Gunmen target Mideast road map

An attack killed four Israeli soldiers Sunday; two Hamas members were killed Thursday night.

Not even a week after President Bush personally presented the latest plan for peace between the Palestinians and Israel, the road map is already under siege.

Despite pledges made by the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers when they faced the cameras with Mr. Bush in Aqaba, Jordan, the four days since the summit have not given much grounds for optimism.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces internal criticism for his endorsement of the road map, his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, faces challenges to his authority that could undermine the plan's chances of success.

"Each [leader] has his own internal battles ahead of him," says Shmuel Bar of the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzilya. But Mr. Abbas is facing "a moment of truth when he will reach his Rubicon and will have to decide whether he uses what strength he has in order to crack down on Hamas with Israeli and US help."

Abbas's troubles may also affect US fortunes in the Middle East. As US forces fight on in Iraq, steady progress in resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict could go a long way to calming Arab anger. But if Palestinian militants dig in for a long fight, Abbas may not be the only one facing a major test.

The depth of that challenge was made clear Sunday morning, when Palestinian militants joined together for the first major attack against Israelis since the road map debuted, sending a message of defiance to Israelis, the US, and Abbas.

Israel insists that Abbas rein in militant groups before it begins talks, and Bush, at the summit, stressed the need for Israeli security.

The Palestinian prime minister's attempts to arrange a cease-fire with Hamas failed Friday after the militant group accused Abbas of making too many concessions at the summit. The day before, two of their members were assassinated by Israel.

In a rare coordinated action, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade all claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack.

Each of them contributed one man to an operation that killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded another four in Gaza. The Palestinians had disguised themselves in Israeli army uniforms. All three died in the gun battle that followed the attack.

Hours earlier, a Palestinian gunman was shot dead trying to infiltrate an Israeli settlement in Gaza.

The violence reflects widespread Palestinian dismay with the road map and highlights the hurdles Abbas faces in reining in militants and developing enough power to exert control.

The coordinated attack in Gaza was "a message to Abbas that Palestinian resistance will continue," says Abdul Sattar Kassem, a political- science professor at An Najjah University in Nablus.

Mr. Kassem says militants weren't the only ones unhappy with Abbas's speech at the Aqaba summit, in which he spoke of Jewish suffering, referred to "terrorists," and called for an end to armed resistance against Israel.

"He spoke mostly about Israeli security and 'terrorism,' a word that's used to describe the Palestinian struggle for liberation and is not accepted by Palestinians," says Kassem. "It was very disappointing."

Indeed, Palestinian criticism of Abbas is growing, not just from militant groups but also from Abbas's own mainstream Fatah faction, which Yasser Arafat heads.

Because the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade was involved, some Israeli analysts see Mr. Arafat's fingerprints on Sunday's attack.

The US and Israel have worked hard to sideline Arafat, pushing for the appointment of a prime minister and keeping Arafat from attending last week's summit. Arafat responded with sharp criticism of the outcome, and his refusal to relinquish power represents another obstacle for Abbas.

"A lot of [Abbas's] success will depend on sidelining Arafat, but Arafat still has a lot of Arab and European support," says Mr. Bar of the Institute of Policy and Strategy. "[Sunday's] attack was meant to show Israel and the US that there is no chance of creating a Palestinian Authority under Abbas which will have sole authority."

Palestinian analysts say Abbas's challenge isn't other Palestinians, but Israel.

On June 5, the day after the road map summit, Israel killed two Hamas members in the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Abbas had asked Israel to stop these killings in road map-related talks. Israel said they were acting to stop a suicide bombing.

On Friday, Hamas announced it was abandoning cease-fire talks with Abbas. That same day, the US denounced Hamas as an "enemy of peace."

On Saturday, Hamas met with other militant groups including Islamic Jihad, who also announced they would continue attacks.

That night, the Israeli army reimposed the West Bank closure that makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians to move around.

The closure had been lifted in a goodwill gesture shortly before the summit last week. But the crossing out of Gaza has also been closed since the attack.

"In my mind, there is a strong connection between what happened [Sunday in Gaza] and what happened [at the road-map summit] and in Tulkarem," where the Hamas members were killed, says Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib.

Mr. Khatib says that Sharon sidestepped any real commitment to the road map.

"Sharon is required to stop violence against Palestinians wherever they are. Palestinian opposition groups would be willing to give a cease-fire a chance, but conditioned on Israel's giving it a chance," says Khatib. "Reciprocity is the make-or-break element of this."

Until such reciprocity is firmly established, Israel seems likely to remain diplomatically isolated from its Arab neighbors.

Egypt's foreign minister said in remarks broadcast Sunday that Egypt and Jordan would not return their ambassadors to Tel Aviv until Israel showed it was serious about making peace with Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan withdrew or refused to replace their ambassadors in 2000 in protest of Israel's handling of the Palestinian intifada.

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