The shaky ceasefire sustaining the US-backed peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians formally ended Thursday after Israeli helicopter gunships fired on and killed a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas declared an immediate end to the seven-week truce, casting doubt on the future of the road map and confronting Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians with significant decisions in the days ahead.
Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's response to this crisis could well determine his future and that of the road map. Israel's question is how intensely to escalate military activities in Palestinian areas. And as the diplomatic vacuum grows between the two sides, the Bush administration will have to weigh how much it wants to be involved as US elections approach.
As events unfold, Israelis and Palestinians will both be working hard to ensure that the other is blamed should President Bush's effort to create regional peace come to failure.
"It's a wide-open, highly fluid, highly unstable situation," says Uzi Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzilya. "Abu Mazen in particular is facing a watershed moment," he adds, using Mr. Abbas's popular name.
Thursday's killing conformed to a familiar pattern, coming in response to a Hamas suicide bomb that killed 20 Israelis on Aug. 19 and angered Israeli officials, who have long insisted that the PA confront militant groups. Hamas described the Aug. 19 bombing as a response to another Israeli assassination on Aug. 14.
Late Wednesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his security cabinet decided on their own plan of action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The result was the airstrike that killed Hamas's third most senior leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, and two others. A softspoken and intelligent graduate of Colorado State University, Mr. Abu Shanab was a contrast to his more visible colleague Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Abu Shanab avoided his colleague's bombastic rhetoric, and indicated a willingness to accept a settlement with Israel based on UN resolutions. Israel had linked him to the planning of several attacks on Israelis as well as the kidnap and murder of an Israeli soldier.
Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has gained popularity over the course of the three-year conflict with Israel. Palestinians drawn by the group's refusal to compromise with Israel and its willingness to fight received vital support from Hamas's wide network of social services and schools.
Hamas agreed to the cease-fire, which began June 29, after extended negotiations with Egyptian mediators. But the group's strength has made it a major stumbling block to road-map progress.
The PA is obliged under the roadmap to disarm and arrest militants, but Abbas says he can't, citing his severely weakened security services, Israel's continued presence in the territories and his reluctance to spark internal conflict.
The night before he died, Abu Shanab told the Al Jazeera television network that he wasn't worried about pressure from Abbas. "We are in the same trench facing these aggressions," he said. "Abu Mazen's government has no card for pressure [on Israel] besides the resistance. The resistance is the only thing that can force the aggressor entity to respect the humanity of the Palestinian people and stop its continuing aggression against us."
Abu Shanab's certainty that the PA won't pressure his group is precisely the worry many Israelis have had. They argue that the severity of the Hamas suicide bombing on Tuesday and Hamas' declaration that it is ending the cease-fire now force Abbas' hand.
"If Abbas acts, at long last, then that means the road map is still valid and that they [the Palestinians] are valuable partners," says Dr. Arad, echoing foreign diplomats in Jerusalem. "Should they fail to do so, it could very well mean the road map is dead and that Abu Mazen has outlived his usefulness - he doesn't deliver. This may be a real turning point."
Palestinians deride the Israeli argument that Abbas's days are numbered, with its underlying assumption that Israel can remove a democratically appointed Palestinian politician. And they argue that Israel put Abbas in a position where he couldn't have succeeded. Israeli troops have not withdrawn from the vast majority of Palestinian areas. "There hasn't been any move to allow Palestinian security to work," says Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib, who argues that Abbas "cannot and will not" confront militants.
Others argue that Israel did not want Abbas to succeed or the roadmap to work. They point to the pattern of Israeli assassinations and militant attacks that have checkered the cease-fire, including a failed Israeli attempt to kill Mr. Rantisi in June, shortly after the road map was launched.
"Israel has an active interest in making sure the road map doesn't succeed," says Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the PA. "Israel knows the best way to get out of a lull in so-called violence is to assassinate. I'm not even going into the 22 Palestinians killed during the cease-fire, the [Palestinian] homes and businesses demolished and the number of settlement outposts remaining."
Most members of Mr. Sharon's right-wing government do oppose the road map, but Israel officials say they are complying with the plan as much as Palestinian actions allow.
"It's simply illogical to ask Israel to make concessions failing to insist on reciprocity," says Arad, who argues that Palestinian security obligations must precede and outweigh any Israeli obligation. "Certain things are not on same moral level," he says. "Settlements do not come near in importance to the security issues, which are an issue of much greater salience in Israeli terms and objective terms because the lives of people are at stake."
Up until this point, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had announced that they would "respond" to Israeli actions with their own attacks, all the while maintaining the cease-fire.
Some Israeli analysts suggest that Hamas was trying to create a dynamic of "mutually assured deterrence" with Israel by responding to every assassination with a bombing. These analysts say the scale of the Aug. 19 attack, conducted by the group's West Bank wing, took Hamas's Gaza leaders by surprise and threw the delicate balance of deterrence off kilter. The attacks' timing, coming immediately after the suicide bombing on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, was also damaging.
The logic of this conflict suggests continued violence ahead. Hamas promises retaliation for Abu Shanab's death, while Israeli officials have loosened restrictions in place on the army during the cease-fire. Wednesday night, military operations were already underway in and around the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Tulkarem.
"The immediate result will be an all-out deterioration in security situation for both Palestinians and Israelis," says Hisham Ahmed, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.