US steps up pressure on Arafat

Yesterday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem was the third attack in the city in less than a week.

Jaffa Road is now the most dangerous stretch of pavement in the state of Israel.

For the second time in a week, and the third time since August, this shopping district of West Jerusalem has been the locus of a Palestinian attack.

Yesterday it was struck by a suicide bomber, who killed one pedestrian and wounded dozens of others.

"Police are checking seriously into the possibility that the suicide bomber was a woman," says Gil Kleiman, spokesman for the Israeli police. If so, it would be the first female suicide bomber in the last 16 months, perhaps longer.

During the past year and a half, 821 Palestinians and 248 Israelis have been killed, according to Reuters. A suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Friday wounded 25 people and Israeli F-16s bombed an already damaged Palestinian police facility in Tulkarem, with no additional casualties.

This fresh cycle of attacks and counter-attacks comes at a time when US support for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is reaching a new nadir.

Israeli leaders charge that Mr. Arafat is responsible for yesterday's bombing and other recent attacks. The Palestinian Authority (PA) condemned the attack, but Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert said: "As long as Arafat wants terror to continue, it will. Arafat is personally in charge and responsible for how to stop it."

Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday it was "hard to believe" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was not involved in a recent arms smuggling incident and questioned his commitment to the Middle East peace process. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mr. Cheney said the 50 tons of arms Israel seized from a freighter in international waters of the Red Sea on January 3 was "provided by Iran apparently through the Hezbollah to Palestine."

A senior US official last week said Bush had sent letters to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that presented evidence of Palestinian Authority involvement in the smuggling attempt, and urged them to press Arafat to take action against those implicated.

"The really disturbing part of this, of course, is that there are a lot of places he [Arafat] could go in the Arab world if he were looking for support and sustenance or for help in moving the peace process forward," Cheney said. "What he's done is gone to a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, and a state that supports and promotes terrorism, that's dedicated to ending the peace process, Iran, and done business with them."

Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat said, however, that statements by President George Bush that he is "disappointed" with Arafat, and talk of US punitive sanctions against the PA are only making matters worse. "These statements will be used as a green light by [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to escalate the aggression," he said.

In Israel, there is a palpable feel of a nation at war. The heightened violence is a source of both weariness and wariness, prompting changes in people's lifestyles and making them think twice about going to areas that are viewed as primary targets.

The precise political fallout here, however, is harder to discern. Some analysts say the Palestinian attacks are simply driving people into further hawkishness and support for Prime Minister Sharon. But others discern the beginnings of growing opposition to the hard-hitting practices of the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Liza Mizrachi, a municipality worker, was catching her breath yesterday at a bus stop on Jaffa Road, her phone ringing constantly as friends check on her safety, as is customary in Israel after such attacks. "They say we should go back to a normal routine, but it is hard. I personally don't know if I will come to this area anymore," she says.

In addition to last Tuesday's attack, in which a gunman from Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction killed two people, the same area was devastated by an explosion in the Sbarro restaurant in August that wounded 15 people.

Ms. Mizrachi and others who work and shop on Jaffa Road find themselves on the front line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the stores here are situated in the heart of Jerusalem and on a street that is easily accessible for Palestinians coming in from the West Bank.

Moshe Chasid, who runs the Koresh Clothing store on Jaffa Road, had just finished repairing his windows from last Tuesday's attack and showed a visitor the dresses that were riddled with bullet holes. Mr. Chasid, who moved to Israel from Iran 38 years ago, says he has had enough and wants to "run away to America."

A.B. Yehoshua, a renowned novelist, says that Israelis have been through difficult moments in their history before and that he doubts there will be a large scale exodus. But Mr. Yehoshua says that the frequency of the attacks means "they are becoming routine. People hear it on the news for five minutes and then turn the station. People are becoming used to it, they are apathetic, everyone establishes their own little corner and worries about their family. People avoid going here and there, but they get used to it. I don't say there aren't people who are desperate and think of leaving, but the majority says we have to be patient."

There were immediate calls for revenge yesterday and beatings of Arab bystanders by Israeli security forces after last week's attack. But ultimately, says Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha, the surge in attacks will not translate into indefinite consensus support for the hard-hitting approach of Mr. Sharon, which includes almost routine incursions into Palestinian areas and F-16 attacks.

Mr. Smooha argues that an announcement on Friday by 50 Israeli reserve officers and soldiers that they will henceforth refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a harbinger of resurgent differences between the right and left. "The more time passes, the more there is a sense that Sharon has no answer to terrorism. People are having second thoughts, and they are waiting for something to develop."

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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