Attack in Jerusalem May Undermine Arafat's Authority

A TERROR attack by the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in the heart of this holy city Sunday night, which left two dead and 13 wounded, could undermine the authority of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and retard the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, officials here say.

``Arafat cannot afford to attack Hamas publicly because it weakens his credibility, and he cannot contain such attacks because he does not have sufficient political authority to do so,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, Palestinian director of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC).

Western diplomats and Middle East observers say the attack could slow down the Palestinian demand for further autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank and could also hamper progress toward the holding of Palestinian elections in these areas.

But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed the attack would not be allowed to kill the peace process.

``We will not allow Hamas to damage the peace process and we will fight it with all our strength,'' Mr. Rabin said.

Two Hamas terrorists, who fired 200 rounds of automatic fire and threw grenades into a pedestrian mall lined with sidewalk cafes and restaurants, were killed by Jerusalem police and Israeli border police. Israeli civil guards who happened to be in the area also opened fire.

It was the first act of urban terror by Hamas, the major armed movement vying for influence among Palestinians, since the Palestinian Authority was inaugurated in early July to coincide with Mr. Arafat's return to Jericho.

The attack has led to soaring tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, which had become more relaxed since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in September 1993.

Senior PLO official Faisal Husseini strongly condemned the attack and called for the ``unimpeded implementation of the peace process.

``This is the only way that will ensure the welfare of both the Israeli and Palestinian people,'' Mr. Husseini said in an official statement from the PLO's Jerusalem headquarters.

Hamas swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, which it described as ``a new stage on the path of holy jihad [war].'' Hamas conceded the death of the two attackers with a reference to the ``martyrdom of two of our pious fighters'' who led ``the heroic battle of Jerusalem.

``Our bold armed actions will not stop as long as there is one Israeli soldier on our occupied land,'' the Hamas statement said.

The attack took place on the commemoration of the massacre by Israeli police at the Temple Mount exactly four years ago referred to by Palestinians as the ``al-Aqsa Mosque massacre.''

It also occurred during a visit by United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is due to hold talks today with Syrian officials to discuss progress toward a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement. Mr. Christopher is also seeking Arab support for US intervention in the buildup of Iraqi forces on the border with Kuwait.

The JMCC's Khatib said that a new wave of attacks by Hamas would severely embarrass Arafat as Rabin had consistently linked progress toward Palestinian autonomy with Arafat's ability to guarantee security and prevent attacks by Hamas.

``Arafat is becoming a hostage of the peace process,'' Khatib says. ``With every new attack Arafat's position is weakened because he cannot guarantee security while he does not have the proper political authority and while Israeli settlers are free to move in the so-called autonomous areas.''

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