Arab Attacks and Threats Jolt Israel, Raise Stakes

Bombing by radical group Hamas to avenge Hebron massacre fails to derail peace talks

THE deadly Middle Eastern cycle of revenge claimed more victims yesterday when a Palestinian gunman killed one Israeli and wounded four others in a machine gun attack on a group of hitchhikers.

The assault raised the number of Israeli dead in the past two days to eight, following Wednesday's suicide car bomb attack in Afula, which the radical Islamist Hamas group claimed as vengeance for the Hebron mosque massacre of Palestinians.

The government announced that in a bid to stem further violence, it was barring all Palestinians in the occupied territories from entering Israel until further notice. The territories were to be ``totally sealed off'' by last night, Israeli Army chief Gen. Ehud Barak said, adding that ``this measure will last for at least several days.''

The attacks offered fresh ammunition to Israeli critics of the government and its peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and are bound to erode public support for the peace process, according to experts here.

``This sort of thing increases anxieties and the desire for a stronger hand, for revenge,'' says Asher Arian, who has been polling Israeli opinion about security issues for the last seven years.

``But in the longer term, it reinforces the analysis people had before,'' he adds. ``Those opposed to the peace process are even more so, and those who see it as a way out are strengthened in their opinion.''

Hamas warned in a leaflet yesterday that it was preparing four more attacks, after the Afula car bomb, in order to darken Israel's Independence Day celebrations on April 14.

The government is clearly bracing for more attacks. ``Based on the experience we had in the past, we have to take into account that [the violence] might continue and take all necessary steps to prevent it,'' says Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has called an extraordinary meeting of the security Cabinet for today to discuss ways of forestalling more violence.

The killings have prompted calls by opposition leaders for an end to the peace talks with the PLO, currently underway in Cairo, aiming at limited autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet added his voice to that demand, urging the government to boycott the negotiations at least until PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat condemns the Afula carbomber, who claimed three schoolchildren among his victims. Mr. Arafat walked out on Israeli journalists in Cairo who asked him about the car bombing.

Ending the peace talks is clearly the goal Hamas in aiming for by targeting Israeli civilians. In its leaflet issued in Gaza yesterday, the military wing of Hamas, the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigade, called on Arafat to suspend negotiations for one year.

It also warned Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to evacuate their homes or risk being attacked by missiles that Hamas claims to possess.

The Ashdod shooting, which came as Israelis marked Holocaust Day in memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, was claimed by the Islamic Jihad, another Islamic radical group. The assailant was shot dead by a soldier who witnessed the attack.

Israelis were wounded in two other attacks yesterday: A Gaza settler was knifed by two Palestinian laborers he had picked up in his car, and another Israeli was lightly wounded in a knife attack near the Erez crossing into Gaza.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, appeared determined to press on with its talks with the PLO despite the spate of violence. ``Stopping the negotiations would change nothing,'' Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said. ``There was terrorism before. The negotiations are new, not the attacks.''

In Cairo, chief PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath said he had persuaded his Israeli counterparts - who had broken off talks for Holocaust Day - to return to the negotiating table today, rather than wait until after the weekend, in a race to meet next Wednesday's deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

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