Bombing fails to dent settlers' defiance

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The Independent Online

Leaders of the Jewish settlement where four Israelis were killed by a suicide bomber vowed that the attack would redouble residents' determination to resist Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to dismantle their community.

As Daniella Weiss, the mayor of Kedumin, claimed the attack was a direct response by Palestinian militants to Mr Olmert's unilateral West Bank disengagement plan, a prominent local rabbi said the reaction to the killing of four residents would be "to build and settle more".

The victims, including a couple in their sixties, a 16-year-old youth and 20-year-old woman working temporarily in a settlement, died when a Palestinian suicide bomber apparently dressed as an ultra-orthodox Jew blew himself up after hitching a lift in the couple's car.

The settlement of 5,000 people in the occupied West Bank, eight miles west of Nablus, is east of the army's separation barrier. It is one of the places which Mr Olmert fought last Tuesday's election saying he planned to uproot as part of his plan to fix Israel's "permanent borders" over the next four years.

Responsibility for the attack, committed by Mahmoud Masharka, a 24-year-old Palestinian from Hebron, was claimed by a hitherto unknown offshoot of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Nablus's Balata refugee camp. It was the first such attack near Kedumin, the earliest settlement to be established in the northern West Bank area 30 years ago.

Mrs Weiss was swift to blame the disengagement plan for the attack, near a petrol station at the entrance to the settlement. She said: "I believe this is one of the reactions - not the only one - to Olmert's victory speech in which he so proudly said he was going to give away parts of our homeland." She called it "an immediate encouragement to terrorism".

The couple killed in the attack Rafi and Ilana Halevy, 60, had given lifts to Shaked Lesker and to Raot Feldman of Herziliya, who had been working in the settlement's security office. Yesterday there was a large area of scorched Tarmac where witnesses said the car had been still burning an hour after the blast.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President strongly condemned the bombing, and Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, blamed the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority for allowing it to happen. Israeli soldiers stopped males between 15 and 32 from going through the main Nablus checkpoints.

Hamas did not condemn the attack. Instead its new Prime Minister, Ishmail Haniya, appealed for calm in Gaza after an explosion killed Abu Yousef Abu Quka, a senior commander in the Popular Resistance Committees in what appeared to be a new outbreak of Palestinian faction-fighting, with the small militant group blaming Palestinian security forces. Israel denied responsibility for the attack. Two Palestinians were killed and 15 wounded in clashes at his funeral.

Mrs Weiss, has long been a prominent right-wing champion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank-judged as unlawful by the International Court of Justice. She also linked the attack to last August's disengagement from Gaza after "2,500 shells" had been fired at Jewish settlements and the "reading" by Hamas, freshly elected to control of the Palestinian Authority, of the new Israeli political situation. She added: "It is an illusion to think that if we are on this side of the fence or the other side of it it will make any difference. They want us to be in the sea. The stance of the Arabs has not changed. I think the Israeli government, like any normal government, has to fight the enemy until it completely stops the killing."

Mrs Weiss acknowledged that one of the dead couple's sons, a senior army officer, who unlike his late parents is not religious and lives in a kibbutz in Israel, had told her he did not want the death of his parents to be mixed up with politics. The family declined to speak to reporters.

But she added: "Everything is political here. With all my criticisms of [Ariel] Sharon and [the late Yitzhak] Rabin, they did handle political matters with the responsibility of statesmen. Olmert is immature."

Refusing to accept that a majority of Israeli voters in the election had opted for withdrawal from the settlements, including supporters of Labour, Meretz, and the Arab parties, she talked of the 29 seats out of 120 secured by Mr Olmert's party Kadima and added: "The majority of Israelis, unlike myself, hate Arabs. The majority support me in wanting to keep the Jewish communities here. Those who voted for unilateral withdrawal were less than quarter of the electorate."

Mrs Weiss said if Mr Olmert started his withdrawal plan "the resistance will be a hundred times more than what happened at Amona", the settlement outpost dismantled amid clashes between police and settlers on 1 February.

The retired local rabbi, Daniel Shiloh, said Mr Halevy had always been "very fair to any Arab person" and had tried to prevent attacks on their property and orchards. He called on the Israeli state to "take revenge" and added: "The reaction here will be to build and settle more and more. How is it that Arabs can live anywhere in Israel and Jews cannot live here?"