The Palestinian investigation of a bombing that killed three security guards in a U.S. convoy in Gaza is increasingly testing the patience of U.S. diplomats.
After months of seemingly getting nowhere, investigators suddenly produced four suspects this weekend in what critics say is a crude attempt by Yasser Arafat to deflect growing pressure.
The charges against the four are vague # manslaughter for planting bombs aimed at Israeli tanks that might have hit the convoy by mistake # and the arrests have been widely met with scorn.
A senior Palestinian security official who declined to be named said Tuesday he does not believe the accused are the culprits. The real perpetrators could be linked to Arafat’s own Fatah organization, or even to the Palestinian security forces, he said, but offered no evidence.
Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who now works as a consultant for the PLO, said he had heard similar theories.
“There is some suspicion I’ve heard by American officials that Arafat is dragging his feet on the investigation because the people who did it may get too close to Fatah,” he told The Associated Press.
U.S. officials would not comment on the possibility of an Arafat connection, and Palestinian officials refused to be quoted about the investigation.
In the Oct. 15 attack, a powerful bomb exploded under a line of armored Chevrolet Suburbans en route to Gaza City, killing three American security guards and wounding a fourth. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was quick to pledge that the guilty would be brought to justice.
It was the first attack on a U.S. target in more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. American officials responded with threats to cut back aid and diplomatic travel to the Palestinian areas until the bombers are caught.
The bombing came at a time when Palestinian-U.S. relations were already at a low, with U.S. disappointment over the failure of Qureia to stand up to Arafat and push for reforms.
A day later, Palestinian security forces in Gaza arrested seven members of the Popular Resistance Committees, a rogue militant group with a history of using roadside bombs against Israeli tanks. Other members were arrested over time. All were released except for the four hauled before a Gaza military court over the weekend, who had remained jailed on Arafat’s orders, the Palestinian security official said.
“We believe those on trial are not the real perpetrators,” the official said.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinians, including dozens of gunmen firing in the air, marched through Gaza City protesting the indictment. Some carried the black flag of the Popular Resistance Committees, and a leader accused Arafat of ordering the arrests to counter U.S. pressure.
“This trial is a farce, and the Palestinian Authority should release the detainees immediately and issue a public apology,” said the leader, who identified himself as Abu Huzifa.
The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information about the attackers. Palestinian security officials say no one has claimed the bounty.
The State Department dismissed the Palestinian military inquiry on Monday as inadequate. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, joined the criticism, saying the Americans had not been notified of the trial.
“We want to see an open trial,” an embassy spokesman quoted him as telling a rabbinical conference in Jerusalem. “The charges seem to implicate these individuals for involuntary manslaughter, rather than what we would call first-degree murder.”
Reporters at the scene of the attack saw detonation wires leading to a small structure that offered the bombers a clear view, apparently ruling out mistaken identity. The Chevrolet Suburbans are unique to U.S. convoys.
Diplomats say Arafat has little to lose by further irritating the Americans while he would risk much in launching an offensive against popular armed groups.
Palestinians say their policing abilities have been shattered by the Israelis themselves, who have repeatedly bombed and shelled police barracks.
The Gaza Strip’s main forensics lab was destroyed in an Israeli strike on a Palestinian security installation early in violence that began in September 2000.
Raanan Gissin, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Arafat’s handling of the bomb inquiry was “part of a continuing strategy of deception, duplicity and defiance.”