As the Knesset returned from its three-month summer recess on Monday, its first session since the Palestinian uprising started one month ago, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak faced a deeply divided parliament without an emergency unity government in place and in the throes of a fresh round of lethal assaults on Israeli targets.
With guaranteed support from only 30 out of the Knesset's 120 members, Barak opened the legislative session by delivering a policy speech late this afternoon. Afterwards, certain opposition MKs have threatened to force a vote of no confidence on a couple older motions in order to expose the prime minister's precarious hold on power. While Barak is expected to survive for now, it is clear he is politically cornered, unable to pass any agenda of his own.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has been promising Barak a "safety net" in parliament against any "no confidence" motions so long as the emergency continues, but that pledge is to be "re-examined" in a month. In addition, the early elections bills that have been approved for first reading are expected to remain on hold only as long as national unity government talks continue.
Barak had hoped to conclude by now a deal with Likud chairman Ariel Sharon for an emergency unity government to see Israel through the current crisis, but Sharon has made stiff demands in return for saving Barak from a certain downfall. Sharon has required a veto over any peace moves with the Palestinians and a declaration that Barak's concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David are "null and void." He also wanted an automatic provision for new elections within six months should Barak violate any term of the agreement.
Although both Barak and Sharon met with strong resistance within their respective parties, their bid for a unity pact seemed to be driven by a mutual desire to stave off a comeback by former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Freed from prosecution on criminal charges just as the latest uprising began, Netanyahu has stepped up his media appearances and enjoyed a surge in popularity. One recent poll gave Netanyahu an 18-point lead over Barak in a hypothetical race for the premiership, while Sharon also now has a slight lead over Barak. Within Likud, Netanyahu is still favored over Sharon by some two-thirds of the party's rank-and-file and a majority of its central committee.
Barak and Sharon met on Sunday afternoon at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, but were unable to finalize an understanding. Both sent deputies to a late evening session to try to wrap up a deal, but Barak apparently has refused to abandon the peace process or renounce his generous offers at Camp David. Reports indicate Barak is interested in attending a meeting with US President Bill Clinton in Washington in mid-November, right after the American elections and just when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is threatening to unilaterally declare a state. Barak's office told ARMY RADIO today that Sharon has even demanded that the prime minister reject Clinton's invitation for talks in Washington as a pre-condition for a national emergency coalition.
Some press reports claimed Barak indeed had conceded to Sharon's demand for a veto power over peace policies, while sources close to Barak said an emergency government will not be formed until after the prime minister returns from the expected visit to Washington in about two weeks. In any event, the Knesset convened today before the Barak-Sharon coalition materialized.
The first day of the Knesset's winter session already was expected to be stormy, as lawmakers from the nationalist camp prepared to square off with Arab MKs concerning the recent rioting by Israeli Arabs. But with Barak trying to forge unity and preserve the Oslo peace process at the same time, the atmosphere was particularly heated, especially in light of the fresh wave of violence that hit Israel on Monday.
Among the incidents of today, the body of a murdered Israeli was found near Gilo, two security guards were shot, one fatally, at an Israeli welfare office in eastern Jerusalem and Palestinians launched grenade and sniper attacks in Gush Katif in Gaza that wounded several Israeli soldiers.
In his address to the Knesset session, Barak reaffirmed his government's commitment to the policies of his slain mentor, Yitzhak Rabin. Barak blamed Arafat for the escalation in violence in the region, but did not foreswear a renewal of talks with him. Interestingly, he made no mention of an emergency coalition. His statement was routinely interrupted and drowned out by dissension in the Knesset, from both the Arab Left and hawkish Right.
The speech followed closely Barak's recent explanations of his policy toward the Palestinian Authority, which is two-fold. First, Barak wants to prove to the PA that they will not get anything through violence. At the same time, he also wants to avoid handing Arafat an excuse to invite the intervention of international forces, with massive world support - thus the measured restraint of the IDF.
Afterwards, Sharon told the plenum he felt an emergency government was essential, but that Barak had made clear to him in recent days he was prepared to rejoin peace talks if the violence subsided. Sharon said he was unable to accept this position.
