|Sharon Orders New Crackdown
on Gaza Factions
By GREG MYRE
Published: January 17, 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/17/international/middleeast/17mideast.html?oref=login&oref=login&th (must register to view original article)
GAZA, Monday, Jan. 17 - In a blunt warning to the new Palestinian leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel said Sunday that he had given the military orders to act "without restrictions" against Palestinian factions that have stepped up attacks in the roiling Gaza Strip.
At the same time, the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee issued a rare statement against militant violence, demanding a halt to "all military acts that harm our national interests and provide excuses to Israel, which wishes to obstruct Palestinian stability."
The intense maneuvering came just a day after Mahmoud Abbas was sworn in as president of the Palestinian Authority, formally succeeding Yasir Arafat after his death two months ago.
Immediately, his fledgling administration has been caught in a squeeze between the tough-talking Israeli leader and armed Palestinian factions who have sworn to press ahead with attacks.
The hand of Mr. Abbas, who is also chairman of the P.L.O., was evident in the group's call for an end to attacks, which was unusually direct. But while Israel has welcomed such statements, the government does not consider it to be enough.
"Despite the change in the Palestinian leadership, we have yet to see them taking any action whatsoever to halt the terrorism," Mr. Sharon told his ministers at the regular weekly session.
Amid the escalating rhetoric, the militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for renewed rocket and mortar fire in Gaza on Sunday, though no injuries or serious damage were reported. And Israeli gunfire killed a Palestinian woman, Fada Aram, 45, and her son, Abdullah Aram, 28, and wounded Mrs. Aram's husband in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, Agence France-Presse reported. An Israeli military official said that troops had fired twice on suspected militants in the area, but that she was not aware of civilian casualties.
Also, Israeli troops pulled back from the outskirts of Gaza City, concluding a relatively small-scale raid they began Friday night. But the Israeli forces are well positioned for the kind of major incursion that Mr. Sharon mentioned Sunday, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. The Israeli security forces "have been instructed to step up operational activity against terrorism and they will continue to do so without restrictions - I emphasize, without restrictions - as long as the Palestinians are not lifting a finger," Mr. Sharon said.
Mr. Sharon suspended all contacts with Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian leadership following a large-scale attack on Thursday that killed six Israeli civilians at a Gaza crossing point where food, gasoline and other essential supplies move in and out of the coastal territory.
However, at least some members of Mr. Sharon's new coalition government said the prime minister acted too hastily in freezing relations with Mr. Abbas.
"I think we have to give him an opportunity to take control," said Shalom Simhom, the new environment minister from the center-left Labor Party. "There is no reason not to give him a month's time."
Mr. Sharon is facing many Israeli critics opposed to his plan to withdraw all 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. His strong statement, delivered before television cameras permitted to film the beginning of the cabinet session, was seen as a message for both Israelis and Palestinians.
"Sharon has a very critical domestic audience, and he needs to persuade them that he has things under control," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "I think he is also telegraphing a message to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian people that a major Israeli incursion into Gaza could take place."
Israel has carried out many raids into Gaza, but the military has always been reluctant to start a huge, sustained operation in Gaza as it did in the West Bank in the spring of 2002, at the height of the Palestinian suicide bombings.
Israeli commanders worry that their forces could take heavy casualties in Gaza's densely packed towns, where the Palestinian factions are well armed. In addition, heavy fighting in Gaza at this time could sour any prospects of dialogue between Israel and the new Palestinian leadership.
Still, if Mr. Abbas does not act against the armed Palestinian groups, many Israelis consider some sort of military operation in Gaza highly likely.
Complicating the equation for Mr. Abbas, he runs the risk of igniting a major internal battle among Palestinians if he does not move against the factions.
He is expected to travel from the West Bank city of Ramallah to Gaza this week, most likely on Wednesday, to meet the Palestinian factions and discuss a possible halt in attacks.
The Palestinian leader will not find a receptive audience. The factions say they reject the possibility of a truce as long as Israel continues to carry out raids in Palestinian areas.
"We have no other option; we are defending ourselves," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas. The group is willing to discuss the full range of issues with Mr. Abbas, but a truce is not a realistic prospect, Mr. Zuhri said.
"Our position is clear: once the aggression stops, then we can talk about achieving a truce," he said.
In his inaugural address on Saturday, Mr. Abbas called for a cease-fire with Israel, but did not provide details on how he planned to deal with the armed factions. He has said he has no intention of calling on the Palestinian security forces to arrest and disarm those responsible for attacks.
During a brief tenure as prime minister in the summer of 2003, Mr. Abbas did persuade the factions to agree to a unilateral cease-fire. But it never completely took hold, and it soon fell apart.
Mr. Abbas made a similar appeal following the death of Mr. Arafat two months ago, but the Palestinian attacks and the Israeli raids have continued.
Even Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group claiming loyalty to Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement, has continued to carry out attacks. It took part in the Thursday night bombing and shooting in Gaza at the Karni crossing point.
Israel raided the southern edge of Gaza City on Friday night, and in several separate clashes across Gaza on Saturday, eight Palestinians were killed, most of them militants, hospital officials said. More than a dozen Palestinians were wounded. The Israeli troops pulled back from the outskirts of Gaza City on Sunday, the military said.
Palestinian shelling on Saturday wounded two Israeli children at a Jewish settlement in central Gaza, and critically wounded a teenage girl in Sederot, an Israeli town just outside Gaza's fence.