Israelis call for 'bloody' revenge on Hamas

Crisis in the Middle East: Teenagers reveal intense support for bombings as Peres puts Oslo autonomy accords into reverse
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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Israel yesterday threw the provisions of the Oslo accords granting autonomy to Palestinians into reverse as it gave priority to eliminating Hamas, the Islamic organisation whose suicide bombs have killed 57 Israelis over the past five days. Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, has still to decide if he will send a military force into Gaza, which has been ruled by Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, for almost two years.

Israeli rage at the bombing outside the Dizengoff centre in Tel Aviv on Monday exceeds by far the feeling after previous bombs because of the death of five children. "Reliance on Arafat has lost all appeal to voters," writes Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's best-known columnists, whose son was killed in the first suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem.

Israeli public opinion is blaming Palestinians as a whole for the suicide- bomb campaign, not just the military wing of Hamas. Amos Oz, a leading Israeli dove, says the gist of the Oslo agreement between Israelis and Palestinians was "simple and direct: We will stop controlling and oppressing you, and you will recognise Israel and stop killing us". He says Israel has relinquished control of 85 per cent of people in the West Bank and Gaza, but Palestinians had continued to kill Israelis.

In seeking to eliminate Hamas, Mr Peres is trying to avoid discarding previous agreements with Yasser Arafat. He says that it is better to prevent the PLO supporting the attacks. For the moment Israel is giving priority to gathering intelligence through round-ups of Palestinians in areas it does control in the West Bank rather than to a military offensive. This will probably be followed by undercover operations, almost certainly bloody, against Hamas leaders and activists.

During the emergency meeting of the cabinet after the Tel Aviv bombing, three senior cabinet members wanted to appoint Ehud Barak, the Foreign Minister, as Defence Minister, a post held by Mr Peres. Mr Barak, Haim Ramon, the Interior Minister and Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords, were also reportedly prepared to send the army into Gaza and form a national unity government.

Government policy is being driven largely by popular anger and the need to show that the government can stop the bombings. "The public wanted to see tank battalions in Gaza yesterday, and regiments of paratroopers dispersed among the homes in Khan Yunis," wrote the daily Ma'ariv yesterday. It added, however, that nobody really knows where to find the nerve centre of the organisation conducting the recent attacks. A leaflet, apparently from the bombers, yesterday offered a truce until June, but two previous truces were immediately followed by bombs.

The appointment of a task force under Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, shows that for the moment Mr Peres wants to hit at precisely defined targets rather than launch a large military operation which would destroy whatever is left of the Oslo agreement. At the same time he is demanding that Mr Arafat wipe out the infrastructure of Hamas. This will be extremely difficult to do because Hamas has the full support of 20 per cent of Palestinians and the sympathy of many others.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton yesterday sent bomb-detecting devices to Israel, and ordered a team of counter- terrorism experts to help buttress security. He also launched a diplomatic effort to isolate countries that support Hamas, such as Iran.

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