Bomb blasts deal severe blow to Hebron talks

In the aftermath of two bomb explosions in Tel Aviv overnight Israel and the Palestinian leadership tried yesterday to reduce the political impact of the attack - the first since March - on the already faltering talks about the Israeli redeployment of its troops on the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, promised "to wage war against the terrorists" and said that, if they were found to have come from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, then it would not be "business as usual". Freih Abu Meddein, the Palestinian Minister of Justice, said: "I don't think Palestinians were behind these explosions because such attacks serve only Netanyahu."

Despite Mr Netanyahu's harsh words he has continued talks with Dennis Ross, the United States peace envoy. But the effect of two pipe bombs, each containing half a kilo of an explosive mix of lemon, nitric acid and acetone, which seriously injured nobody when they blew up in a south Tel Aviv red light district, shows how little it takes to plunge relations between Israel and the Palestinians into renewed crisis.

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the bombs, which police at first thought might be the result of a criminal feud, but the most likely Palestinian faction to be behind them is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Based in Damascus, the group has carried out sporadic killings of Israeli settlers over the last year.

Israeli police sealed off Jerusalem from the West Bank yesterday as 80,000 Palestinians prayed in and around al-Aqsa mosque on the first day of the Ramadan fast. Traffic in the city came to a halt because of security measures and Palestinian worshippers had to leave their identity cards in boxes before they entered the mosque.

In his sermon, broadcast live to Muslims around the world, Sheikh Hamed Beitawi, a leading figure in Hamas, the Islamic militant group, sharply attacked Israel, saying: "Israel is beating the drums of war and aggression against Muslims and Islam."

In the Palestinian town of Nablus yesterday Hamas held a memorial rally for Yahyah Ayyash, the Palestinian bomb maker who was blown up by a booby- trapped mobile phone in Gaza on 5 January last year. It was in revenge for his assassination that Hamas and Islamic Jihad carried out four suicide bomb attacks in February and March last year which killed 63 people and led to the victory of Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing government in the election in May.

Hamas is unlikely to have carried out this week's bomb attack in Tel Aviv because its local leadership is reported to have promised Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, that it has suspended its bombing campaign. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas spokesman, said last week that his organisation would not retaliate after the shooting of seven Palestinians in Hebron by an Israeli settler because so many of its members were in prison and the movement had been "disarmed" by the Palestinian Authority.

Negotiations between Mr Arafat and Israel remain deadlocked over the time scale for further Israeli withdrawals under the Oslo accords. The Palestinians want Israel to pull out of all Palestinian villages by September this year, while Mr Netanyahu wants to delay the withdrawal for two years. Mr Arafat has rejected a US compromise proposal that Israeli troops leave in mid-1998. Terms for Israel's partial withdrawal from Hebron are no longer in real dispute.

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