WASHINGTON – Faced with a sudden setback to Middle East peace prospects, Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted Friday that new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas bring under control terror groups that are killing Israelis.
“He’s got to get those terrorists under control,” Powell said after six Israelis were killed in a bombing and shooting attack at a Gaza crossing. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by cutting all contact with Abbas.
“I hope that’s just a temporary breach,” Powell said in an interview with Michael Reagan on the Radio America Network.
The terrorists are not going to destroy Israel. “It’s not going to accomplish anything. It hasn’t accomplished anything,” Powell said.
Among the three groups that claimed responsibility for the attack was the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which has ties to Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement.
Referring to Abbas by his familiar name, Powell said “Abu Mazen, who I know very well, knows full-well, and we’ve talked about it many times, that he’s got to get these terrorists under control.”
Powell did not criticize Sharon for his break with Abbas but praised the Israeli for welcoming the election of the new Palestinian leader and saying he wants to be a partner for peace with him.
The attacks do not move the Palestinians one step closer to having a state of their own, Powell said. “Abu Mazen understands that; so do other Palestinian leaders,” he said, “and they are going to have to work hard to get these groups under control.”
The United States will help with the rebuilding of Palestinian security forces, he said. But ultimately, Powell said, “It’s going to have to be something that the Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian people do.”
In New York, the Zionist Organization of America said the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade is the same group that celebrated Mazen’s election victory last week.
“Day after day, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas makes it clear that he is simply Yasser Arafat in a suit,” Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist organization, said in a statement. “At a minimum, he must condemn unequivocally any murder of Israeli Jews by Palestinian Arabs.”
The Israeli leadership had initially said it would not retaliate for Thursday’s attack and would give Abbas time to rein in the militants, though one Israeli lawmaker warned Abbas “does not have 100 days of grace.”
But later Friday, Sharon’s spokesman announced the Israeli leader was severing contact with Abbas until he acts against the militants.
“Israel informed international leaders today that there will be no meetings with Abbas until he makes a real effort to stop the terror,” Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv said.
Hopes had been high following Abbas’ election last Sunday to replace Yasser Arafat that the two sides would be able to return to the negotiating table. Israel and the United States had refused to deal with Arafat, accusing him of fomenting terror. Abbas is viewed as a moderate and pragmatic leader.
Shariv said Israel decided to cut ties because Thursday night’s bombing-and-shooting attack at the Karni crossing, Gaza’s main lifeline, was launched from a Palestinian Authority base.
Three Palestinian gunmen were killed in the attack. Hamas released a video showing the three militants holding rifles and standing in front of their organizations’ flags. The video then shows parts of the attack with a large explosion lighting the night sky.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat urged Israel to rethink its decision to cut ties. “We call on the Israelis to resume a meaningful peace process and dialogue because this is the only way to break the vicious cycle of violence,” Erekat said.
The Gaza attack marked the militants’ first major challenge to Abbas. Abbas said both the Karni attack and Israeli military operations in recent days “do not benefit the peace process.”
In a meeting Friday with Arab Israeli lawmakers, Abbas said he would not use force against the militants, as Israel demands, but would try to negotiate a truce.
Abbas reiterated this in a letter to Arab foreign ministers, laying out his plans for rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority.
“We have stressed that our commitment to the cease-fire will be based on a national Palestinian agreement,” said Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, who sent the letters signed by Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
During the meeting with Arab lawmakers, Abbas said he was upset with Israel for holding him responsible for attacks before he was even sworn in as Palestinian leader, Taleb Al Sana, one of the legislators at the meeting, told Israel Army Radio.
Israel and the United States have said they would judge the new Palestinian leader by his actions and give him time to prove himself.
But an Israeli Cabinet minister warned earlier Friday that time was running out for Abbas, the first sign that Israel had already lost patience.
“Israel will not accept a reality of continuous terror against innocent civilians. Abu Mazen does not have 100 days of grace,” said Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog at a funeral for victims of the Karni attack.
Israel closed the Karni and Erez crossings Friday, leaving Gaza largely isolated. Goods and humanitarian aid flow in to the fenced-in coastal strip through Karni, and the Erez crossing is used by aid workers, journalists, diplomats and some Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel. The Israeli military had eased checks at Karni in recent weeks to cut down on waiting periods.
A third major Gaza crossing near the southern town of Rafah, used by Palestinian travelers, was closed last month after an attack there killed five Israeli soldiers.
The closures renewed hardships for Palestinians just a week before a major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, a time for shopping and family visits. Many Palestinians, exhausted after more than four years of fighting, were grumbling about the militants targeting the crossings.
Adnan al-Halabi, who owns a small clothing store in the Jebaliya refugee camp, said he and other shopowners were expecting holiday merchandise to come in through Karni.
“This operation is going to leave a negative impact on our lives,” he said. “I am proud of the fighters who work for our interest, but they should think twice before choosing a target.”
Abbas is expected to try to co-opt the militants by asking Al Aqsa gunmen, many of them former policemen, to return to their jobs, and by offering Hamas a say in decision-making. The Islamic militant group has also said it would participate in legislative elections in July.
In coming weeks, Abbas is to conduct Egyptian-brokered talks with the militants in Gaza and in Cairo.
Militants are divided on how to respond to Abbas.
In the West Bank town of Deir al-Hatab, more than 2,000 Hamas supporters paraded through the streets after Friday prayers, re-enacting a suicide bombing on an Israeli bus and calling for the armed uprising to continue.
But the top Hamas official in the West Bank, Hassan Yousef, said the group is ready to suspend attacks as part of a deal with Abbas.
Israel intends to pull out of Gaza in the summer. Militant groups have been stepping up their attacks in recent months in an attempt to show that they are forcing the Israelis out.