World

Mayhem in the market

A suicide bombing in Israel put peace back on hold

August 11 1997
World

Mayhem in the market

A suicide bombing in Israel put peace back on hold

August 11 1997

Mayhem in the market

A suicide bombing in Israel put peace back on hold

World

It is watermelon season in Jerusalem, and Tzion Ayut thought he might bring home a big fresh melon for his family.

But as he turned into the Mahaneh Yehuda, the bustling Jewish market in the heart of the city, a massive explosion sent flames and fruit flying past him. “It is a miracle, only a miracle, that I am alive,” Ayut,

78, told his frantic daughter, who found him in hospital a few hours later. “All around me people died.”

Two Palestinian suicide bombers, apparently working for an Islamic militant group, had blown themselves up in the centre of the market, leaving burned and bleeding bodies strewn through the narrow alleys. Atop almost everything, as if mocking the tragedy, lay colorful smashed watermelons. Fifteen people died, 173 were wounded, and the limping Middle East peace process was dealt another heavy blow. “If this is peace, if this is what we will pay for peace,” said Ayut,

“then I think we should just go straight to war.”

That won’t happen, of course— yet given the frosty state of the peace process, there might as well be an undeclared war. Talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have been on hold for the past five months due to Israeli plans to build a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Arab Jerusalem. While the two “partners in peace” have never been fond of each other, in recent months they have lapsed into open and bitter hostility.

But last Wednesday afternoon, as Ayut went shopping, there was a hint of optimism in the air in Jerusalem. The deadlock had been broken, and peace talks were due to start again shortly. Dennis Ross, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, was expected there that night, armed with what were billed as “new ideas.” In a city where the newspaper headlines are rarely upbeat, both the Arabic and Hebrew press were full of phrases like “progress” and “breakthrough.” The two market explosions, only seconds apart, burst that bubble of hope. “People flew in the air without legs, without arms, without clothes,” said one witness, 43-year-old Sarah Yamin. As fleets of ambulances took away the dead and injured, Israeli youths shouted: “Death to Arabs!” and “Kill them all!” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately blamed PLO leader Yasser Arafat. When a distraught Arafat telephoned to offer his condolences, Netanyahu at first refused to take the call, then gave Arafat a stern rebuke. “We are not interested in condolences,” he said afterward. “We want them to stop the terror.”

Israel arrested nearly 80 Palestinians, most of them members of the militant Muslim group Hamas, but nothing was known for sure about the identity of the bombers or for whom they were working. In a mysterious echo, police in New York City arrested three Middle Eastern men on Thursday night and seized five pipe bombs. Officers said they had been tipped that the men had ties to Hamas and were planning a Jerusalem-style attack on the New York subway system. One of the men, Palestinian Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mathar, 23, had previously lived in Canada, according to his brother Nor, who lives in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Shortly after the Jerusalem attack, Netanyahu closeted himself with his security cabinet. They emerged with a list of demands: Arafat had to extradite Palestinians wanted by Israel, take “immediate steps” against high-ranking officials in his police force who are accused of planning attacks on Israelis, and resume full co-operation with Israeli security services. Until he did, Netanyahu said, there would be no negotiations.

Netanyahu called his list of demands reasonable, indeed “basic,” given the peace process. But to Palestinian analysts, he could hardly have handed Arafat a more impossible task. “There is simply no way Arafat can do this,” said Khalil Shiqaqi, head of the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies, a Nablus think-tank. “Israel has weakened him so much, he is fighting for his own survival. If he does what Israel demands, he will be discredited past any recovery.” In March, 1996, after a series of bus bombings that left 66 Israelis dead, Arafat did take forceful action against his militant Muslim „ opposition. He jailed more than | 2,000 people, both leaders and £ rank-and-file members of Hamas § and the equally extremist Islamic s Jihad. Local experts said the two g radical groups had been crip| pled, probably permanently, and I Arafat had proven himself ° stronger than his enemies. At the time, he had just been elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and his public legitimacy was high. The economic situation was good, the peace process was going well. ‘Today, none of those things are true,” said Shiqaqi. “Plus, Arafat is facing wide allegations of corruption and abuses of human rights.” In fact, only hours before the bombing, the Palestinian legislative council had demanded that the president dismiss his entire 18-member cabinet, saying it was riddled with “corruption and abuses of power.” Later, sixteen of the ministers offered to resign.

Palestinian police have made some arrests in the West Bank towns they control, but Arafat is in no position to start another sweeping crackdown: he cannot afford to be seen as toadying to Israeli demands. And while suicide bombings are not condoned by the majority of Palestinians, Hamas does have a solid support base as a political party. Some analysts question how much Arafat could do to stop such attacks anyway. Local Hamas leaders seemed as shocked by the latest explosion as Israelis; in recent months, Arafat had succeeded in drawing them into the political mainstream, and they had almost as much to lose as he did in this attack. Palestinian analysts said the bombers may have been, like the one who killed three Israelis in a Tel Aviv café blast in March, part of a small and secret splinter cell of the Hamas military wing. The March cell was from a West Bank village still under Israeli security control.

“Israel is asking Arafat to do something that they were never able to do themselves,” said political scientist Ghassan Khatib, noting that all of Israel’s elaborate security procedures have proved incapable of stopping determined bombers. Instead, he said, Israeli ministers should be asking themselves some tough questions. “Don’t they wonder why there are so many 20-year-olds who are eager to commit suicide? They need to think about what kind of a life could be so difficult that young people are willing to do this.”

Palestinians argue that last week’s bombing, and earlier ones, are a result of Israeli policies and the widespread despair that grips the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu’s determination to expand Israeli settlement in the West Bank, in particular, has eroded Palestinian support for the peace process. The Israeli closure of the Palestinian territories, which cripples the economy, has added to frictions, Khatib said. “It is tragic that the response we saw was so bloody, so savage. But it was inevitable that there would be a response.”

What happens now? Palestinian pundits believe that Arafat will take some localized action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad when he finds out who was responsible for the bombing, and he will try to get the renegade anti-Israeli factions of his police force under control. Then, he will have to try to wait out Israeli anger, hoping his own population does not erupt first.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has some manoeuvring of his own to do. Elected on the slogan “A secure peace,” he promised to stop such bombings. But he has proved no more effective than the previous Labour government. Yet the attack also bought him some breathing space: he has faced increasing international criticism in recent months, particularly over settlement building. Israeli analyst Ze’ev Schiff says Netanyahu can now make a firm response, perhaps with more building. The prime minister also authorized the Israeli military, if needed, to go back into West Bank cities now controlled by Arafat. But such a move would be extremely provocative and many analysts doubted he would risk it.

Although diplomat Ross cancelled his visit last week, U.S. President Bill Clinton said the special envoy would be back in the Middle East after Israel’s mourning period ends, possibly by the end of this week. Officials said he would bring a “new initiative” to secure pledges from the Palestinians to end violence and from Israel to slow the settlement building. Analysts questioned whether those ideas would be enough to rescue a peace process caught in a downward spiral. But undoubtedly, they said, talks will start again within a few weeks. Both sides have staked too much on the process to allow it to be shattered as easily as ripe summer watermelon.

STEPHANIE NOLEN in Jerusalem