Israel to Clamp Down in Gaza
Prime Minister Sharon tells military to take 'any action' necessary to crush armed militants, dismaying Palestinian leaders who seek talks.By Ken Ellingwood
Times Staff Writer
January 17, 2005
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that he had authorized a military crackdown against armed militants in the Gaza Strip, citing what he termed inaction by the new Palestinian leadership.
The announcement came two days after Sharon stunned Palestinian officials by ordering his government to cut off contacts with the Palestinian Authority following an attack on a Gaza border crossing that killed six Israelis. Three Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for that attack.
Israeli analysts said Sharon was trying to pressure newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to move forcefully to halt a spate of rocket attacks and other assaults by Palestinian fighters in the volatile coastal strip. Abbas, sworn in Saturday, has urged an end to armed resistance, but militant groups have defied him.
"Despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, we note that those at the top have not begun any action whatsoever to halt terrorism. This situation cannot continue," Sharon said Sunday before the weekly closed-door Cabinet meeting.
"The political leadership has instructed that any action, any action, be taken that is necessary to halt terrorism," he added.
Palestinian officials said increased military actions by Israel would only accelerate the cycle of violence that has rocked Gaza for months. They called for a return to the negotiating table.
"This is a series of wrongs Mr. Sharon has committed since Friday," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said. Abbas "offered an olive branch yesterday. [Sharon is] responding by unleashing the bullets and the guns."
The policymaking body of the Palestine Liberation Organization, of which Abbas is chairman, appealed Sunday for an end to armed attacks. The PLO's executive committee called on fighters "to stop all military activities that could harm our national interests and provide excuses to the Israeli position that wants to undermine Palestinian stability."
Sharon's warning of a possible large-scale military operation in Gaza highlights the tricky political terrain that both leaders are navigating at a crucial juncture. The election of Abbas, regarded as a relative moderate, has been widely viewed as an opportunity for the two sides to open talks to end the current conflict, now in its fifth year, and move toward a wider peace agreement.
But Abbas has quickly found himself squeezed on all sides: from the Israelis demanding that he make good on Palestinian commitments to crack down on armed groups, and from militants who appear determined to keep up attacks in spite of his unusually blunt appeals.
Sharon, in staking out a tough stance, is also mindful of his domestic political audience. The conservative prime minister is under fire from Jewish settlers and their right-wing backers over his plan to pull out all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the northern West Bank this year. His hold on power had grown so shaky that he had to enlist the dovish Labor Party and a small religious party to join the government last week to ensure that he could carry out the withdrawal.
Israeli officials said the suspension of contacts with the Palestinians could be short-lived, if Abbas took action to curb the militant groups.
"It's no one's intention not to have any contact with Abu Mazen ever again. We are talking about the near future only," Israeli Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio, referring to Abbas by his commonly used nickname.
On Sunday, violence continued in the Gaza Strip, where militants fired at least four rockets at communities in southern Israel. No injuries were reported.
In southern Gaza, a Palestinian mother and her son were killed by Israeli military fire as they stood on the roof of their house in Khan Yunis, witnesses and Palestinian medical officials said. Militants had been firing mortars from the neighborhood at a Jewish settlement nearby, and the two, identified as Fadeh Arram, 52, and Abdullah, 28, were hit as Israeli troops responded. The woman's husband was reported wounded.
Israeli military sources said troops opened fire in two separate incidents at people they believed were preparing to launch a rocket or acting suspiciously. But it was not immediately clear whether either of those shootings was the one that resulted in the deaths of the mother and son.
Earlier, a Palestinian militant was reported killed by Israeli troops near a road leading to the Karni crossing, the main portal for cargo shipments between the Gaza Strip and Israel that was targeted in the fatal attack Thursday night in which six Israeli civilians were killed.
Israeli troops ended a raid in Zeitoun, a neighborhood of Gaza City where fighting killed five Palestinians a day earlier.
Palestinian officials said Abbas planned to go to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to resume talks with militant factions.
Abbas hopes to get the armed groups — including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with his own Fatah movement — to declare a cease-fire. But his efforts so far have failed to produce an agreement.
Israeli officials want Abbas to use force, if necessary, to curb the activities of militant groups — a potentially incendiary step he appears unlikely to take.
Israeli officials said Palestinian security officers responsible for the Palestinian side of the Karni crossing were negligent, if not directly involved, in last week's attack. They have called upon the Palestinians to investigate the incident, in which militants detonated a bomb and charged into the cargo terminal, spraying gunfire at truck drivers and civilian port workers.
Israel later said it was closing to Palestinians all three Gaza crossings into Israel and Egypt for an indefinite period.
With Sharon planning to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza this year, militants have stepped up their assaults in hopes of claiming an armed victory. But Israel does not want to appear to have been chased out.
Palestinian officials said Sharon's decision Friday to suspend contacts was premature, coming a day before Abbas was to be sworn in as president, replacing the late Yasser Arafat.
Egyptian officials appealed for patience Sunday during a meeting in Cairo with Israeli diplomats, Ron Prosor, director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, told Israel Radio.
Sharon's move to sever contacts with the Palestinians came a few days after he telephoned Abbas to offer congratulations. Aides had said at the time that the two leaders would meet in the coming weeks.
By calling off the talks, analysts said, Sharon hopes to prod the new Palestinian Authority president into acting quickly to rein in fighters.
Behind Sharon's moves is an assessment by Israel's security establishment that Abbas' efforts at persuasion won't work, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst who is co-editor of bitterlemons.org, a website promoting dialogue between the two sides.
"It has to be recognized that Abu Mazen doesn't seem to be getting the message from his own people, that it's not going to work by persuasion," Alpher said.
Sharon's move to cut off contacts drew wide praise from Israeli leaders, including members of the Labor Party.
"This is Abu Mazen's supreme test, and he doesn't have even one second of grace," Haim Ramon, a Labor minister without portfolio, told Israel Radio.
But Environment Minister Shalom Simhon, also from Labor, said Sharon should have given Abbas more time to organize Palestinian security forces and solidify his control. "There's no reason why we shouldn't give him a month to do things."
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