After cutting the ribbon on a new hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, Arafat told reporters the renewed intifada will continue until the Palestinians reach Jerusalem: "Our people will remain steadfast until a boy or a girl holds the flag of Palestine over Jerusalem, the capital of our Palestinian state."
Another weekend of violence brought the climbing death toll from the month-long Palestinian uprising to over 135 dead, mostly Palestinians, but including 13 Israeli Arabs and now at least 12 Jews. Following is a day-by-day review of just some of the recent incidents.
THURSDAY: While the overall level of violence dropped for a day, a 24-year-old Palestinian man riding a bicycle detonated some five kilograms of explosives in a cannon shell strapped to his stomach just meters from an IDF post at the Gush Katif junction in Kfar Darom, blowing himself up and lightly wounding an IDF soldier two meters away. This is the first instance of a suicide bombing attack since the disturbances began in the territories on September 29.
Islamic Jihad later claimed responsibility for the attack. The bomber was named by the organization as Nabil Arair from Gaza, and declared a martyr.
Brigadier General Yair Naveh, commander of the IDF forces in the Gaza Strip, said that the attack shows that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners released by the PA in recent weeks "are managing to organize and carry out attacks." OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yomtov Samiya added the attack indicated "the PA's continued encouragement of violence and terror" and was "proof that the PA continues to perceive violence against civilians and soldiers as legitimate." The PA did not issue a statement condemning the violence.
Hamas leaders have been saying that the door was open to all kinds of attacks against Israelis. Ismael Abu Shannab, an aide to Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said that all military wings are active and that all attacks are justified. Hamas has been implying that the PA has given them a green light for attacks.
IDF analysts say that more suicide bomb attempts against Israeli positions are to be expected and that the PA will continue allowing moderate levels of violence until the occurrence of a massacre, either in a mass suicide bombing against Israeli targets, or the killing of Palestinians by Jewish settlers, and will then seek to capitalize politically on the event.
FRIDAY: Rioting surged again in Palestinian areas, as Friday was declared another "day of rage" and thousands attended the funeral for the Islamic Jihad suicide bomber who blew himself up the day before in Gaza.
A synagogue in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat was vandalized early Friday morning, apparently by Palestinians. The walls of the Tiferet Avot synagogue in the Dekel neighborhood of the settlement were defaced with swastikas and graffiti in Arabic and Hebrew. "Hitler destroyed germs," "Hizb'Allah is everywhere," and "God doesn't like it when Muslims are in pain," the messages read. Swastikas were also drawn on a number of holy books. The vandals, who apparently entered the synagogue through a broken window in one of the bathrooms, also smashed taps and pipes, thereby flooding the building and damaging much equipment.
On Friday night, Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood again came under heavy fire three times from Palestinian gunmen operating in Beit Jalla. Nine apartments were damaged and two residents treated for shock. Tanks returned fire with their machine guns and also fired three shells. Later in the evening, helicopter gunships fired at sources of fire in Beit Jalla.
SATURDAY: Palestinians staged mass demonstrations throughout Judea/Samaria and Gaza.
In another gruesome discovery, the mutilated, bullet-riddled, and burnt body of an Israeli citizen was found Saturday morning in a burned-out car near Ramallah. The body was turned over to Israel by PA soldiers with the explanation that the remains were found in a car with Israeli license plates in an area under total PA control.
Police forensic investigators used dental records to identify the body of 25-year-old Marik Gabrielov, missing from a moshav near Ashdod. PA officials stated the death was tied to drug dealings and the underworld, but Judea and Samaria police spokesman Rafi Yaffe said the man had only two "minor" files for drug possession, and was not considered a criminal. "The signs on his body, the fact that he had been shot and burned, strengthen suspicions that the murder was nationalistically motivated," he said. Israel is treating it as yet another Palestinian "lynching" of an Israeli who made a wrong turn in the Ramallah area.
In Hebron, hundreds of Palestinian schoolchildren marched toward IDF troops on Shallalah Street, holding signs equating the Star of David with swastikas.
