- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

SHUNEH, Jordan — Israel yesterday vowed to continue targeting Palestinian militants it deems “ticking bombs” hours after it killed a Hamas leader in an attack that complicated efforts by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to keep a U.S.-backed peace plan alive.

Mr. Powell, who met in Jordan yesterday with members of the so-called Quartet for Middle East peace, meanwhile won new support for efforts to cripple the ability of Hamas and other militant groups to conduct suicide attacks against Israelis.

Abdullah Kawasme, who was near the top of Israel’s most-wanted list, was killed in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday night, only hours before the Quartet — comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — met at this Dead Sea resort.

Hamas, whose avowed goal is destruction of the Jewish state, yesterday threatened “thundering retaliation” for Mr. Kawasme’s death.

“I regret we had an incident that could be an impediment to progress,” Mr. Powell told reporters after his meeting with the Quartet. “I regret that we continue to find ourselves trapped in this action and counteraction, provocation and reaction to provocation.”

Israeli officials said that Mr. Kawasme, 43, was armed with an assault rifle and that troops had first tried to detain him. But witnesses said he was shot as he was getting out of his car.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at his weekly Cabinet meeting that his government “will continue our activities to provide security” for Israelis unless the Palestinians “act in the most serious manner against terrorist organizations.”

One of Mr. Sharon’s ministers, Tzipi Livni, said later that those activities would include striking against militants Israel thinks are planning attacks. “Unless the Palestinian Authority takes real responsibility, Israel will have to keep dealing with ticking bombs,” she said.

Late yesterday, four Palestinians were killed when a bomb exploded in northern Gaza.

At first, Palestinians said the tanks fired at least two shells at militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement, in the town of Beit Hanoun. They later said they were killed while “fulfilling their national duty,” which in the past has meant executing an attack on Israel.

Mr. Sharon was also quoted as telling his Cabinet that settlement activity will continue quietly in spite of government moves to comply with the so-called “road map” for peace by dismantling several illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Wire services quoted a “senior Cabinet official” who briefed reporters in Jerusalem as saying that one minister proposed moving settlers from smaller settlements to Ariel, the second-largest settlement in the West Bank.

Asked whether construction in Ariel was still possible, Mr. Sharon reportedly said there was no need to make a big deal every time a building permit is issued. “We just build,” the Cabinet official quoted the prime minister as saying.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been trying to negotiate a cease-fire with the militant group as well as a deal with Israel for the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of security control in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Mr. Powell, who met on Friday with Mr. Sharon in Jerusalem and with Mr. Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho, reported some progress in the talks on the security arrangement. Under the agreement, Israel would withdraw its troops to the pre-September 2000 borders.

But the sides continue to argue about control over the main road in Gaza. Diplomats familiar with the negotiations said a compromise might be found by implementing joint patrols.

Hamas, meanwhile, said it would not agree to a cease-fire until Israel stops killing its leaders.

Mr. Sharon’s government, however, insists that it has a responsibility to protect its citizens against militants until Mr. Abbas, who has been in office less than two months, is able to rein in those groups — even it that means pre-emptive killings of persons believed to be preparing attacks.

Mr. Powell said he did not know whether Mr. Kawasme was such a “ticking bomb,” although Israel claims he has been behind numerous attacks in the past. The secretary said Israel’s need to defend itself is “understandable,” but only if it has certain and precise information that someone is about to kill innocent civilians.

“When one goes beyond that and expands those kinds of activities to individuals or to situations where it might not be a ‘ticking bomb,’ then, as we have discussed, the consequences of such action and how they play into our broader efforts for peace must be taken into consideration,” he said after his Friday meeting with Mr. Sharon.

The Quartet, which met on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, mentioned neither Mr. Kawasme’s shooting nor other Israeli killings of Hamas figures in its statement yesterday.

It expressed “deep concern over Israeli military actions that result in the killing of innocent Palestinian and other civilians” and called on Israel “to respect international humanitarian law and to exert maximum efforts to avoid such civilian casualties.”

In a gesture to the United States, the group joined President Bush’s call from earlier this month for the international community to help disable Hamas’ capability to carry out attacks against Israelis by cutting financial resources and other help.

“The Quartet calls on all states in the region and around the world to end immediately any form of support, including fund-raising and financial assistance, to groups and individuals that use terror and violence to diminish the chances for peace,” the statement said.

In addition to Mr. Powell, the meeting was attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and the union’s foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana.

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