Those who warn that it would only take one more suicide bombing against Israelis to trigger all-out war with the Palestinians had fresh reason for fear yesterday after a Hamas militant in the West Bank died when his car blew up.
The Islamic group and Palestinian security officials immediately blamed the explosion – which coincided with one of the worst bouts of fighting in the occupied territories for weeks – on an undercover death squad from Israel.
Hamas vowed vengeance, raising the spectre that it will attempt another horrific suicide bombing against civilians within Israel which could draw ferocious military retaliation from Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.
The Islamic group is believed to have carried out last month's suicide bombing, which killed 21 young people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub and precipitated one of the most dangerous diplomatic crises of the nine-month intifada.
Then, under frantic international pressure, Mr Sharon refrained from a massive retaliatory strike and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, agreed to join ceasefire negotiations – a CIA-brokered truce which is now falling apart.
But many in the Middle East fear that it will be impossible to avert a severe escalation in the conflict if there is another major suicide bombing attack.
Palestinian officials said Fawaz Badran, 27, was killed in an explosion as he was about to open the door of his car outside his electronics store in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. "Israel must shoulder full responsibility for the assassination," said a senior Hamas activist, vowing vengeance.
Israel's armed forces denied any knowledge, but in the pastsenior officials have made little attempt to conceal their strategy of liquidating Palestinians suspected of attacking Israelis – a policy with which they have persisted despite criticism from the United States, the UN and others.
The Tulkarm killing was the latest incident in an eruption of violence in which three people have been killed and dozens injured in a 24-hour period, shattering the ceasefire negotiated by the CIA director George Tenet last month. On Thursday Israeli tanks bombarded two Palestinian security posts in Nablus, and – in the early hours yesterday – they blasted shells into Hebron, hitting three buildings used by Yasser Arafat's Force 17 security group. Both assaults were in retaliation for Palestinian shootings, which killed a 49-year-old Israeli settler, Yehezkel Mualem – a father of four – and injured several others.
Attention is focusing on Mr Sharon, who on Thursday dispatched his son, Omri, for talks with Mr Arafat. Speaking to reporters in Rome, Mr Sharon said his government would pursue a policy of "immediate response" to violence, but added: "Our aim is still to arrive at a political process."
Similar support for a political solution has been uttered by Palestinian leaders. But these views may not be the ones that ultimately count among many Israelis and Palestinians.Reuse content