Palestinian attacks leave fate of road-map in doubt

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The Independent Online

Four Israeli soldiers were killed in a dawn attack by Palestinian militants dressed in army uniforms yesterday in a direct challenge to the peace process. Hours later another Israeli was shot dead in a second attack.

Three Palestinian groups claimed joint responsibility for the first attack and issued a clear warning to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, who had pledged at the Aqaba summit in Jordan last week to end the "armed intifada".

The raid took place at Erez, the main crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, at around 5.30am (3.30am BST). At that time of the morning, Erez is crowded with Palestinians arriving to work in Israel. The crossing is heavily guarded by the Israeli army, and Palestinians have to queue single file between high fences.

But there was heavy fog yesterday, and under its cover three militants mingled with those queuing for the stringent security checks to get into Israel. Unseen in the fog, they climbed over the high fence.

In their uniforms they were able to move freely towards an Israeli army post, carrying assault rifles and grenades. They shot dead a soldier working on a tank, then killed two soldiers guarding an entrance. A 20-minute gun battle followed in which a fourth soldier was killed and four others wounded, before the three gunmen were shot dead.

In the second attack, an Israeli settler was shot dead by Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Joint responsibility for the first attack was claimed by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. A leaflet was distributed that read: "This joint operation was committed to confirm our people's united choice of holy war and resistance until the end of occupation over our land and holy places" - a direct challenge to Abu Mazen's commitment to the road-map peace plan at Aqaba.

But Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, said he would continue trying to negotiate with the militants. "We will not allow anybody to drag us into a civil war," he said.

The United States, the main sponsor of the road-map - which was drawn up by the United Nations, the US, Russia, and the European Union - immediately tried to play down the attack and shore up Abu Mazen. "What we have to do now is make sure we don't let this tragic incident derail what was achieved at the Aqaba summit," said Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, adding that he said he was certain Abu Mazen would arrest those responsible if he could find them.

Condoleezza Rice, President George Bush's National Security Adviser, said: "We never expected that the rejectionists would find this a welcome development."

The attack clearly left Palestinian leaders stunned. "Nobody knows what we should do next," said Brigadier Mohammad al-Masri, a senior figure in Palestinian intelligence. "Only God knows what will happen. The situation has become too complicated."

Nabil Amr, the Palestinian Minister of Information, said: "I have to say frankly that this attack will have its negative effects. We cannot say it won't. We urge everybody to stop this chaos and bloodshed. We are living in comprehensive chaos."

The killings came after the most powerful militant group, Hamas, broke off talks with Abu Mazen aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and after accusing him of giving too much ground at Aqaba and demanding that he retract his speech there.

But Hamas is no longer Mr Abbas' only problem: the Al-Aqsa Brigades have close links to Fatah, the movement headed by Yasser Arafat. Many Palestinians believe Mr Arafat is opposed to the government of his own Prime Minister.

Mr Abbas' confusion is a smokescreen for Mr Sharon, who is facing a rebellion among his supporters against his backing for the "road-map". His arch-rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, was leading a rebellion against the road-map at Mr Sharon's Likud party convention yesterday.