Israeli attack in Gaza complicates progress toward peace plan
Israel demands that Palestinian prime minister-designate rein in radical groups.
JERUSALEM — Israeli army missile strikes in Gaza City Tuesday night killed their target, a Hamas official, and did some unintended damage, too.
There was the destruction around the white sedan carrying the militant, including three dead civilians. There may also be less obvious but longer-lasting injury done to Mohammed Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister-in-waiting.
Mr. Abbas also has the unenviable job of reining in Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a requirement demanded by Israel before the US-backed "road map" peace plan can progress.
Israeli analysts say the key question is whether Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has the power and determination to make reform happen. After Tuesday's missile strike, which has already prompted predictable Hamas retaliations, some Palestinian analysts say the key question is whether Israel will try to stymie Abbas's progress toward those goals.
"Sharon and Hamas could ruin this," says Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Ramallah-based Al Hayat Al Jadidah newspaper, referring to Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Sharon knows how to create problems for the Palestinians; he makes an assassination and waits for Hamas's reaction.
"We know the Israelis are going to make trouble for Abu Mazen because they don't want the road map," continues Mr. Barghouti. "We know Israel wants to change the road map and if they don't get a chance, they will act more violently on the ground to make Hamas and other groups react. We'll be back at the beginning again."
Israeli security forces said that the Hamas militant Said Arabid was behind some of the worst attacks on Israeli civilians in the last few years. "This particular event in the Gaza Strip was part of Israel's attempts to root out the terrorist infrastructure, and we sincerely regret any civilian casualty," says a security source. "Certainly the Israeli government is hopeful about Mohammed Abbas, but it has an obligation to defend its citizens."
Israelis view Abbas's obligation to crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and not just establish a ceasefire, as central. In their eyes, security has to come before peace, not the other way around. "The question is, is he willing to fight?" asks Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "I think there's a hope - he's not Arafat."
Abbas is expected to ask Mr. Arafat Thursday for a two-week extension on his deadline to present his cabinet. Abbas has to put his cabinet in place and assume power before the road map can be published.
US President George Bush sounded eager to see that happen at a Tuesday press conference in Belfast, saying, "I look forward to [Mr. Abbas] putting his cabinet in place so we can release the road map."
While Israeli and foreign officials praise Mr. Abbas, he faces internal political resistance to his reform plans, some of it from his longtime colleague Yasser Arafat.
Abbas has been slowed by the politics of an Old Guard who fought these political reforms from the start. Arafat, who has been ostracized by the Israelis and Americans, grudgingly accepted that the prime-ministerial post was necessary to demonstrate a Palestinian willingness to embrace reform.
He chose Abbas, with whom he has a relationship that Palestinians compare to the biblical brothers Moses and Aaron. Despite choosing a loyalist, Arafat ensured that Abbas reports to him, attempted (and failed) to limit Abbas's authority, and kept control over security and international negotiations.
Now the skirmishes are over the appointment of ministers in the new cabinet.
Arafat reportedly wants some ministers to stay in place, though they have been accused of corruption. Others are reluctant to leave and are putting up a fight, says Barghouti, who adds that Abbas went before the central committee of Fatah, the main Palestinian faction, and threatened to resign a few days ago.
"There is a lot of resistance," says Barghouti. The committee reportedly came to an agreement to support Abbas, and now senior Fatah officials are quick to stress that they are completely behind their man.
"We are all supporting Abu Mazen," says Saher Habash, a senior Fatah official and Arafat supporter who opposed the creation of the prime-ministerial post. "Everybody feels he's the only one who can help [Arafat] find a way back to the road map and negotiations."