Funerals for four victims of a Palestinian suicide bombing and fading hopes for tranquility after four years of fighting weighed upon Israel Sunday, as the government turned to a second front, the brewing internal confrontation with the far right.
Thirty-four people wounded from Friday's attack in Tel Aviv remained hospitalized Sunday, victims of a bombing that marked the biggest challenge yet to the cease-fire agreed to by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas early this month.
While refraining from any immediate military retaliation, Mr. Sharon told his cabinet Sunday there would be no "political progress" unless the Palestinian Authority (PA) undertook a "determined operation to eradicate the terrorist organizations and their infrastructure." He warned that the Israeli army would act if PA security forces failed to do so. Israel also announced it was suspending plans to hand over West Bank cities to PA control.
Friday's Tel Aviv bombing jolted Israelis out of a sense of greater security they had enjoyed in recent weeks.
Palestinian analysts predicted that Mr. Abbas, who condemned the bombing, could make further arrests, beyond the two suspects apprehended in the West Bank by the PA over the weekend. But, they added, he was unlikely to undertake the comprehensive campaign demanded by Sharon.
The bombing, analysts say, harms Abbas by shifting the focus away from Israeli practices such as settlement expansion and the construction of the West Bank separation barrier. It lends weight in the battle over the international community to Sharon's insistence that Abbas move against militants.
Amos Gilead, an aide to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, said Israel was exercising restraint in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the hopes that Abbas would understand he must take action. "There is a gentle sapling and we have to see whether it will develop into an oak," he said of Abbas, in remarks to Army Radio.
At the same Israeli cabinet meeting in which Sharon charged Abbas with cracking down on militants, ministers and Shin Bet director Avi Dichter discussed how to deal with the Israeli far-right in the run-up to the Gaza withdrawal, which begins in July.
Citing what she says is a rising threat of violence by right-wing extremists, Justice Minister Tzipi Livne unveiled a plan to crack down on those deemed to be inciting violence. Ms. Livne has called for the creation of a unit of state attorneys who would work throughout the country and deal exclusively with crimes expected to emanate from far right opposition to the pull out.
While in Livne's view this could thwart some far-right violence, some settler leaders have termed her envisioned unit "the thought police." They say the plan is an effort to limit freedom of speech and quash arguments against the withdrawal.
"The greatest danger to democracy is Tzipi Livne. In the name of defending democracy, [the government] is eradicating it," says Elyakim Haetzni, a former far-right member of the Knesset. At the same time, Mr. Haetzni says the Gaza withdrawal, if carried out will be "a crime against humanity."
The bitter recriminations underscore that the distrust between the government and opponents of the Gaza withdrawal is widening into a chasm as the start of its implementation in July moves closer. And the hard-line, ideological settlers are feeling increasingly beleaguered. In a very real sense, they inhabit a world apart from most Israelis, one in which they see themselves as being victimized.
The Israeli press has lately been filled with disaster scenarios about possible settler violence during the withdrawal, while the pro-settler HaZofeh newspaper ran a front-page headline Friday about purported plans by the "regime" to construct detention camps for "opponents."
"The dictatorship of the Sharon family takes on new heights," HaZofeh said.
The disaster scenarios, described in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and attributed to a classified police document, include that settlers will lock themselves and their children in a bunker and threaten mass suicide, spring attack dogs on police, and throw stones and hot oil on those who come to evacuate them.
Prominent coverage in the mainstream press has also been given to death threats contained in letters to ministers.
"The coverage is greatly exaggerated," says Emily Amrusy, spokeswoman for the main settler group, the Yesha Council. "The government and media are carrying out a delegitimation campaign. The worst incitement is the incitement against us."
Amrusy says the government is trying to distract attention from the demands of settlers for a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal. She says Livne's unit "will be used to silence the great outcry of a large segment of the public. Dictators in other countries have also used these types of bodies to shut people up."
However, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a cabinet minister who also served under Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995, says the threat of violence against Sharon is real and immediate. "I am worried about Yigal Amirs who are spread out in the country, whom we may not know about," Ben-Eliezer was quoted by Israel Radio as saying, referring to Rabin's assassin.
Israeli police have asked for an increase in funding amid concern over possible far-right violence at the sensitive Temple Mount/ al-Haram al-Sharif sacred site. The far right rhetoric is becoming shrill and at times apocalyptic.
On Thursday night, at a gathering attended by thousands in Jerusalem to protest the Gaza pullout, a leaflet was distributed accusing Sharon of forcing Israelis into "Auschwitz borders" and of bringing about a disaster as great as the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians and Romans respectively.
Police have opened an investigation into whether there was incitement at the meeting.
Some Gaza settlers recently fastened orange Jewish stars to their shirts, thereby likening themselves to Jews forced by the Nazis to wear the yellow star of David. Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog Sunday proposed banning the use of holocaust symbols in protests, Israel Radio reported.
Livne says the unit will not violate freedom of expression. But she says that what constitutes incitement has broadened in the current highly charged atmosphere.
"Even the very same sentence uttered in normal times has to be viewed differently while we are sitting near an explosion," she says.
Gauging incitement, Livne adds, "is relative to the situation and the person who says it. There is no comparison between a person on the street saying something and a rabbi saying something." Asked if Israel would begin administrative detentions against the far right, Livne responds: "Not yet."
In his writings, Haetzni likens the Gaza withdrawal to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. As one of the speakers at the Thursday night gathering, he said that Slobodan Milosevic is on trial in The Hague for ethnic cleansing.
"If Sharon carries this out against the Jews, he must sit as an accused in The Hague next to Milosevic," Haetzni told the audience, adding that he challenges the government to indict him for incitement.