SUNDAY: Four Palestinians were killed and about 50 were wounded, while two Israelis were lightly wounded, in bloody clashes between Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces in the territories. The majority of the violent incidents occurred in the Gaza Strip, at the corridor leading to the Netzarim junction, although clashes near the south-eastern entrance to Nablus resulted in the death of two Palestinians.
A terrorist attack on a school bus Sunday evening in Gaza left the bus damaged, but no one was injured. The attack occurred shortly before 6:00 pm as the bus was heading towards the settlement of Morag in the Gush Katif bloc. Only a short while earlier, dozens of children traveling on the bus had disembarked. IDF soldiers spotted the terrorists who activated the bomb by remote control. They opened fire at the perpetrators. Area leaders pointed out that once again that they witnessed "a miracle," but warned if the daily attacks are permitted to continue, future attacks may not result in vehicular damages only.
Palestinian protesters marched on the Karni crossing into Gaza, throwing stones and firebombs at IDF soldiers posted there. When all calls by the Israeli commander for the protesters to disperse went unheeded, a column of IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the area to clear out the demonstrators. The IDF said the armour was only brought in after three days of futile talks with the Palestinian police failed to open up the area to traffic. Heavy exchanges of fire ensued, with Palestinian gunmen hiding in a nearby factory.
The LONDON SUNDAY TIMES reported that Israel has activated a number of its secret agents in Palestinian areas after the Mossad acquired intelligence indicating that radical Islamic groups are preparing suicide bombers to target Tel Aviv. Unlike the undercover Duvdevan commandos who have reportedly been active inside Palestinian territory, the paper noted that the "sleepers" are agents who have lived among the Palestinins for months or even years. Some, said the paper, are Mossad operatives of Arab origin and are normally activated only in wartime.
THE TIMES also reported that Hizb'Allah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has called on Palestinians to perpetrate suicide attacks: "Operations carried out by martyrs are the most effective way to face the Zionists because they have a sharp material and moral impact on the enemy and plunge them into terror."
The IDF is preparing for terror attacks along the northern border and on Galilee communities following a series of serious incidents recently, including Sunday in which shots were fired at soldiers on patrol. There were no casualties in the shooting near Moshav Zar'it in Western Galilee and the troops returned fire. There was a similar incident in the same area on Thursday in which a Lebanese gunman was reported to have been killed in the exchange of fire. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi said there is reason to believe Hizb'Allah will try to heat-up the border and create a second front, in addition to the fighting in the territories.
MONDAY: Early Monday morning, a Palestinian ambush and grenade attack near the Israeli-Egyptian border town of Rafiah lightly wounded two IDF officers. Following the detonation of the explosive device, a shootout ensued.
Palestinians this morning found the body of a 30-year-old Israeli, an apparent murder victim, in a dry riverbed between Bethlehem and Beit Jalla. The body was found with hands and feet tied, and exhibited multiple stab wounds. The victim has been identified as Amos Maklor, a Gilo resident who has been missing since Saturday after he took out the garbage from his home. Friends explain that he did have a habit of taking a Sabbath walk in the park near his home in Gilo Bet. Palestinians said the man was wearing a kippa, and that the body was found near the tunnel road which leads from Gilo to the Gush Etzion bloc.
One civilian security guard was killed and another critically wounded in a terror shooting attack by a Palestinian gunman at a National Insurance Institute office in East Jerusalem. The two guards were taken to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, where one of the guards died and the other remains in critical condition. The two guards were hired by a private security company to provide protection at the Israeli social security offices.
The attacker entered the office, which was closed to the public today, fired at the two from point blank range, and then fled. Officials pointed out that it was most fortunate that there was no office hours today, since it resulted in the office being empty, thereby probably preventing additional casualties.
Early this afternoon, two IDF soldiers were shot and lightly wounded from sniper fire near the Egyptian border with Gaza. The two soldiers from the Engineering Corps were taken to Siroka Hospital in Be'ersheva for treatment. The shooting comes on the heels of a previous incident in the southern Gaza Strip, when a Palestinian sniper sprayed gunfire at an Israeli vehicle.