US urges crackdown on terrorism and tells citizens to leave

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's fatal bomb attack in Gaza is a further setback to floundering efforts to restart the Middle East peace process. The attack can only make the Bush administration, which has refused to deal with Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority, even more sceptical of his ability and desire to get a grip on terrorism.

Americanreaction, set out by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, in a telephone call to Ahmed Qureia, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, will be to demand a serious crackdown on terrorism by the Palestinian authorities.

Washington has long insisted that such steps are the essential basic precondition for resuming negotiations.

Most ominously, the killings break new ground in decades of Middle East violence. It is the first time in recent memory that Americans have been targeted. The US diplomats being protected by the security men who died were engaged in neutral business - interviewing Palestinian applicants for Fulbright scholarships.

Thus far there has been a tacit agreement that Palestinians, and Israelis, would not targetEuropeans or other nationals not directly involved in the fighting. Coming days after Israel launched its first attack for 30 years in Syria, the Gaza bomb blast will reinforce the sense of crisis.

The timing, too, could scarcely be worse. The Bush administration shows signs of disengaging from its role as mediator, calculating that it might interfere with next year's election campaign, now the top priority of the White House. A carefully planned, remote-controlled bomb attack that takes the life of three American citizens is unlikely to increase Mr Bush's appetite to get involved.

Indeed, within hours of the attack, the State Department urged all Americans to leave Gaza immediately. According to officials in Washington, the men in the car were security guards for the diplomats in the other vehicles. Israeli radio reports said CIA officials were in the convoy, but Bill Harlow, a CIA spokesman, said that "no CIA people" were involved.

Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad have much to gain by killing Americans. Some Middle East experts say the attack is a sign of the rising hostility of ordinary Palestinians towards the United States.

Under its present leader, it is perceived as being irredeemably pro-Israel. The veto by Washington on Tuesday of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's construction of a concrete "security fence" along the border with Palestinian-controlled areas, will do nothing to change this mood.