- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the northern West Bank city of Jenin from four directions early today, with the sound of gunfire reported by Palestinian witnesses and security sources.

There were no immediate reports of clashes or casualties, nor was it clear whether the military lunge represented the opening of the promised Israeli response to a suicide bombing that killed at least 20 persons in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Israeli forces also moved into Nablus, another northern West Bank town, to hunt for Islamic militants.

Earlier, in the southern West Bank, a column of 13 Israeli tanks lined up outside of Ramallah — a show of force that could be a precursor to a raid.

Israeli forces have regularly carried out raids in West Bank cities, towns and villages to hunt for Palestinian militants spearheading an almost three-year uprising for an independent state.

The tank maneuverings came after an Israel pledge of a military response to a bus bomb that also wounded more than 100, saying promises by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on the perpetrators would not ward off retaliation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas spent much of the day huddled with advisers and planning their responses to Tuesday’s bombing, with the fate of a U.S.-backed peace plan hanging in the balance.

“After yesterday’s bombing, Israel can’t remain a perpetual testing ground of failed peace initiatives that the Palestinians have simply not complied with,” said Dore Gold, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Sharon.

Mr. Gold said Israel wanted to “reassess” the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. “This has left a deep scar on the national psyche. We can’t go back to business as usual. We’re at a turning point.”

Five Americans were among those killed in the attack on a Jerusalem bus, the deadliest attack since President Bush announced the road map peace plan in May.

The dead included six children, ranging in age from 3 months to 15 years.

Mr. Abbas cut off contact with Palestinian militants and held emergency meetings with his Cabinet in the day and separate meetings with Yasser Arafat and senior Palestinian leaders.

Mr. Abbas was prepared to demand the authority from Mr. Arafat to crack down on militants, and threatened to resign, along with his entire Cabinet, if Mr. Arafat continues to refuse, Agence France-Presse reported.

Reuters news agency, quoting security sources, reported that retaliatory strikes would last several days and would go ahead regardless of Mr. Abbas’ order for security services to arrest militants behind the bombing.

Israel shelved its planned handover of occupied cities to Palestinian control, froze high-level talks and reimposed a clampdown on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Abbas’ security chief, Interior Minister Mohammed Dahlan, said the attacks were unjustified but blamed Israeli violations of a Palestinian cease-fire in part for the escalation.

In a statement, Mr. Dahlan called on the United States and other countries to press Israel to restrain its response.

U.S. special envoy to the Middle East John Wolf scuttled his vacation plans and rushed back to the Middle East.

Mr. Wolf yesterday was in meetings with both the Israelis and Palestinians, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, underscoring the need for the Palestinians to take apart all terrorist structures operating in their territories.

“The steps that need to be taken are steps to dismantle that capability,” Mr. Boucher told reporters.

The spokesman suggested that the U.S. administration was stopping short of encouraging Israel not to react to the latest bloody attack. “We do understand the first priority is security,” he said.

A decision by Israel to retake areas of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem would reverse the one major pullback undertaken under the road map.

“We’re waiting 24 hours to see whether the Palestinian Authority can and will act, at least in Gaza against Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“If there is no action in the next 24 hours, the road map will be off the table, as will the Abu Mazen and Dahlan government,” he said. Abu Mazen is another name for Mr. Abbas.

Analysts said Mr. Abbas faces a lose-lose dilemma. He needs to take some action against militants to calm international criticism, but if he bows to U.S. and Israeli pressure to use force against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he risks losing the little public support he has built among Palestinians.

“It’s not an easy call for him,” said Bir Zeit University political science professor Ali Jarbawi. “The problem is that he doesn’t have anything to show the Palestinians. If he wants to crack down on [militants], the Palestinians will say, ‘Fine, but what for?’”

Reflecting the nationwide shock at the attack, Israeli politicians on both sides of the political spectrum expressed shock and outrage about the attack.

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said the cease-fire had failed and now the Palestinians had no choice other than to use force. Other party members concurred.

“I’ve been among those that have always said, we can’t give up, we need to continue with the hudna,” said former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, using the Arabic word for cease-fire.

“But now we need to take a timeout and say to them, ‘You need time, take two weeks or two months and get organized. Deploy your forces. Do whatever you want. But don’t come back to us until you are ready.’”

At the site of the attack in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Beit Yisrael, taxis with bullhorns strapped to them called on residents to assemble at a mass prayer service.

Rather than asking the government to take revenge, the residents of the neighborhood took a stoic approach to the attack.

They recited biblical Psalms and focused on repentance, which they said would do more to solve Israel’s problems than any government policy.

“We need to perform commandments. The police can’t save you from an attack,” said Nissm Peretz, an 18-year-old student at the Pe’er Talmud Yeshiva.

Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Washington.

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