JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel killed seven Palestinians in a missile strike yesterday against Islamic Jihad, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would not meet with the Palestinian leader until he cracks down on armed groups – a double-edged Israeli response to the latest suicide bombing.
Sharon threatened a “broad and relentless” offensive against Palestinian militants, including mass arrests and airstrikes, but security officials said Israel would stop short of a large-scale military operation.
Sharon’s decision to shun Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was the clearest signal yet that efforts to revive peacemaking after Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip last month have run aground. Abbas has said he cannot and will not confront militants, fearing civil war, but it’s unlikely progress can be made unless the two leaders meet.
The international community has been pressing for a quick Israeli-Palestinian agreement on new security arrangements for Gaza’s borders, and a continued deadlock over such issues will prevent the economic recovery of impoverished Gaza. That, in turn, could hurt Abbas’s chances in parliamentary elections in January.
Wednesday’s bombing in an open-air market in the central Israeli town of Hadera killed five Israelis, the fourth suicide attack by Islamic Jihad since Abbas negotiated a truce deal with Palestinian groups in February.
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, condemned the bombing, but Israel said he must do much more.
“If the Palestinian Authority does not take serious and tangible action against terrorism, there will be no diplomatic progress and that would be a pity. In such a situation, I will not meet with Abu Mazen,” Sharon said after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Jerusalem.
There had been repeated efforts in recent weeks to arrange a Sharon-Abbas meeting, but Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could not find enough common ground on issues such as Gaza border arrangements, prisoner releases and an Israeli pullout from some West Bank towns to hold a summit.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Sharon’s demands for a crackdown “do not serve the peace process and we are ready for a meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen without conditions.”
In the Gaza refugee camp of Jebaliya, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a car carrying Islamic Jihad militants. Hospital officials said at least seven people were killed and 15 wounded, four of them critically. Among the dead were at least two Islamic Jihad members, including field commander Shadi Mohanna.