Israel expects more Fatah suicide attacks

An offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party has carried out its first suicide bombing against Israel since a February 2005 truce, and Israeli security officials say they're expecting Fatah militants to step up such attacks now that the rival Hamas group has taken power. With Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert having announced his plan to pull out of much of the West Bank, and the long-ruling Fatah now out of power, militants affiliated with the group could have an interest in creating the impression on the Arab street that Israel is retreating under fire. Hamas militants, then outside the government, did the same ahead of Israel 's evacuation of the Gaza Strip over the summer.

Alternatively, security officials said, some members of the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which carried out the latest attack, might want to turn up the heat on Hamas, which ousted Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections, and is already at odds with the West for refusing to renounce its violent campaign against Israel. On Thursday evening, an Al Aqsa suicide bomber dressed as an Orthodox Jew hitched a ride in a car driving into the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. He blew himself up at a gas station at the entrance to the settlement, killing himself and the four Israelis in the car the first time militants have entered a private car to blow it up.

The attack took place a day after Hamas' Cabinet took office. Since the truce was declared 14 months ago, Al Aqsa had launched homemade rockets at Israel that have caused no fatalities, but had suspended suicide bombings. Abbas was in South Africa with his staff, and not immediately available Friday for comment. Other Fatah officials referred questions to Hamas.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said "it is our people's right to resist occupation. Israel is responsible for such attacks because of its daily aggression against our people." David Baker, an official in Olmert's office, said Thursday that the attack "took place while the Palestinians refused to lift a finger to prevent terror attacks against Israelis, and we saw the results tonight."

Olmert has promised tough action against militants, but there was no immediate Israeli military response to the suicide attack. Separately, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday ordered the military to step up its targeted killings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants, after the group fired a more sophisticated type of rocket capable of hitting a large Israeli city and sensitive installations, security officials said.

And early Friday, in response to rocket attacks, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at an empty Hamas training camp in northern Gaza , at targets near Gaza City , and at the main soccer stadium, which was empty. No casualties were reported. The escalation of violence overlapped with the victory of Olmert's Kadima Party in parliamentary elections earlier this week, on a platform of dismantling small, isolated settlements across the West Bank while holding on to blocs where most Jewish settlers live.

Olmert says he is prepared to negotiate the borders, but if necessary, would take unilateral action. With Hamas holding fast to its violent ideology, prospects for talks look bleak. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted on Thursday that the U.S. might support unilateral Israeli action, even though it is the main backer of the so-called "road map" peace plan.

"I wouldn't on the face of it just say absolutely we don't think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about," Rice said. "If you're going to have a negotiation though, you have to have partners," she said. "And the Palestinian government that has just been sworn in does not accept the concept of a negotiated solution."

Official results released Thursday gave Kadima and the left-leaning Meretz each an additional seat, handing Olmert and like-minded potential partners a majority in parliament to shepherd the pullback through. The final tally, which included soldiers' votes not counted immediately after the election, gave Kadima 29 of parliament's seats, Labor 20, Meretz 5 and the pensioners' party 7.

Although Olmert wasn't expected to have trouble putting together a coalition based on the initial count, he might have had to cede ground to parties that want to join the government but don't back his pullout plan. The new Palestinian ministers moved into their offices on Thursday and were immediately confronted with a growing financial crisis, as Western donors threatened to cut off vital aid if Hamas didn't recognize Israel and seek peace talks.

Hamas leaders said the aid cuts violate the Palestinians' democratic rights, but Rice declared, "The principle is very clear: We're not going to fund a Hamas-led government." Up to now the Palestinian Authority has received a large part of its approximately $1.9 billion (1.58 billion) annual budget from overseas sources, and it may run into immediate difficulties next week when March salaries are to be paid for some 140,000 government employees. Israel has already stopped transferring tens of millions of dollars a month in taxes and customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, reports the AP.


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