Suicide bombings jolt Mideast peace hopes

Two explosions Tuesday killed 2 Israelis and wounded 11 others.

Attacks by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel and the West Bank Tuesday dealt a serious blow to a tenuous six-week cease-fire, and threaten to undermine the Palestinian Authority's campaign to stop Israel's barrier and settlement building in the West Bank.

The timing of Tuesday's bombings, which left two Israelis dead and 11 wounded, came hours before US envoy William Burns met with Israeli officials to press the Bush administration's opposition to the course of the barrier under construction in the West Bank. The barrier's stated purpose is to halt Palestinian infiltrators.

But with attention now focused on the attacks, and the barrier posited as the remedy, the Palestinian case may now be more difficult to press, especially with Israel blurring the distinction between protecting towns in Israel and fortifying Israeli settlements - illegal under international law - in the West Bank.

While several Israeli ministers urged the army to avoid a response to the bombings that would further undermine the cease-fire, Israel's message was unambiguous: its barrier must be built, and the PA must crack down on "terrorist infrastructure," a step it insists it cannot do without triggering civil war.

According to army radio, Israeli spokesmen were issued directives after the attack to stress the need for the controversial barrier. Many stressed that since construction of the barrier has not reached the Rosh Haayin area, it was open to attack.

"Even those who do not like the fence should know that it is a better option than having terrorist attacks without a fence," Ehud Olmert, an Israeli minister, told the station.

Ariel's mayor, Ron Nachman, meanwhile, said the attack proves the government must adhere to plans to include his settlement, 11 miles within the West Bank, in the barrier construction.

Plans to route the wall aroundAriel helped trigger the American objections to the barrier's course. The United States has not objected to the idea of building of the barrier, but President Bush has protested what he calls "snaking [it] through" the West Bank.

A concrete and wire solution

For many Israelis, the barrier represents a way to end bombings like Tuesday's once and for all.

In Rosh Haayin, Omer Ozer, who works in a snack shop next to the convenience store that was bombed, recalls that when he first heard the explosion, he believed something huge had fallen down.

"But when we got close, we smelled the burning dust and saw two wounded storeworkers whom we knew. They cried out, 'help us, help us.' I ran to bring them water. There were a lot of other workers who we dragged to our shop and gave water."

Less than an hour later, a bomber struck at a hitchhiking site at the entrance to the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility for that attack, which it said was revenge for an Israeli raid near Nablus on Friday during which four Palestinians, including two Hamas fighters, and an Israeli soldier were killed.

Diplomatic obstacle

The bombings will probably complicate US diplomatic efforts to check the growth of the Israeli barrier.

The PA's arguments against the barrier, which stress humanitarian issues and the slicing of the West Bank into noncontiguous cantons, had gained the attention of Washington, largely because of the dramatic reduction in attacks since Palestinian factions announced a cease-fire on June 29.

There was a suicide attack a week later, but no bombings thereafter.

"In political terms, these attacks definitely make things difficult for us, and undermine us," says Qadoura Fares, a Palestinian legislator. "But we offered a positive message to Israel with weeks of calm. We needed a positive message in response, and we did not get it."

The PA had hoped to build more pressure against the barrier by a visit Tuesday to the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya by Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan.

The town, which is surrounded by wall and fence construction, poses a poignant example of how the barrier is separating thousands of Palestinians from fields, work, and schools. Mr. Dahlan canceled the visit.

Instead, the images were of the convenience store, where the windows were blown out and packaged chewing gum, contact lens solution, and toilet paper were strewn over the floor.

Cashiers were being led away from the scene by spouses as religious officials searched for pieces of flesh for burial.

Police said the bomber detonated himself near the checkout counters with a 6.5-lb. bomb, a relatively small charge by the standards of suicide bombings. "I knew there would still be bombings, but I did not expect it to be here," says Mr. Ozer, the snack-shop worker.

'The beginning of a wave'?

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, said: "We condemn any actions that target civilians, but Sharon's policy has caused the renewal of the violence."

He cited Friday's raid on Nablus and other Israeli army actions. Mr. Fares, the Palestinian legislator, said expanding settlements and the wall construction, coupled with a lack of meaningful prisoner releases or removal of travel restrictions "created an atmosphere of going back to attacks."

"I hope this is not the beginning of a wave, but that will also depend on the Israeli reaction," he says.

Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader, told Al Jazeera television that "Hamas and the resistance groups adhere to the cease-fire but this is a natural reaction."

Olmert defended the Nablus raid, saying that in areas than have not been handed over to the PA, Israel must maintain security. "We will not wait at all, we will thwart" attempts at attacks, he said.

Ozer is pessimistic: "I think this cease-fire is all an act," he says. "The truth is that neither the Arabs nor the Israelis want peace. Each side does not want the other to be here."

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