- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Three militant Palestinian groups joined forces to kill four Israeli soldiers in a daring attack yesterday at an army post in Gaza, sending a message that they are out to sink a new, U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan.

The groups’ three gunmen were then killed by Israeli troops. Hours later, Palestinians killed another Israeli soldier in the West Bank town of Hebron.

A total of six Palestinian militants were killed in weekend violence, one of the bloodiest 24-hour periods in recent weeks.

The attacks strike a blow to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to negotiate a cease-fire with militant groups, his strategy for ending anti-Israeli attacks as called for by the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

Israel quickly demanded the Palestinians crack down on the extremists, but Mr. Abbas insisted he could still persuade them to stop.

Just four days ago, President Bush launched the “road map” peace plan at a summit in Jordan with Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an atmosphere of hope, with statements renouncing violence and calling for reconciliation.

Previous peace plans have drowned in floods of violence, and Secretary of State Colin Powell found it necessary yesterday to appeal to the two sides not to let it happen again.

“What we have to do now is to make sure we don’t allow this tragic, terrible incident to derail the momentum of the road map,” Mr. Powell said on “Fox News Sunday,” referring to the Gaza attack.

The rare joint operation by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades was intended to send a message to Mr. Abbas that Palestinians will continue to fight Israel and will not “surrender to the pressure exerted by Israel and the United States of America,” said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader.

“We are unified in the trenches of resistance,” he said.

The violence created a quandary for Mr. Abbas, who if he is unable to bring a cease-fire, may have to decide between launching a violent crackdown on those groups or abandoning the road map, which calls for an end to 32 months of fighting and envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

The attack also put Mr. Sharon in a difficult position, forcing him to decide whether to retaliate - likely causing further damage to the peace efforts - or hold back and wait for Mr. Abbas to respond and suffer political criticism from within his hardline government.

Mr. Sharon’s first test was a hostile convention of his own Likud Party in Jerusalem. Mr. Sharon was greeted with boos, unusual for a serving premier among his own followers, reflecting the high level of opposition to the road map and Mr. Sharon’s conditional acceptance of it among Israeli hard-liners.

The boos continued throughout Mr. Sharon’s address to the delegates, in which he did not refer to yesterday’s attacks, but insisted anti-Israeli violence must end before peace moves are made.

“Victory over terrorism is at hand,” he said but insisted that attacks against Israelis “We will not give anything as long as the terror, violence and incitement continues.”

“But we will be prepared to make painful concessions for real peace and security,” he added.

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