he does not want the job. Finance Minister Salam Fayad, a political ingenue, has apparently ruled himself out. Another possibility is businessman Monib al-Masri, an Arafat loyalist whose appointment was blocked by Arafat's Fatah movement earlier this year.

There was also speculation that Arafat would ask Abbas to resume his post.

While Palestinian politicians are tied up choosing their new Cabinet, they will be unable to make any progress on the security front, leaving the way open for Hamas to renew its bombing campaign in Israel's streets. Any rise in terrorism will likely trigger a draconian Israeli response, perhaps including widespread assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials and a possible invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Right-wing Israeli ministers are also calling for the expulsion of Arafat, which could unleash a wave of popular Palestinian protest, leading in turn to a renewed Israeli military crackdown on the West Bank.

An Israeli government statement issued on Saturday night described the resignation of Abbas as "an internal Palestinian matter," but added, "Israel will not countenance a situation in which control of the Palestinian leadership reverts back to Yasser Arafat or someone who does his bidding."


And taking a swipe at Arafat, the White House issued a statement that Abbas' appointment as prime minister was a milestone "in the development of new institutions to serve all the people, not just a corrupt few tainted by terror."

Palestinian officials say that only strong international pressure will save them from tough Israeli measures. "We urge the international community to have the Israeli government refrain from exploiting the internal Palestinian situation," said Erekat.

Saturday's dramatic events unfolded in rapid succession, shifting from Ramallah, to Europe, back to Gaza and then to Ramallah again.

In the morning, a courier delivered Abbas' resignation letter to Arafat at his battered Mukata headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas then went to the Palestinian Legislative Council and addressed legislators for the second time in 72 hours, explaining his reasons for resigning. He blamed Israel, the Arab media and Arafat himself for the failure of his government, which he said had been brought down by "harsh and dangerous domestic incitement."

Leaflets and graffiti appearing in Ramallah since Thursday have denounced Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan as "Zionist collaborators" and "CIA agents."

"The events of the past few days left a scar on Abu Mazen," said Kadoura Farres, a legislator and Fatah leader who mediated between Arafat and Abbas in recent weeks. "Abu Mazen is not built to take such a thing."

Then came news of the decision by European foreign ministers to outlaw Hamas, including a freeze on assets and a ban on any diplomatic contacts with the group. The Bush administration and Israel had been pushing strongly for such a ban, and the French surprised observers by agreeing.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas leaders meeting at the apartment of Marwan Abu Ras, a university lecturer and senior Hamas official, were sitting down to lunch when they heard Israeli jet fighters overhead.

Israel has killed a dozen other Hamas leaders in the past three weeks in response to a Hamas suicide bomber who killed 22 people aboard a Jerusalem bus on Aug. 19.

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