Middle East Crisis Headlines – 2/9/2001
A powerful car bomb exploded in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem yesterday evening, but remarkably, only one person was slightly injured. “I heard the blast, I looked out of the window, and then the second blast went off; and so I basically only saw smoke,” Avi Hearse, a yeshiva (seminary) student, told “israel today” at the scene. Two previously unknown groupsâ€”the “Palestinian Popular Resistance Forces” and the “Popular Army Front”â€”claimed responsibility for the attack in separate statements. The former said the attack was in response to the election of the “criminal and fascist Sharon.” The car bomb was not the only violence. A few hours later, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on the Jewish community of Psagot, near Palestinian-ruled Ramallah, igniting a gun battle with Israeli troops. Witnesses said tracer rounds and flares lit the night sky for several hours, but no casualties were reported.
Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon responded to the car bomb attack by saying the days of negotiations under fire are over. “What happened today is another tragic event which demands we all unite to act with determination against terror,” Sharon told reporters. “Israel has an interest in holding negotiations and advancing the peace process, but this depends on a total cessation of violent acts.” In Mea Shearim, residents said Sharon speaks a language the Palestinians understand. “Yea, Iâ€™m definitely happy Sharonâ€™s in power because Sharonâ€™s policy is you bomb, I bomb,” Mark Lansky, a yeshiva student, told israel today. US officials also condemned the attack. “It’s another reminder of the need to create a just and lasting peace in the Middle East to bring an end to the cycle of violence,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Before the attack, President Bush called Yasser Arafat for his first talk with the Palestinian leader since taking office. “He urged Arafat to make every effort to help stop the violence and calm the situation,” said Mary Ellen Countryman, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Sharon met outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak today for the first time since the election, to discuss the transition of power and the possibility of forming a national unity government. The two men smiled and shook hands before starting talks at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “We are happy to meet,” Sharon said. Surprisingly, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, an architect of the Oslo Accords, came out in favor of a unity government, telling Israel Radio today that “itâ€™s the best option.” In a rare confession, Peres said the election results indicate that the majority of the nation did not accept the policies of the left. Peres said Labor had just one condition: “the continuation of the peace process.” But predictably, there is fierce opposition from other Labor doves, including Oslo co-architect Yossi Beilin, who said a unity government would serve as a “fig leaf for doing nothing on the peace process.”
Barak is backing Sharonâ€™s position that previous understandings reached with the Palestinians are not binding on the new government. “The principle `nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon’ was accepted by all sides,” Barak said in a letter to President Bush. The US concurred. “The ideas and parameters that were discussed in the last few months were President Clinton’s parameters and therefore, when he left office, they were no longer a US proposal or a presidential proposal,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Sharon said in an interview published today that he would seek an open-ended, non-belligerency pact with the Palestinians, but not a peace agreement, and that he would not follow Barak’s path.