JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday said he has ordered Israeli forces to intensify efforts to stop Palestinian attacks, adding that the military would act without restrictions until Palestinian leaders take action against militants themselves.
Sharon’s directive came after days of violence that pierced the brief feeling of optimism for renewed peace moves following last week’s election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian leader. Abbas replaced the late Yasser Arafat, who shunned by Israel as a provocateur.
Israel has demanded Abbas crack down on militants; the Palestinian leader says he prefers to negotiate a cease-fire with them if possible.
After a suicide attack killed six people at a Gaza crossing into Israel on Thursday, Sharon cut off ties with Abbas, saying he had done nothing to stop the attacks. On Saturday, the Israeli military launched a broad raid into Gaza that killed five Palestinians.
Three more Palestinians were killed in separate incidents.
For their part, militants fired homemade rockets Saturday at the Israeli town of Sderot, critically wounding a teenage girl. Hamas militants fired two more rockets at Sderot on Sunday. The military said that in the last two weeks, attacks in Gaza increased to 100 a week from 40 a week.
“The army and the security forces have been instructed to increase operational activity to stop terrorism and they will continue to do so without restrictions — I emphasize without restrictions — so long as the Palestinians don’t lift a finger, ” Sharon said. “The operational level has been instructed to take any step necessary to stop the terrorism.”
Senior military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army was considering either a major raid into Gaza or several small operations against militants. The military prefers the second option, fearing a broad operation would ruin Abbas’ chances for success, the officials said.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath condemned the threatened military action.
“At the same time that Abu Mazen says he will work hard to return to the peace track, Sharon declares a military escalation,” Shaath said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. “I’m afraid Sharon will say that Abu Mazen is following Arafat’s path and so they will not deal with Abu Mazen.”
The new violence may reflect militants’ desire to prove their strength and compel Abbas to take them into account as he begins his tenure.
In his inaugural speech Saturday, Abbas condemned the violence, urged an immediate cease-fire and said he was extending Israel his hand in peace.
Israeli officials said the speech was disappointing because Abbas did not say how he planned to stop attacks — making only a vague mention of how he would deal with the violent groups — and many wondered whether the window of opportunity created by Arafat’s death was already closing.
“Despite the change in Palestinian leadership, we see that at the top they have not started any activity to stop the terrorism,” Sharon said Sunday. “This situation cannot continue.”
Some in Israel criticized Sharon’s decision to cut ties with Abbas, saying he did not give the new Palestinian leader a chance to prove himself.
“He hasn’t been in power long enough to crack down on terrorism,” said Israeli Environment Minister Shalom Simhon, a member of the Labor Party.
The violence was only one of the serious challenges facing Abbas.
As he was inaugurated Saturday, 46 election officials resigned, accusing Abbas’ ruling Fatah (news – web sites) party and intelligence officials of pressuring them to abruptly change procedures on election day — including keeping polls open longer and allowing voters to cast ballots in any location.
The new rules gave Abbas supporters more opportunities to vote but did not fundamentally affect the final tally, they said.
The officials said they wanted to warn that such actions could be easily repeated during July parliamentary elections.
“I was personally threatened and pressured,” said Ammar Dwaik, the commission’s deputy chairman. “I am therefore announcing my resignation publicly, so that everyone knows that in the upcoming legislative election, this could happen again.”
Hamas demanded an immediate inquiry into the allegations and insisted that whoever is responsible be held accountable. “These mass resignations put a big question mark on the credibility of the voter turnout and the results,” Hamas said in a statement Sunday.
Abbas had hoped his landslide win would give him the legitimacy needed to make difficult decisions. He has condemned militant violence, but said he prefers to co-opt the militants rather than crush them. If he fails to end the violence, however, there is little hope for a renewed peace process after four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
At a four-hour meeting late Saturday between Islamic Jihad and Fatah leaders in Gaza, the militants refused to even discuss a truce.
“The issue of cease-fire cannot be discussed while the Israelis are escalating their attacks against our people, while the atmosphere is tense,” said Nafez Azzam, a senior Islamic Jihad leader at the talks.
Other militant leaders, including Mousa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, also reserved the right to continue attacks, though some indicated they might be ready to reach a deal.