Tel Aviv Blast Spreads New Unease

JERUSALEM – For now it is just the recriminations that have resumed flying back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians, not yet the bombs, missiles, and bullets in the same numbers as during the height of the Intifada.

But the fatal Palestinian suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv disco last Friday night has shattered more than just a tenuous period of relative calm; it has pierced the image that was promoted by leaders on both sides that progress in the peace process was round the corner.

Palestinian officials in Ramallah make it sound as if the first very serious breach of the cease-fire was committed by Israelis rather than Palestinians. It is the same refrain that Palestinian Authority figures practiced for the more than four years before their new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, effectively agreed to a truce with Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt three weeks ago.

"Not only the atmosphere, the whole experience has been very negative," said new Palestinian deputy foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah at his office in Ramallah. He continued to blame Israel for not living up to the commitments it made at Sharm el-Sheikh.

"They have not handed over the cities they promised, they are stalling on the return of deportees, they have not agreed yet to the criteria for the release of prisoners," he said, summing up some of the Palestinian complaints. At the same time, there have been unhelpful or even provocative Israeli policies, he said, such as the announcement of more construction in the West Bank settlements and the continued building of the separation barrier.

All this makes it very hard for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader Abbas to keep the militant groups in line, said both Abdullah and a senior Palestinian security official who preferred to remain unnamed.

The steps that Israel has taken, such as a halt to the killing of militants and to arrests in the West Bank, the easing of some closures of Palestinian cities, the permission for some Palestinian workers to return to their jobs in Israel, the release of 500 prisoners and the return of some deportees, are dismissed as too little or insignificant.

This all angers the easily ignitable advisor to Ariel Sharon, Raanan Gissin. "How can we hand over cities to them if they are totally unable to take responsibility for security, as we have just seen?" he said heatedly in a telephone interview.

Israel remains committed to the Sharm el-Sheikh agreements, he emphasized, but it reserved the right to act "to protect our population."

The change of tone, also on the Israeli side, was marked. While Gissin had recently praised some of the PA’s steps in dealing with the violence, he now condemned them as "totally insufficient."

"We have not seen that they have done enough to fight terrorist groups," he told IPS. "They don’t disarm them, they don’t arrest them. They arrest a few people and then let them go again. We have seen the results."

Sharon has threatened renewed Israeli military action after the bombing, which claimed the lives of five people and wounded more than 60. He said the peace process could not proceed as long as the PA did not take "vigorous action" against the militants.

Israel has suspended the already delayed handover of five West Bank towns to the PA, and it has suspended talks over the release of prisoners.

The PA on its side has sharply condemned the bombing. Abbas said it was "against the interest" of the Palestinian people, and said the people behind it were "terrorists." The PA has postponed talks with militant groups that were planned for later this week in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

The fundamentalist militant group Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack, one spokesman citing "Israeli breaches" of the truce. The suicide bomber was from a village near the town of Tulkarem, which is still under Israeli military control.

Israel blames Jihad leaders in Damascus for giving the order for the attack, and it says that Syria had a hand in the attack. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Monday was to brief foreign ambassadors about what Israel says is proof of the Syrian involvement. Syria denies all involvement.

Palestinian security, too, says that "external factors" are pushing for attacks. The senior security official in Ramallah specifically mentioned Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

He denied that this was merely a convenient way for the PA to shift the blame away from its own failing in getting the militant groups to stop the violence. "The external involvement is real and we have been trying to stop it now for a long time. It is a real problem for us."

During the Intifada, many cells from the different movements, mainly Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that are related to the mainstream Fatah movement, turned to outside sources for support, said the security official.

"When a movement has its political leadership in Damascus, it will have to take Syrian wishes into account," he said in a reference to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Raanan Gissin said Israel would act against Jihad "without geographical limitations," hinting at the possibility of a strike inside Syria, which it has carried out before after a Jihad attack. But deputy prime minister Shimon Peres said the Americans are at the moment putting pressure on Syria, and indicated that Israel should not interfere for now.

The Syrian factor is important. Syria is under pressure because of its involvement in Lebanon and its alleged role in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

But it is the truce between Israelis and Palestinians that is most affected by the bombing in Tel Aviv. Israel has not yet taken military action in response, apart from the arrest of some five suspects in the West Bank. The PA has arrested five people as well.

The truce seems to be holding for now but much depends on the shape of the Israeli response, if one is still to come, and on the absence of more Palestinian attacks in the immediate future.

In Ramallah, PA officials acknowledged that they need a lot of time still to assert control. Abdullah said that the new Palestinian cabinet had just been sworn in some days ago and ministers need time before they can act.

The senior security official said the security services need a year to rebuild after the attrition of the last four years.

They also hint at a more worrying aspect of the Palestinian predicament: their leader Mahmoud Abbas is committed to the truce, but many in the PA structure, not to mention the groups outside it, are not yet following his line.