Second Hamas attack could change focus of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Hamas attacked Israeli settlers again Wednesday, vowing a wave of violence that could shift today's Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from settlements to security.

By , Correspondent

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    An Israeli soldier surveys the scene of a shooting attack near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kochav Hashachar in the late evening of September 1. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas claimed responsibility on Thursday for the shooting attack in which two Israelis were wounded in the occupied West Bank.
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Hamas attacks on Israeli settlers on two consecutive days are reviving concerns that a wave of violence could erode fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that open today in Washington.

Two Israelis were injured in a drive-by shooting northeast of Jerusalem on Wednesday, just hours after four victims of a shooting the day before near Hebron were buried. Tuesday's shooting was the worst militant violence in more than two years, and the first of what Hamas has pledged will be a string of attacks.

Palestinian security forces, whose cooperation with their Israeli counterparts has substantially improved in recent years, rounded up dozens of suspected Hamas operatives across the West Bank.

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But the uptick in militant violence could shift the focus of peace talks to security instead of Palestinian demands to end Israeli building in the West Bank, which settler leaders resumed in anger this week despite a settlement freeze in place until Sept. 26.

"The mood has changed everywhere and every level. This operation also casts a shadow over Washington,'' says Nabil Amr, a member of the Palestine National Council in Ramallah. "This operation gave Netanyahu a strong card especially on the security issue. He wants to put the security issue as key.''

Renewed focus on security

The West Bank has become more stable in recent years as both Israeli and Palestinian security services have improved. That removed disputes over daily security and militant attacks as an obstacle to the start of negotiations.

Hamas violence this week recall past strikes that complicated political talks. This time around, however, cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces is thought to be at a peak because both consider Hamas as their enemy.

But this week's attacks expose Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's vulnerability to Hamas cells in the West Bank. Hamas's military wing vowed on its website this week to initiate a string of attacks in the West Bank.

The Islamist movement, which wrested control of Gaza from its rival Fatah in 2007, has been calling for months on West Bank Palestinians to initiate a new militant uprising against Israel.

"We have to concentrate on the West Bank to achieve liberation,'' Mahmoud el Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told the Associated Press.

The resumption of violence narrows the possibility for a deal to come out of the talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas. It also offers a stark reminder that Hamas, which opposes the talks, could play a spoiler role.

"It makes it that much more difficult for Netanyahu and Abbas to compromise on anything," says Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the online Israeli-Palestinian journal Bitterlemons.org. "This was entirely expected. Hamas was not part of this process. Hamas does not agree with this process.''

New tensions between Netanyahu, settlers

On the Israeli side, the attack has increased tensions between Netanyahu and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Settler leaders on Wednesday pledged to renew building in defiance of the 10-month Israeli settlement freeze set to expire later this month.

Targeting settlers will stoke Israeli sympathy and make it more difficult for Netanyahu to consider compromises on Palestinian demands that the building freeze be extended.

It also ratchets up the potential for new settler vigilante attacks. The "price tag'' policy of extreme settler groups, which have vowed to take revenge on Palestinians for both Palestinian attacks as well as Israeli government acts against settlers, could in turn spark fresh violence from the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, a group of Jewish mourners broke off from a funeral procession near the settlement of Beit Haggai and rioted in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron.

"[Settlers] will be tempted to hit back hard,'' said one Western diplomat who requested anonymity. "That will set up a chain reaction.''

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