Sharon Returns Vowing to Fight Mounting Terror
After receiving clear backing from the Bush Administration for his guarded approach with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned home amidst escalating violence on Thursday and swore to get tough soon.
During his first trip to Washington earlier this week, Sharon found US President George W. Bush fully receptive to his policy of not resuming peace negotiations while under fire from the Palestinians. Sharon also informed the Americans that while he hoped to be able to ease the Palestinians' economic plight, if the violence persists, he will hit back at Palestinian terrorists, as well as those who dispatch and aid them.
But while abroad, the Palestinian violence sharply escalated, as an Israeli motorist was ambushed and killed Monday south of Bethlehem, after three mortar shells were fired from Gaza into Israel the night before by members of Force 17 - the bodyguard unit of PLO chief Yasser Arafat. Then on Wednesday afternoon, a disaster was averted when an alert parking warden summoned police to defuse a huge car bomb parked in the bustling Mea She'arim section of Jerusalem.
Later that night, Force 17 members and other terrorists fired five more mortar shells at the isolated Jewish communities of Netzarim and Morag in the Gaza Strip. At Netzarim, an IDF tank fired back, killing the Force 17 commander believed to be in charge of the terror cell and wounding several others.
Following the mortar attacks, battles between Palestinian gunmen and IDF soldiers raged throughout the night and into Thursday in Gaza. IDF soldiers also captured five Palestinians as they tried to infiltrate the security fence into Israel that same night.
Early yesterday morning, IDF soldiers foiled an attempt to plant a bomb along the Gaza border fence near Kibbutz Nir Am, inside the Green Line. The soldiers who spotted the bombers opened fire and later discovered the body of a dead terrorist with a bomb beside him. And Palestinians fired guns, grenades and anti-tank missiles at numerous Israeli military and civilian targets elsewhere in Gaza and in Judea/Samaria on Thursday, overnight and into today.
The Israeli response to the latest spiral of violence has been restrained thus far, but when Sharon landed at Ben-Gurion airport last evening, he pledged that if Arafat continues to condone and encourage the attacks, Israel will strike out against "those who deal in terror and support them." Sharon said he has sent explicit messages to Arafat "through very clear channels" that if he does not rein in the terror activities of his Force 17 personal bodyguards, Israel will take matters into its own hands. "Unfortunately, today the element disrupting security and also blocking the way to a diplomatic agreement is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat," charged Sharon. He immediately held consultations with high-ranking security officials before leaving the airport.
In the wake of the stern warnings, members of the Palestinian cabinet held a meeting in Ramallah last night and expressed concern that Israel is planning to kill Palestinian leaders and invade PA territory. It also renewed its call to the UN Security Council to approve an armed international observer force.
During his "exhausting" four-day journey to the US, Sharon made it clear to the Bush Administration that he is determined to crush the rampant Palestinian terrorism "soon" - but the question remains, "How soon?" Some Israeli commentators are speculating that he is reluctant to strike back hard ahead of the Arab League summit convening in Amman on March 27 or the threatened turbulence of Israeli Arab "Land Day" on March 30.
While still in the US on Wednesday, Sharon claimed the PA had begun to re-arrest Hamas terrorist it had released from jail recently, and needed time to take more such actions. He also said his government was waiting to see if recent high-level meetings between Palestinian and Israeli security officials will yield any results. "Israel has to show staying power," he said. But even his dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres cautioned world leaders that "there are limits to the amount of restraint Israel is willing to show."
In the meantime, the shootings and bombings continued. Late last night, there was another "miraculous" escape from tragedy when a small bomb went off near a busy restaurant in the industrial zone of Herzliya Pituach, near Tel Aviv, but with no reported injuries. Israeli police say the bomb was detonated by cell phone and was rigged with nails, thus resembling explosive devices planted in the past by Islamic terrorists to increase casualties.
Despite the many tragedies in recent months, the growing number of thwarted terrorist attacks and narrow escapes from disaster has many Israelis praising heaven and confessing they are living "in the land of miracles." The bomb discovered and defused in Mea She'arim on Wednesday was another prime example. It was the third bombing attempt there in as many months. One earlier bomb exploded without any deaths or major injuries. Another bomb rigged to a cell phone was rendered harmless by a passing haredi man, who credited God for his courageous action.
The aborted car bombing in the heart of Jerusalem's crowded ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim on Wednesday prompted a "Day of Thanksgiving" on Thursday by residents of the religious community. The powerful bomb was rigged to a cell-phone and placed inside the trunk of a stolen car illegally parked on a busy street. The parking ticket attendant, Shimon Roash of Kiryat Arba, was doing his daily rounds when he grew suspicious of the way the car was "parked in a strange way."
