'You don't have to be an expert to see where we're heading'

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The Independent Online

It took just a week for the hope of the Aqaba summit to be drowned in yet another round of blood-letting in the Middle East. The past week saw the roadmap peace plan, personally backed by President George Bush, all but torn up as Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas competed in a series of attacks and counter-attacks that left scores of people dead.

Israelis and Palestinians have been here before. But this time, many Israelis are blaming their own Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. A poll for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth last week found that 40 per cent of Israelis believed Mr Sharon had ordered Tuesday's failed assassination attempt on a senior Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, as a deliberate ploy to delay the implementation of the roadmap.

After that botched assassination attempt - in which a woman and a child who happened to be nearby were killed - the situation deteriorated fast. Hours before the rocket attack on Dr Rantisi, Hamas leaders were talking about resuming talks on a possible ceasefire with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

After the assassination attempt, all talks were off. Hamas vowed an "earthquake" of revenge, and carried out a sickening suicide bombing on bus number 14 in Jerusalem's Jaffa Street on Wednesday that left 16 people dead and almost 100 injured. Blood and body parts smeared the pavements of Jerusalem's busiest street, and within the hour Israeli helicopters were in action again over Gaza.

A member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, asked after the suicide attack whether Mr Sharon and the Israeli government were not in part responsible. "It is necessary to examine government policy which may not have been helpful in progressing the roadmap and seems to have taken us back to death, pain and sorrow," said Roman Bronfman.

Gush Shalom, a peace movement set up and run by Israelis, was more forthright. In an advert taken out in Ha'aretz newspaper last week, the movement said the aim of the assassination attempt on Dr Rantisi was "to bury the roadmap right at the beginning, destroy Abu Mazen and prevent the planned hudna [truce], in order to save the settlements, continue the occupation and prevent the establishment of the state of Palestine".

Adam Keller, a spokesman for Gush Shalom, said: "After assassinations had this same result so many times before, one need not be a brilliant strategist, or have access to confidential files, to accurately predict the result of sending helicopter gunships to Gaza to assassinate the well-known Hamas spokesman, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi.

"Prime Minister Sharon certainly knew exactly what he was doing. Many potentially positive developments in the past two years were foiled by a judicious assassination."

Mr Sharon's reluctance to sign up to the roadmap is no secret, and his discomfort at Aqaba was visible. But there were also bad omens before the botched assassination attempt on Dr Rantisi. Hamas had already broken off the ceasefire talks with Mr Abbas, accusing him of giving too much ground at Aqaba. Hamas leaders also pointed angrily to the killing of a low-ranking militant in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers immediately after the Aqaba summit. The Israeli army said he was shot resisting arrest.

But on the day the helicopter rockets were fired at Dr Rantisi's car, Hamas leaders were talking about coming back to the table, and the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who has acted as a mediator between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, was on his way here to try to restart the talks.