Israeli tanks launched incursions into two West Bank cities yesterday, raising fears of a complete collapse of the Middle East cease-fire a day after the assassination of one of the country's best-known politicians.
In Jenin, Riham Abu Ward, a 12-year-old girl, was killed by Israeli tank fire while at school, according to Palestinian reports. The Israeli Army said troops had been shot at from neighboring buildings and had returned fire. Various Palestinian reports said between one and 10 other pupils were wounded.
A European diplomat said the US and the European Union were urging restraint on both sides, but that the cease-fire was undergoing "a very serious challenge" and the hostilities needed to be cooled immediately. "More fatalities will mean more funerals, which means mass demonstrations, which become emotional and angry. The results are unpredictable," the diplomat said.
The Israeli incursions in Ramallah and Jenin marked a further reversal of a Sept. 26 truce agreement, which called for Israel to pull its troops farther away from Palestinian cities.
In the Israeli view, the cease-fire was never observed by the Palestinians and any hopes for a cooling of tensions were shattered by Wednesday's assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi by the hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israeli leaders hold Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responsible.
Israeli forces assassinated Abdel-Rahman Hammad, a leader of Hamas, in the West Bank city of Nablus on Sunday.
Palestinian leaders yesterday voiced fears that Israel is poised to escalate its policy of assassinating Palestinians it accuses of links to terrorism or of being in the process of carrying out attacks.
Sixty-five Palestinians have been assassinated over the past year, according to the Palestinian Authority. Some of those were said by the Palestinians to be strictly political figures with no links to violence. Zeevi, an extreme nationalist who advocated the removal of all Arabs from Israel, was the first Israeli cabinet minister to be killed by a Palestinian, and the highest ranking Israeli fatality since the start of the Palestinian uprising a year ago.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed an "all out war" against terrorism in response to the shooting.
Israeli Minister Matan Vilnai said the military moves were aimed at tightening the Army "closure" around Ramallah and Jenin "in order to make it more difficult for terrorists to leave them." But the military advances also seemed aimed at weakening the Palestinian Authority.
Here in Ramallah, two tanks were parked outside the PA's Ministry of Local Government, and the troops advanced deep into Palestinian territory, seizing new positions during fighting in which a Palestinian policeman, Sgt. Marwan Khalifa, was killed.
The confrontation threatens to get worse. The two sides are on a collision course over Israeli demands that the PA "immediately" extradite those responsible for killing Zeevi. Israel's cabinet also demanded that the PA outlaw the PFLP and other militant groups. If not "Israel will have no choice but to declare the PA as an entity that supports terrorism and act accordingly," the cabinet said.
"Israel has to understand that we don't take orders," said Palestinian cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdul-Rahman. Palestinian politicians say that if and when the PA apprehends the culprits, it would be hard-pressed to sell an extradition to public opinion.
In Gaza, security forces arrested three senior members of the PFLP. But in Ramallah, where the PFLP has it headquarters, no arrests were made.
"We have our laws and institutions, but the question is whether Israel is ready to extradite all of those who killed Palestinians in exchange for those who killed Zeevi?" said Jamal Shati, a legislator from Jenin. "Will they extradite those who killed the 12-year-old girl today?"
Other Palestinians stress the PA will not be able to make a case for extradition because those in the PFLP who killed Zeevi were avenging the killing of their own leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, by Israeli forces in August.
Israeli leaders counter that the same rationale behind US action against the Taliban applies to their clash with the PA.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a moderate, is unenthusiastic about the demand on the PA. He said yesterday that he had told the cabinet that the 1993 Oslo Agreement on self-rule does not place the Palestinians under any obligation to extradite the killers, only to try them.
The PA charges that Mr. Sharon is using the assassination as a pretext to scuttle the cease-fire. "The priority ... is to attack, attack, attack, and destroy the PA," said PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav leveled a similar charge at Arafat during the funeral of Zeevi yesterday. "The person who was called our [peace] partner is bringing disaster onto his own people and onto us," said Mr. Katsav. "He and others want to set the Middle East ablaze."