Roash ran a check on its license plate, learned it was reported stolen, and cleared the area before calling police. Later, he refused to be called a hero, stating instead that he was a "messenger of the Lord... The Lord did not just send me to the spot today, there was a certain reason behind it," he said. "To know that I saved a lot of people is, believe me, the biggest gift I could receive."
"It is frightening, but you see how the Almighty helps out if you pray and do the right things" said Solomon Fried, 21, a yeshiva student living in the area.
On Friday, Palestinian officials said a PA policeman was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers near Kfar Darom in Gaza, but the IDF responded that none of its troops were involved in any shooting incidents in the area.
Meanwhile, a member of Fatah from the Jenin area was indicted in an Israeli military court on 26 charges related to shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in Judea/Samaria, including the murders of Binyamin and Talia Kahane. He was allegedly assisted by senior officers from Force 17 and the PA intelligence service headed by Tawfik Tirwai, who provided the terror cell with weapons, assisted in planning the attacks, and stole cars used by the cell to carry them out. After spraying the Kahanes' car with 76 bullets, the arrested terrorist and three accomplices drove back to Ramallah, stopped for refreshments and then reported to the Force 17 headquarters.
The IDF this afternoon reported apprehending a Hamas activist in the Hebron hills area overnight. An elite IDF unit carried out the operation. Yesterday morning, police announced the overnight capture of four other Palestinians allegedly involved in terrorist activities around Gush Etzion. The four reportedly admitted the charges and gave police the identities of many more involved in violent activities, including the ringleaders. More arrests will be made in coming days, according to Israeli authorities.
In a 30-minute phone conversation with US Secretary of State Colin Powell early Friday, Arafat called for American pressure on Israel to end harsh restrictions on Palestinians and to release embargoed tax rebates owed to the PA. Arafat also rejected Sharon's charges that he is responsible for the cycle of violence in the region. In response, Powell asked Arafat to take steps to calm the situation and to put a stop to Palestinian violence.
Before leaving New York on Wednesday, Sharon met with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and discussed the economic strain on the Palestinians, as well as Israel's approval of new housing construction at Har Homa in southern Jerusalem. Sharon called Har Homa an "essential buffer" between Jerusalem and PA-ruled Bethlehem. He urged the UN to consider the support of Damascus for Hizb'Allah and international terrorist groups before accepting Syria as a temporary member of the UN Security Council. Sharon also expressed Israel's strong opposition to sending a UN observer force to Palestinian areas and his reservations about the Mitchell fact-finding committee currently in Israel.
Sharon also raised the fate of the four Israeli MIAs missing in Lebanon in the 1980s and the four Israelis kidnapped by Hizb'Allah last year, plus Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam, imprisoned in Egypt on spy charges. Sharon said that Annan spoke to him privately about the UN's efforts on these matters.
At the close of his US visit, Sharon addressed members of the American Jewish community in New York and labeled Arafat the primary roadblock to peace in the Middle East. "It is clear that the main obstacle to peace today - and really I am sorry to say it - is Chairman Arafat, who has reverted to terrorism," Sharon said.
Summing up his initial US trip, Sharon said, "I discovered in the Bush administration a shared concern regarding terrorism, and admiration for Israel and its commitment to protect it citizens... [Bush] objects to forcing a solution on the sides. I made it clear that we reserve the right to use the good services of the US on the long road to peace."
Sharon said that Washington agreed about the threats posed by Iraq and Iran obtaining weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. He said the Americans expressed their recognition of Israel as a "partner in the development of defense and deterrence systems against the growing threat of ballistic missiles."
Meanwhile, in a sign of Washington's growing disgust with the PLO leadership, the CIA has decided it will no longer mediate between Israeli and Palestinian security forces as it has since 1998, a senior official with the Bush administration said yesterday. "There has been a change. It is our impression that the best security talks are the talks that occur between the Palestinians and the Israelis directly," the official said. "When you throw in the CIA as an intermediary, then it becomes the target."
The CIA has trained Palestinian security forces in intelligence gathering, interrogation, and tracking the funds of terrorist organizations. And from the 1998 Wye River negotiations until the outbreak of the intifada, CIA officers routinely took part in trilateral security meetings between Israel and the Palestinians, with CIA chief George Tenet playing a pivotal role, especially as a key link between Washington and Arafat.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.