Optimistic talk of progress on peace proved premature

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In a city where the headlines are rarely optimistic, the front pages of both the Arabic and Hebrew newspapers of Jerusalem were unusually upbeat in recent days, full of words like "breakthrough" and "progress in the peace process". They spoke too soon.

Two 15kg bombs ripped through the heart of Jerusalem's biggest Jewish market yesterday, killing 13 people, among them two suspected suicide bombers, and wounding 170 more.

Burnt and bleeding bodies lay strewn among tumbled heaps of summer fruit, while screaming crowds rushed through the tiny alleys of the market, unsure what had happened and unable to find a way out of the carnage.

The bombing came just as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation headed back to the negotiating table after a five-month deadlock in the peace process.

Dennis Ross, the US State Department's special envoy to the Middle East, was due to arrive here yesterday, armed with a wealth of "new ideas" to push the faltering process forward. He has cancelled his trip.

The attack came at a time of tentative optimism; it was the first in Israel since 21 March, when a bomb in a Tel Aviv cafe killed three Israeli women and the Palestinian bomber who did not get out before the detonation of the explosives he had planned to leave behind.

An hour after yesterday's bombing, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to deliver his condolences. But Mr Netanyahu refused to take the call. "We are not interested in condolences," he said. "We want them to stop the terror."

He accused Mr Arafat of quietly encouraging actions like the bombing - referring to a group of Palestinian police officers arrested by Israel last week, who he said had orders from a top Arafat deputy to carry out attacks on settlers - and of releasing Hamas leaders from Palestinian authority jails. Israel immediately sealed off the West Bank and Gaza and blamed the bombing on one of the two militant Palestinian opposition groups Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

No Palestinian group has claimed the bombing and indeed experts here suspect that Hamas or Jihad, as movements, probably were not responsible. "These groups are increasingly mainstream," explained Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst. "They are using political means to achieve their goals."

Instead, he suggested that the bombings were more likely the work of a small splinter cell of one of the groups. "It doesn't take more than one or two individuals with some easily-available technical expertise."

Indeed, the March bombing proved to be the work of a small splinter group of the Hamas military wing, working without the knowledge of the group's leadership.

Palestinian police cracked another such cell in Bethlehem two weeks ago, when they found a bomb factory in an apartment in a quiet residential neighbourhood, and Mr Khatib speculated that that cell might be linked to yesterday's bombing. He said that despite the recent progress on the political level, he was not surprised by the bombing.

"With all the pressure on the Palestinian people lately - US pressure to make concessions in the peace progress, Israeli pressure in the form of settlement expansion and the closure of the West Bank and Gaza, with the humiliation here people face on a daily basis - it was inevitable that something like this would happen," Mr Khatib said, adding that while the vast majority of Palestinians were horrified by such bombings, the militants have more support in times of political strain.

Although it seemed progress had been made in recent days, this bombing was likely in the works for weeks, he said. In previous bombings, the attackers have sneaked into Israel and hidden for days before they carried out their attack.

While there was outrage across Israel at the bombing, some Israelis echoed Mr Khatib. The Israeli President, Ezer Weizman, said shortly after he heard of the attack that there was "a clear connection between the bomb and Ras al-Amoud" - a Palestinian neighbourhood in Jerusalem where Israel recently said it would build a new Jewish settlement. (Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that this is "not the right time" to build and the plans were suspended).

Yossi Beilin, a prominent parliamentarian with Israel's opposition Labour Party and a key architect of the Oslo peace accord, said the blame for the attack could not be placed purely on the Palestinians.

"An atmosphere was created which weakened the Palestinian leadership, their position and their ability to fight terrorism," he said. "I joined the call to get Mr Arafat to do more to stop these kind of attacks. But I also joined the call for Israel to do more to strengthen our partner in peace."

The peace talks will no doubt resume again in a few weeks' time, because both sides have too much committed to this process to give it up. There was consensus among all parties in the Israeli Knesset last night that the negotiations must continue.

But this bombing will have cost the peace process yet more precious supporters.

Zion Ayut, 78, was buying fruit for his family yesterday when the first bomb went off 10 metres from him. Recovering from shrapnel wounds in hospital last night he said he was very angry. "All around me people died and I escaped by a sheer miracle," he said. "If this peace, I think we should head straight for war."

A year of fear and hate

29 May, 1996: Right-winger Netanyahu ousts Shimon Peres, vowing to boost Israeli security following suicide bombings that kill 59 people.

24 July: US Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, makes peace trip to Damascus in failed bid to revive Israeli-Syrian talks.

25 Sept: Violence claiming lives of 61 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers erupts over Netanyahu's punching a second entrance into an archaeological tunnel site near Muslim shrines in Jerusalem.

6 Oct: After a White House emergency summit, Israel and PLO launch talks on redeployment from West Bank town of Hebron.

1 Jan 1997: Off-duty Israeli soldier fires into Arab market in Hebron, wounding seven Palestinians in what he says is a bid to sabotage handover.

17 Jan: Israeli soldiers hand over 80 per cent of Hebron.

7 March: Cabinet approves handover of more of the West Bank to self-rule.

18 March: Israel defies world opinion by breaking ground for the Jewish settlement of Har Homa at edge of Arab East Jerusalem.

21 March: A bomb in a Tel Aviv cafe kills four and wounds 42.

4 April: Netanyahu offers a Camp David-style meeting with US and Palestinian leaders to close a final peace accord.

16 April: Europeans arrange a meeting between PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, in Malta.

23 July: Arafat and Levy emerge from meeting in Brussels speaking of significant and positive peace steps.

24 July: Netanyahu vows to fight plan to build another Jewish settler enclave in East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amoud.

28 July: Israel and the PLO agree to resume talks.

30 July: Suicide bombs kill 14 in Jerusalem market.