- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli forces directed an hour-long rocket attack at bases of Yasser Arafat's elite security force yesterday and accused the Palestinian leader of responsibility for a wave of bombings directed at Israelis, including the killing of two youths at a bus stop.

Israeli helicopters pounded the targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the evening, killing two Palestinians, setting buildings and cars on fire, and plunging parts of the territories into darkness.

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The strikes followed a suicide bombing yesterday morning that killed two Israeli teen-agers as they waited for a bus near the border separating Israel from the West Bank. It was the third bombing attack in two days.

There were new pleas in Washington for the United States to resume an active role in Middle East diplomacy. Ismael Cem, the foreign minister of Turkey, Israel's major regional ally, said the new U.S. policy would not work.

"I believe it will be wrong if the United States … waits for the problems to create their own solution," Mr. Cem told reporters at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The new Palestinian attacks occurred around 8 a.m., but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon waited until an Arab summit in Amman, Jordan, ended late yesterday before ordering the helicopter strikes on bases of Force 17, a security group charged with protecting Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon said Mr. Arafat and Force 17 were directly linked to the recent attacks on Israelis.

"Despite the fact that many in the world thought … that new leadership had arisen here, to my sorrow [Mr. Arafat] has remained a leader of terror," Mr. Sharon told reporters.

Later, his office issued a statement saying Mr. Sharon had told President Bush by telephone that "the thrust behind the perpetration of these acts of terror is Force 17, Arafat's presidential guard."

In Washington, the State Department condemned the latest suicide bombing, the third of its kind in two days. These are "some very horrible attacks. We absolutely condemn the bombing," said spokesman Richard Boucher.

"We don't see any excuse or justification for this kind of cowardly acts of terrorism."

An Israeli army spokesman said the Israeli rockets were aimed at the Force 17 headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, at a Gaza training camp used by the group and at other installations.

Palestinian medical officials said at least 60 persons were wounded in the attacks. They identified one of the dead as a member of the Force 17 group and the other as a Palestinian civilian.

"This is an unprecedented aggression on the [Palestinian] Authority, which is without justification," said a senior aide to Mr. Arafat, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, speaking in Amman where Arab leaders had just concluded their summit.

He said it showed the "true intentions" of Mr. Sharon's 3-week-old government.

Mr. Sharon, a retired army general with a reputation for toughness, had come under intense public pressure to retaliate for an escalation in attacks on Israeli civilians.

Two bombs exploded in Jerusalem Tuesday, wounding dozens of people and putting police on an almost unprecedented state of alert.

In yesterday's blast, a Palestinian with explosives strapped to his body blew himself up at a bus stop inside Israel, near youngsters who were on their way to school at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

"I saw my friends blown apart. One of them was without hands," said Rafael Zomer, 15, who suffered minor injuries.

Within an hour, two other bombs were discovered in nearby towns and safely detonated.

Responsibility was claimed by the Islamic militant group Hamas, a faction not usually aligned with Mr. Arafat. But Israeli officials said Mr. Arafat had given the group a green light for bombings and other attacks and was therefore responsible for the results.

Hamas' armed wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, has promised a string of suicide attacks to avenge the deaths of 356 Palestinians in clashes with Israeli soldiers in the past six months.

The group released a videotape to a Western news agency yesterday in which a Palestinian student said he had been groomed by Hamas to die in an attack on Israel.

"I am the 12th of the martyrs the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades have prepared to turn their bodies and their bones into shrapnel that will kill the Zionist occupiers," said the young man, reading from a text.

In an accompanying leaflet, Hamas identified the man as Dia Tawil from the West Bank town of Ramallah and said he blew himself up Tuesday next to an Israeli bus in Jerusalem. The leaflet said Mr. Tawil was a student at Bir Zeit, the West Bank's leading university.

Security sources said Mr. Sharon's decision to attack Force 17 bases was made during a meeting yesterday evening of his inner Cabinet, which includes top ministers and security advisers. They said the group approved a large number of targets to be hit at the army's discretion.

One member of Mr. Sharon's Cabinet criticized the strikes as "cosmetic" and said they were carried out to soothe angry Israelis.

Mr. Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, launched similar strikes following Palestinian attacks in the past six months but on at least one occasion, Mr. Sharon criticized the policy as ineffective.

Just last week, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters he opposed rocketing Palestinian targets because such strikes drew international condemnation and had little practical effect.

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