Killings in Israel put peace efforts on the back foot

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Israel's Shin Bet agents, Yasser Arafat's security chiefs and the CIA must be asking themselves some tough questions after two deadly attacks in three days by Palestinians inside Israel.

Israel's Shin Bet agents, Yasser Arafat's security chiefs and the CIA must be asking themselves some tough questions after two deadly attacks in three days by Palestinians inside Israel.

Has there been a fundamental change within the ranks of Palestinian militants? Do the Islamic nationalists now intend to conduct regular assaults inside Israel alongside militants linked to the mainstream Fatah movement, an organisation led by Mr Arafat – who claims to be doing all he can to stop such attacks?

And are paramilitaries linked to Fatah now in the business of dispatching suicide bombers over the 1967 Green Line?

The attacks inside Israel have been jointly claimed by Islamic Jihad and by an affiliate of Fatah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. On Tuesday, two men armed with Kalashnikovs – one from each organisation – went on a suicidal shooting rampage in Afula .They killed two Israelis, including a young woman who had three children, before being shot dead.

Two days later, Israel was in mourning again. Three people were murdered by a smartly dressed suicide bomber who detonated himself on a municipal bus near Hadera. That operation was also jointly claimed by the two groups.

This places Fatah's leadership in an awkward position, as it is officially opposed to assaults on Israel outside the occupied territories. For Fatah to be linked with attacks on civilians inside Israel only makes it easier for Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to persuade Washington – where he arrived yesterday – to achieve his aim in convincing the world Mr Arafat is a terrorist mastermind.

"These were individual cases," Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah on the West Bank, said. He stressed there was no change of policy: "We'll continue to conduct the struggle against Israel inside the occupied territories and not in Israel." Yasser Arafat "can control his security services, but no one can control the actions of all the Palestinians", he added.

The bus attack was the first suicide bombing inside Israel since 11 September – an ominous development that Mr Barghouti has linked to Israel's recent assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a Hamas military commander, and the death of five children in Gaza in an Israeli booby-trap bomb. "I was not surprised. People felt deeply about this," he said.

It is all further evidence that the Middle East war is not going away, despite the fumbling efforts of the US to calm it down – spearheaded by the American envoy, General Anthony Zinni, who is in the region trying to enforce the Mitchell report. Public opinion in Israel has hardened – 65 per cent believe a Palestinian state would be a threat to the Jewish state, according to a poll yesterday. It is the same among the Palestinians. After the loss of nearly 800 lives, the majority still supports the intifada.

For most, their daily lives have become infinitely harder – including for Marwan Barghouti. For months, he has been unable to leave Ramallah, the West Bank town where he lives, for fear of arrest, or worse. As he sits in his office, he stops talking as an aircraft goes over. He is listening for the sound of an Israeli helicopter. He has good cause: in August, he narrowly escaped assassination when an Apache fired a missile at his bodyguard's car.

Yet he insists the intifada is working. He points to the impact of the conflict on Israel's economy. This does not compare with the economic devastation brought about by its military blockade of the occupied territories, but nearly 250,000 Israelis – a record – are jobless. The bottom has fallen through the tourism, construction and hotel industries.

The global slowdown, the economic backlash following 11 September, and a rash of strikes, have played their part. But, says Mr Barghouti, the intifada has been crucial.

"This is the first time since 1948 that the Israelis in their confrontations with the Palestinians have paid this kind of price .... We have succeeded to prove the security of the Israelis is in our hands and not in their tanks or their helicopters. They cannot, by force, achieve their security. Israeli security will be achieved by one way – by negotiation and full withdrawal."