Vengeance is theirs
After a week that has seen more Israeli assassination attempts and two suicide bombings, Palestinians prepare for the worst, writes Graham Usher from Jerusalem
At around noon on 6 September Mahmoud Abbas conceded defeat and quit as the Palestinian Authority's first prime minister. Three hours later Israel tried to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and other Hamas leaders courtesy of a 500lb bomb dropped on an apartment in Gaza City. Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader, received scratches to his hand; 15 Palestinians were wounded. Ariel Sharon shrugged off the miss. "They're dead men," he said, meaning every active (or available) member of Hamas, military, political or religious.
Dead too is the peace plan known as the roadmap, the most concerted diplomatic effort since the 2000 Camp David summit to staunch the blood, if not resolve the conflict.
Three days after the failed assassination of its founder Hamas exacted revenge via two suicide bombings in Israel. The first bomber struck a bus stop near Tel Aviv where soldiers muster. Eight were slain, including the bomber. The second detonated entering a café in West Jerusalem, leaving at least six Israeli civilians dead and 40 wounded. Outside the café's wrecked front window the corpses of a middle-aged man and young woman lay like bloodied crumples of rag.
Hamas's military arm, Izzeddin Al-Qassam, "welcomed" the attacks as the first "payback for the Zionists' daily crimes against the Palestinian people". The bombers were apparently young Hamas men from Rantis, a village near Ramallah. They were also students at Birzeit University.
Framing the bombings were Israel's latest thrusts in the "all-out war" against Hamas. In Hebron, on Tuesday, Israeli tanks shelled an eight-storey apartment sheltering Ahmed Bader and Izzeddin Al-Misk, two "wanted" Hamas military men. They were killed, as was 12-year-old Thaer Sayuri, hit in the head by shrapnel. The army then razed the entire block, making 13 families homeless.
In Gaza on Wednesday Israeli warplanes rocketed the home of Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar. The house was in Rimal, a densely peopled neighbourhood of Gaza City. Zahar escaped with wounds to his legs: his son and bodyguard were killed. Twenty other Palestinians were wounded.
Few believe Israel's vengeance will end there. Cutting short a state visit to India Sharon flew back to Israel on Wednesday night to weigh further responses. Fuelled by a flood of statements by government ministers and army officials Palestinians fear Israel will move to expel Yasser Arafat and/or launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza, the last redoubt of nominal Palestinian Authority rule. A lesser fear is that Israel will again lay siege to Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, severing all contact between the Palestinian leader and the outside world.
Everything depends on whether America steps in to tame the vortex or lets it whirl out of control. This, at least, is the view of the PA's new designated prime minister, Ahmed Qureih, better known as Abu Ala.
Relieved to be rid of a premier whose attempts to make independent decisions was viewed as part of an American-Israeli conspiracy to unseat him, Arafat appointed Qureih on 7 September. Like Abbas, Qureih thinks the "armed Intifada" a disaster and is committed to the roadmap. Unlike Abbas he enjoys the trust of his leader -- at least for now.
Prior to the suicide bombings Qureih was conditioning his acceptance of the position on American and EU "guarantees" that they restrain Israel's militarist solutions and press it to implement the roadmap. He also insisted that Israel and the US end their ostracism of Arafat since, without him "no prime minister will succeed and no Palestinian government will succeed". After the bombings he was calling for "decisive action" by President George W Bush, including the dispatch of "international troops" to the West Bank and Gaza. He also proposed a new ceasefire, this time observed by Israel as well as by the PA and Palestinian factions.
He is unlikely to find any takers. Israel has long made it clear that it views a "temporary Palestinian ceasefire" as a ruse by the PA to avoid taking on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Stunned by the departure of Abbas and cool towards his replacement, Washington says essentially the same.
"Whoever becomes the new Palestinian prime minister, we're looking to see if he has the commitment, authority and resources to move forward on the roadmap. At this juncture that means principally... taking control of the security situation and acting against groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad," said State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, on Monday.
The EU is warmer to Qureih but, armed with its recent decision to outlaw all wings of Hamas, it too is placing the onus on the PA to act, and act first. The Arabs are silent.
As for the Palestinian people, they are stocking up on food and other supplies in Gaza and Ramallah and bracing themselves for the most draconian of Israeli closures and curfews everywhere else. Represented by a leadership that cannot deliver, an Israeli adversary that believes they can be cowed into surrender and ignored by the sole superpower with enough muscle to change either fact, they know from bitter experience that it can always get worse, and probably will.
Many too are questioning a Hamas "resistance" that increasingly appears a nihilistic violence of the last resort. But there are others -- especially among the young, the poor and the hopeless -- who are receptive to the Islamists' simple message that violence is necessary because vengeance, too, is theirs.