His country shaken anew by a triple suicide bombing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Friday that Israel is no longer bound by peace accords with the Palestinians and will not hand over large chunks of the West Bank by mid-1998, as once pledged.
The dramatic announcement came only a week before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits the region to try to resuscitate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - a mission that now appears doomed before it begins.
Palestinian leaders said Netanyahu used Thursday’s bombings in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall as an excuse to avoid the handover of land and to kill a peace process he never supported. A spokesman for Yasser Arafat denounced what he said was a serious Israeli violation of the peace accords and demanded immediate U.S. intervention.
The bombing - claimed by the Islamic militant group Hamas - killed seven people, including the three assailants, and wounded more than 190 people. One of those killed, Yael Botwin, 14, had dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship. Six of the wounded were Americans.
Immediately after the blasts, Israel reimposed its closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and confined Palestinians to their towns and villages.
Early Friday, Israeli troops arrested 69 suspected militants in West Bank areas still under Israeli control.
Israeli officials also suggested that Israeli troops might hunt down Islamic militants in areas controlled by the Palestinians.
Such a strike could wipe out any remaining cooperation between the two sides and could possibly lead to armed clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian police.
Netanyahu convened an emergency Cabinet meeting Friday to decide on Israel’s response and then announced the suspension of the three-stage troop pullback from much of the West Bank.
“We decided that the process … in which Israel, time after time, hands land to the Palestinian Authority, and then murderers use these territories as their launching ground, shall not continue,” Netanyahu told Israel TV.
“We declare here today that if the other side does not meet its obligations, we of course are exempt from meeting our obligations,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu accused Arafat of “not lifting a finger” to fight Hamas since the group carried out its first suicide attack in April 1994 in hopes of wrecking peacemaking.
“He kisses and hugs them (Hamas leaders), and the message they get from that is very clear, that they can operate in areas under his control,” Netanyahu said. “We expect him to act immediately in a different fashion.”
Despite ruling out surrender of the promised West Bank land, Netanyahu said nothing specific to indicate he would roll back other aspects of the peace accords or refuse future negotiations. The Palestinians now control the seven West Bank cities and share rule with the Israelis in more than 400 villages - about 27 percent of the land. Israel has sole control over the rest.
Arafat spokesman Nabil Abourdeneh called on the United States Friday come to the rescue immediately. “The Israeli government has full responsibility for this new, serious and dangerous violation, and we call on the United States to stop the deterioration of the situation in the region,” Abourdeneh said.
Arafat, who has denounced the bombings, bristled at the Israeli accusations, saying the suicide squad responsible for Thursday’s bloodshed came from abroad. “I am astonished, completely astonished, why the Israeli government is attacking us,”’ Arafat told CBS TV.
Israel has handed Arafat a list of dozens of Hamas activists it wants him to arrest. However, it appeared unlikely that Arafat would meet the demands.
Palestinians increasingly have lost hope that they can negotiate an acceptable peace agreement with the Netanyahu government. Sensing his people’s frustration, Arafat has tried to bring Hamas into the political fold to present a united front to Israel.
In some small, largely symbolic steps, the Palestinians detained two Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, arrested eight activists and shut down a Hamas newspaper in Gaza.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Hanan Ashrawi predicted Friday that there would be more violence as Palestinians lose hope.
“I think we are once again locked in a fatal embrace,” Ashrawi said. “It is particularly discouraging to see the loss of confidence in the peace process.”
Thursday’s bombing came only five weeks after a similar blast in a Jerusalem market killed 17, including two attackers. That blast was also claimed in the name of Hamas.
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