West Bank: the new militant focus?

Israel suspended talks with Palestinians Monday after three young Israelis were killed Sunday in the West Bank.

As they prepared Monday to bury their daughters - cousins who were killed along with a teenage boy in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian militants in the West Bank - parents blamed the Israeli government for not doing more to protect them.

"I did my part," one of the grieving fathers cried as Kinneret Mandel and Matat Adler, women in their early 20s, were eulogized at a hilltop cemetery here after Sunday's shooting attack in the Gush Etzion settlements, south of Jerusalem. "Why didn't others do theirs? Why couldn't anyone defend you from this?"

Unlike at most Israeli funerals of terror-attack victims, no government officials were in attendance - at the families' request. But the mix of anger and insecurity felt by many settlers in the aftermath of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza Strip disengagement plan is reverberating throughout the halls of Israel's political and military establishment.

Officials said Monday they were cutting off security ties with the Palestinians and reversing a decision to ease up on the movement of Palestinian traffic around the West Bank. Reuters, quoting a defense ministry source, reported that Israeli troops will ring major West Bank cities and require that Palestinians travel between them by public transportation only, rather than in private cars.

Sunday's shooting attacks, in two different locations in the West Bank, raise the specter of a return to intifada-style bloodshed, something Israelis and Palestinians alike have predicted. Given that Israel has pulled out from the Gaza Strip, some analysts suggest that the focus will now shift to the West Bank, home to about 245,000 settlers and some 2.4 million Palestinians.

Many Israelis view such attacks as proof that Palestinians have either no will - or no way - to put an end to violence against Israelis. Many Palestinians, according to recent polls, view attacks on Israelis in the West Bank as wholly legitimate, in contrast to attacks inside the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 boundaries.

Further complicating the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which appeared to be promising enough for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to plan for a summit this week, was the factor of who perpetrated the attack.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant offshoot of the Fatah faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, took responsibility. Some wings of the somewhat fragmented organization have denied involvement. Fatah, the party founded by the late Yasser Arafat and now headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has already been scrambling to assert its authority in Gaza, where various militant groups have engaged in regular shootings and kidnappings of foreigners in the wake of Israel's withdrawal.

While senior Israeli and Palestinian officials have said that reining in Muslim militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad is key to establishing stability and rule of law, Sunday's shootings by a Fatah-related group not only embarrasses Mr. Abbas - currently abroad and on his way to meet President Bush - but also demonstrates the complexities he faces within his own organization.

Across the West Bank, and in right-wing circles, some Israelis accuse their leaders of becoming too lenient toward Palestinian travel around the West Bank. As a good-will gesture meant to help pave the way for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to implement the road map outlined by the Bush administration, Israel had begun allowing Palestinian traffic to flow more quickly through checkpoints and re-issued permits for more Palestinians to work in Israel.

"It's simple: all of the roads were opened up to Arab traffic, and our lives are at risk," Shaul Goldstein, the mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement block where the three settlers were killed, told reporters after the shooting. "It's time for us to wake up and realize that by opening our roads, leaving army posts unmanned, and abandoning most of the army checkpoints, we are sitting ducks."

Although senior officials in the Palestinian Authority were quick to condemn the shooting, many Palestinians note that it did not take place in a vacuum.

Just last week, four Palestinians were killed in Israeli raids in the West Bank and Gaza, two of them children, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. On Sunday, Israeli troops shot dead a man whom Palestinian news agencies called an "activist;" Israeli and international news agencies said he was an Islamic Jihad commander.

"The Israelis want a cease-fire from the Palestinians, but also to reserve their unilateral right to keep going out on raids and continuing to kill," says Ziad Abu Amar, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza. "If the Israelis continue to arrest and kill members of [militant groups], it will be embarrassing for others to just sit by and watch."

Dr. Abu Amar, an author and expert on Hamas on other Palestinian militants, describes the situation as most Palestinians see it.

As long as Israel continues military activities in the West Bank, expands settlements, and keeps building the security barrier, he says, Palestinians will look at the horizon and see more intifada than peace process.

"Did the Israelis expect that once they leave Gaza they will get a license from the Palestinians to swallow up the West Bank? It's fine to expect that the struggle over the West Bank will continue," Amar says. "Palestinians will try to resist by using violence."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that both Sunday's shooting and the Israeli army's continued policy of targeted assassinations served to sabotage efforts to resume peace talks. Any attack on Israelis, he argues, is not in the Palestinian interest.

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