Pressure on leaders rises in Holy Land

After a weekend of conflict in Gaza, Sharon and Abbas are facing intense scrutiny.

Just as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders seemed to be inching away from hostilities, a new cycle of violence is a troubling reminder of a reality that has so often tripped-up Middle East peacemaking: Gestures that win accolades abroad often earn arrows at home.

As such, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, are both targets of sharp domestic criticism in the aftermath of Israel's handover of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

For Mr. Sharon, the challenge comes in the form of a leadership contest within his right-wing Likud party, which Sharon himself helped found. Sharon faces a formidable takeover attempt from Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister. He's aiming to assemble enough Likud members at a party convention - due to end Monday night - to oust Sharon.

For Mr. Abbas, what many perceive as a failure to impose law and order in Gaza after Israel finished its withdrawal from Gaza is giving fodder to domestic critics.

Members of the Palestinian legislative council raised a no-confidence motion against Abbas, the first of its kind in the Palestinian Authority. The debate on the motion, planned for Monday, was postponed Sunday amid the flare-up in violence over the weekend.

The hostilities spilled over again on Friday after a bomb killed 18 people at rally held in Gaza by the militant group Hamas. The PA, Hamas, and Israel all traded blame over the bombing, which was followed by a series of Hamas rocket attacks - 35 in all - on towns in southern Israel on Saturday, wounding five. Israel responded by attacking the offices of Hamas in Gaza early Sunday with helicopter gunships and arresting more than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank.

"It's Abu Mazen's failure to do anything about Hamas that has put Sharon on the spot and that allows Netanyahu to say, 'I told you so,' " says Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst who is the former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "But Sharon never articulated to the Israeli public what the point of disengagement was. He never told Israel that this was never intended to improve tactical security, but to improve demographic security."

Leaving Gaza, more specifically, is expected to help Israel keep a Jewish majority over the areas under its sovereignty in the years to come.

Gaza militants

The weekend's events seemed to fast-forward to the scenarios that Israeli opponents of disengagement had predicted. Critics of the pullout plan, Mr. Netanyahu foremost among them, argued that militants would simply use the reclaimed territory as a launching pad for new missile attacks on Israel.

Israel had warned that if such attacks were to occur, there would be harsh retaliation. The threat of a major Israeli military raid had been looming since Thursday night, when the Islamic Jihad organization launched several rockets into the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

"We have to make it clear to the Palestinians that Israel will not let the recent events pass without a response," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofa said in a statement over the weekend. "The response will be crushing and unequivocal."

The move of hard-line Muslim militants to attack Israel now, after the withdrawal, evinces the degree to which there is disarray among armed groups whose raison detre was to attack Israel. While some say that they would only focus on pushing Israel back to the territorial lines of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, others view themselves as in a battle for the destruction of the Jewish state.

For a change, both Israeli and Palestinian officials laid blame on militants for the flare-up. "We were all shocked and pained by what happened in Gaza," Abbas said, calling for an end to "armed parades and disruptions in civilian areas at the expense of serious work and of the rule of law."

While most Israeli and PA sources viewed Friday's bombing as Hamas's fault - the Palestinian interior minister called it an internal "accident," indicating that someone was working on building a bomb - Hamas blamed it on Israel.

Moreover, it began to paint the PA as a collaborator with Israel, in an attempt to turn public opinion against Abbas's government.

"The PA Interior Ministry is playing the role of the "Satan's lawyer," says Hamas leader Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahhar, because it had taken on the role of defending Israel and launching media campaigns against the Islamic resistance group, Hamas.

"The PA stance, and that of its spokesmen, indicate that the ministry's task is to wage a media war against Hamas and to market the Israeli stance," says Mr. Zahhar, who charged that the flare-up was orchestrated by Israel as a way to block Hamas from participating in legislative elections scheduled for next January.

Israel has asked for international support for its position that Hamas should be barred from participating in the elections, a point of contention for PA leaders who hope to coax Hamas into the political system. But reining in militant groups, which Sharon says is a prerequisite for any earnest return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, will prove a formidable task.

One of the groups that has begun to assert its power at the PA's expense is the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), a group of militants who come from a variety of different ideological viewpoints and are deeply critical of corruption in the PA.

In an interview in Gaza, the head of the PRC says the group would move its focus to the West Bank, and that one of their strategies would be to kidnap Israeli soldiers. "If Israel returned to the '67 borders, gave up East Jerusalem, and released all its Palestinian prisoners, we would cease fighting," says Jamal Abu Samahadhana, leader of the PRC.

Sharon's political fight

Compared with Abbas, analysts note that Sharon's political career is far more endangered. If Abbas does face the postponed no-confidence motion, he would most likely be forced to change his cabinet. He will not be forced to step down as he was elected by a direct vote.

Sharon, however, could find himself pushed out of his job. His fate as head of the Likud rests with the party's central committee members, who are considered to be significantly more right wing than Likud voters overall.

A poll in the Israeli daily Maariv showed there was a majority of members who wanted to oust Sharon. That is a trend he will have a difficult time reversing, wrote Nahum Barnea in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, especially when it is occurring "under the shadow of Kassam rockets."

Ayas Sabah in Gaza contributed to this report.

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