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08 Mar 2008 07:37
Israeli officials said on Friday they would continue to meet Palestinian leaders under the recently revived peace process but after escalating violence in Gaza and Jerusalem there was a recognition on both sides that the negotiations are faltering.
As thousands of mourners gathered at the Jewish seminary in Jerusalem where eight students were shot dead on Thursday night, police were still trying to determine if the lone gunman was part of a militant cell.
It appeared at first that the Palestinian attacker, who was from East Jerusalem and shot dead in the incident, may have acted alone. Islamist movement Hamas backed away from a vague claim of responsibility by an unnamed official.
Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel was still committed to the peace process restarted at Annapolis four months ago with its ambitious agenda of trying to secure an agreement by the end of the year.
But he said: “It is very clear that you cannot have attacks like this in Jerusalem and expect a successful peace process.”
The carnage in Gaza and Jerusalem did not seem to have totally derailed the process but many fear that if further attacks followed and if, as one Israeli analyst put it, the violence has “set a renewed wave of terror in motion”, then talks would halt and there may be a return to bitter conflict.
On Wednesday Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, agreed to continue talks after a brief suspension following Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which left more than 100 Palestinians dead—at least half of them civilians—in five days.
Abbas condemned the seminary attack but his position, already weak, was undermined further by such violence.
Even before Thursday’s bloodshed, Palestinians working with Abbas admitted he was struggling to maintain credibility because the Annapolis talks had produced no tangible result and some had begun to discuss dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA). “It is a very difficult decision,” said one official. “But it would expose the fact that the PA cannot work any more and Israel would have to take back full responsibility for the occupation.”
The Palestinians are under pressure to act against militants with Israel arguing that not enough has been done. Israel is under pressure to halt settlement activity and remove some remote settlements, known as “illegal outposts”, though this has not happened either.
Thursday’s attack fuelled right-wing politicians who oppose talks with the Palestinians. Effi Eitam, an MP who studied at the seminary, criticised “the confusion and weakness that has afflicted our national leadership in recent years”. Yisrael Beiteinu, a hard-line party, also called for an end to talks.
The Israeli left was more muted. “It’s the job of a responsible leadership, a logical leadership, to say in moments like these, looking at the blood, at the cries for revenge ... that we, at least we in Israel, will do everything we can in order not to be dragged into this cycle,” said Yossi Beilin, a left-wing MP.
The government appears unlikely to determine its response until it is clearer whether the gunman was working with Hamas and how he obtained his weapons and carried out the attack.
The violence has increased nervousness across the Middle East, where the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is seen as part of a wider struggle between the United States and its allies against Iran and Islamist groups. Jordan’s King Abdullah warned in an interview that the failure of the peace process would boost Iran.
In Beirut, Muhammad Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, praised the “heroic” Jerusalem operation and called it a “natural response to Zionist brutality in Gaza”.
Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, told Abbas that her efforts to restore “calm as soon as possible” with Israel would continue. She is also urging Egypt to broker a deal under which Hamas and other Palestinian groups would stop firing rockets and Israel would, in turn, halt its attacks on Gaza.—Â
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