The powerful roadside bomb that blew apart an American armored diplomatic vehicle in the Gaza Strip killing three Americans and injuring a fourth Wednesday is likely to undermine efforts to bring international peacekeepers or monitors to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That view was shared by Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Minister Saeb Ereket just hours after the explosion, the first deadly attack on an American target in the Palestinian-controlled territories. Initial reports identified the casualties as security men hired from a private company, not U.S. government officials.
U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, called it "a senseless and brutal attack," and said the U.S. was consulting with Israel on how to respond. The FBI was called in to investigate, and the State Department urged all Americans to leave the Gaza strip and to be cautious in the West Bank.
Wednesday’s attack occurred at 10:15 a.m. about one mile south of the Erez border crossing with Israel at the northern end of the Gaza Strip as the three-car American convoy bearing diplomatic plates traveled in the Beit Hanun area. The American officials were reportedly headed to discuss awarding study grants to Gaza Palestinians.
"There has been an ongoing debate about whether more [peace] monitors would help or worsen the situation," said Gold. "There are other voices in Washington that are very skeptical of the idea, and the arguments of the skeptics would be strengthened by the tragic events that occurred Wednesday."
Ereket was quoted as calling the bombing a "devastating attack" that would have "harsh consequences" for Palestinian efforts to bring "international observers to the territories."
The attack came amid growing calls for the deployment of armed peacekeepers in the area. Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now with the Brookings Institution, has proposed that the Palestinian Authority be transferred into an international trusteeship, complete with an international security force.
The Brookings Institution reportedly has one of three working groups studying how a force of armed peacekeepers could be put together.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in June that he favored an armed peace-keeping force to act as a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians, followed later by international monitors.
But David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said his organization has just released an analysis that concluded that such forces do not work.
"In the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there have been two models of peacekeeping," he said. "One is when the parties themselves agree on peace and have a multinational force to assure that the terms of the agreement are adhered to, such as in the Sinai. The other model is where you try to impose a third force between warring combatants who have no peace treaty or written agreement to disengage, such as the UN troops in southern Lebanon. This model is a disaster."
He said the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) "has, as far as we can tell, not succeeded in stopping a single terrorist attack since its establishment in 1978. … It is clear that imposing a UN or other multinational force between Hamas and Israeli forces is closer to the UNIFIL model and there is no shred of evidence that it would succeed."
Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, dismissed the whole idea of international monitors, saying it is "not an issue under discussion" in Israel.
He said the U.S. itself "never had a serious monitoring role."
The initial American response may be to back away from helping to safeguard Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, Steinberg said. The Israeli cabinet recently voted to remove Arafat from his compound in Ramallah and has not acted in part because of U.S. objections against it.
"Arafat will now be more vulnerable because the U.S. will not go out of its way to protect him," Steinberg said.
No Palestinian group took immediate responsibility for the attack and Steinberg said there was initial uncertainty whether the bomb was meant for the American convoy.
"It was a huge explosion and [those bombs] are often used to destroy Israeli tanks," he said.
He added that he believes the U.S. will give Israel an even freer hand now in using large-scale raids of the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip to search for tunnels used to smuggle arms into the camp from neighboring Egypt. Steinberg said the bomb used to blow up the American convoy could very well have come from Egypt through one of those tunnels.
Makovsky said that another "likely impact of the attack is that it will reinforce the American resolve that the U.S. and Israel are in the same trench in the war against terrorism."
U.S. Veto At UN
Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the municipality of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, told The Jewish Week the attack might have been in reprisal for U.S. support for the Rafa raids; for an Israeli air attack on what it described as a Palestinian terrorist training base in Syria, and for its veto of a Palestinian resolution in the UN Security Council that would have sought to stop Israel from constructing a barrier around Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank. Israel contends the barrier is for security purposes only; the Palestinians insist it is part of an Israeli land grab.
The American veto Tuesday night came after the U.S. was rebuffed in its suggestion that the resolution include a call on all parties in the Middle East to dismantle terrorist groups. Of the 15 nations in the Security Council, 10 voted for the resolution and four others (Britain, Germany, Bulgaria and Cameroon) abstained.
Sternberg said he was aware of the UN report that Israeli troops in Rafa had destroyed more than 120 Palestinian homes and made more than 1,000 people homeless. But he said he would take those figures with a grain of salt because initial reports in such Israeli actions have been found to be greatly exaggerated.
"We feel sorry for those who lost their homes, but it is their own fault," he said. "Anyone who gives permission to terrorists to dig tunnels under their homes has to know there will be a result of that action. We know that the majority of homes that were demolished were suspected to have tunnels underneath. And because the homes in Rafa are very close, you often can’t demolish one without damaging others."
Sternberg described Rafa as a refugee camp "with an underground city of tunnels" through which the Palestinians transport anti-aircraft missiles and long-range Katyusha rockets.
"You can’t ignore such a thing," he insisted.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak denied this week that any weapons were being smuggled to the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
Sternberg said the attack on the American convoy demonstrates that there is little difference between Palestinian terrorists and radical Islamists.
"The terrorists here are the same as those in Iraq, it has nothing to do with the occupation," he said.
Gold pointed out that the Web site of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization, has references to the writings of Sheikh Qardhawi, the former spiritual head of the Moslem Brotherhood, and Sheikh Suliaman el-Ulwan, who appears in al Qaeda videos.
"What ties the Muzahadeen fighting the U.S. Army in Iraq to Hamas in the Gaza Strip is that they receive their religious inspiration from the very same sources," Gold observed. "And there are at least another half-dozen top Saudi clerics who appear on the Web sites of both Hamas and the anti-American Iraq Muzahadeen. Their entire orientation is anti-American and anti-Western. This attack is not just because of the latest pro-Israel American statements."
Even as Israeli troops continued for several days searching for the tunnels, Sternberg said Palestinians continued to fire mortar shells at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.
"From Rosh HaShanah until today, we have suffered from 57 mortar shells," he said Wednesday. "One hit a house and caused a lot of damage. It was fired at 4:30 in the morning and it exploded in a hallway was the family was in their bedrooms. It was a great miracle that they were not hurt."
Sternberg said that since the outbreak of Palestinian terror attacks three years ago, about 800 Jews have moved to the Gaza Strip, swelling their numbers to 8,000.
"We don’t intend to give up and are widening our settlements," he said. "And with Sukkot, we have a lot of tourists from around the world. Today, 130 Jewish people from New York came with [Brooklyn Assemblyman] Dov Hikind."