Although Israeli Arabs were blamed for two car bombs that exploded Sunday — less than 24 hours after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed a revised land-for-security accord — a terrorist infrastructure in the territories “in all probability” made the attacks possible, according to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval.
Shoval, who returned from Israel Monday night, said he suspected that a terrorist infrastructure planned the attacks and provided the wherewithal to carry them out. This, he said, makes implementation of the new agreement all the more important.
Like the Wye River Memorandum on which it was based, the new agreement calls on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorist activity in the territories.
“Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak said a few weeks ago that although he did not want these incidents to derail the peace process, the continuation of the peace process was contingent upon the Palestinian Authority acting against terrorist infrastructures,” Shoval told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Washington.
“Although the Palestinian Authority has worked quite well where it had knowledge of planned terrorist attacks … it has not acted effectively against the terrorist infrastructure. This becomes more important now than before, especially if [Palestinian terrorists] are using Israeli Arabs.”
Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat insisted in a meeting Monday with Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin that his police have been aggressively combating terrorist activity, arresting a large number of suspects and confiscating illegal weapons.
Israeli authorities said the investigation of the three Israeli Arabs killed in the car bombings, as well as the arrest of an Israeli Arab on charges of murdering two young hikers in Megiddo last week, leads them to believe that all four were members of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Although that is a legitimate organization involved in community work, senior security sources told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they were concerned about this trend of extremism in the movement. Like Shoval, they expressed concern over the connection of some of its members with Islamic terrorist organizations in the territories.
But Israeli leaders across the political spectrum were also quick to stress that only a small number of Israel’s 1 million Israeli Arabs are believed connected to terrorist activity. And Israeli Arab leaders rushed to put out statements deploring the car bombings and cautioning that their constituents could be wrongly accused.
“These attacks have harmed our community and have given the right wing and the security apparatus the weapon they need to doubt us and to say we are fifth-class citizens,” said Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset.
A right-wing member of the Knesset, Benny Elon of the National Religious Party, told The Jewish Week that “the majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal to the state.” But he said that those who are following the militant extremists have been “incited day and night by Knesset members, official Palestinian papers and TV.”
He said their message is that Israeli Arabs are “proud Palestinians and that their identity as Israelis is only temporary.”
The first car bomb exploded in Tiberias, seriously injuring a 73-year-old woman pedestrian and killing the two Israeli Arabs in the vehicle. The second occurred minutes later in a parking lot in Haifa. The Israeli Arab in the car was killed; there were no other injuries.
Five Israeli Arabs were arrested the next day on suspicion of involvement in the attacks.
The judge in the case called the confidential material presented by authorities a “ticking time bomb” and imposed a gag order on many of the details. At the request of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, that the men be held as long as possible, the judge ordered the suspects detained an additional 11 days.
The Shin Bet said questioning the men would take more time in light of a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court Monday that forbids the use of physical pressure during the questioning of suspects. (See story on page 52.)
Shoval said the new accord, signed Sunday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik and therefore known as the Sharm Agreement, is designed to clear up disagreements that arose in the Wye River Memorandum.
“It is intended to make sure that things not complied with will be complied with, and it has created a more positive atmosphere between the sides,” he said. “It will now make it easier to proceed to the really important issues that come up in the permanent status negotiations.”
Those talks, which are slated to start in the coming days, are to resolve the future of Palestinian refugees, Palestinian statehood, Israel’s borders, water allocation, Jewish settlements in the territories and the future of Jerusalem. The Sharm Agreement calls for the two sides to develop an agreement in principle by February and a comprehensive settlement by next September.
Shoval said that if an agreement in principle can be worked out, “it will be easier — although still very difficult — to deal with the different subjects in the permanent-status negotiations.”
“It will also make it possible, in case there is not agreement on each and every item, to prevent the whole process from breaking down. So if there is a disagreement on the refugee issue, it would not mean the process has come to an end, or that the sides will then have a green light to go ahead and do things unilaterally.”
He added that Barak put the main emphasis on the final-status negotiations and “not necessarily on each and every iota in the Sharm Agreement, which is, after all, just a stepping stone on the way [to a complete accord].”
But the agreement came under attack from Israel’s right-wing. Elon said he understood it to mean that the Palestinians could build with impunity in the territories but that Israeli settlers would be stopped. He said this accord “makes the same mistake [as Wye] by believing that the Palestinians really want peace and that they don’t just want their independence.”
A spokeswoman for the settlers, Yehudit Tayar of the Yesha Council, said the Sharm Agreement’s call for Israeli troops to withdraw from another 11 percent of the territories by Jan. 20 would isolate many settlements.
“It’s not just the communities that would be besieged, it’s their infrastructure — the water and the roads,” she said.
Tayar said a letter in behalf of the 92,000 children in the settlements had been sent this week to President Bill Clinton to protest his calling the settlements an obstacle to peace. She said he made that assertion in a letter to the Palestinians carried by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who helped bridge the final gaps in the Sharm Agreement and witnessed the signing along with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Two days after the signing, an Egyptian ran up to Mubarak as he was riding in a motorcade and stabbed him in the hand. The man was shot dead by security police and Mubarak was only slightly hurt.