PASSOVER SLAUGHTER AS HAMAS TAKES OVER
Just two hours before Israel’s newly elected legislature was sworn in on the afternoon of April 17, Palestinian Muslim terrorists carried out the deadliest homicide attack since a city bus was blown up near my Jerusalem home in February 2004. Nine Israeli civilians were slaughtered in the Tel Aviv attack, and over 40 others wounded, a half dozen of them severely. The atrocity—termed “legitimate self-defense” by the new Hamas-led Palestinian government—was all the more insidious in that it was carried out at a popular local falafel restaurant in south Tel Aviv in the early afternoon, when the eatery was packed with patrons of all ages, including a mother with her young children who was slain in the attack.
Israeli security officials said the atrocity, launched near the end of the Passover holiday week just one day after Easter, was undoubtedly ordered and paid for by the radical Shiite Muslim state of Iran, since it was carried out by the country’s proxy Palestinian terrorist force, Islamic Jihad. It came just two days after Iran’s extremist president indirectly vowed to use nuclear weapons to instantly wipe tiny Israel off of the world map.
The young Palestinian terrorist pulled on his suicide belt cord just as an alert security guard blocked his entrance into the crowded “Rosh Ha’ir (Mayor) restaurant, frequented by dozens of Chinese, Thai and African foreign workers and local Arabs as well as many regular Israeli customers. The very same restaurant had been struck by another terrorist blast only in mid-January, wounding over 20 people at that time.
The attacker was later identified as a 21 year old out of work waiter from the Palestinian town of Jenin, east of Netanya. With reports saying he may have actually been only 17 or 18 years old, authorities said he was one of the youngest attackers to ever slay Israeli civilians in a deadly suicide assault. Jenin, just east of the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, is a known Islamic Jihad stronghold. Israeli security forces entered the town the morning after the blast, arresting the bomber’s father and questioning other relatives. However they did not immediately destroy the family home as frequently occurs after such attacks—a controversial penalty that is thought to add an important incentive to discourage future deadly suicide assaults, but also produces international protests and additional Palestinian anger.
OLMERT VETOES MILITARY RESPONSE
One day after the heinous attack, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his security cabinet to discuss a possible response. Under his guidance, government ministers turned down army recommendations that a major “clean-out operation” be quickly launched, targeting known Islamic Jihad and other terrorist planning centers. Instead, government leaders decided that such an operation might grant some international political legitimacy to the new Hamas Palestinian Authority administration, a potential development that Israel is trying hard to avoid.
The enormous blast, which broke dozens of windows in buildings and vehicles around the stricken area, was the sixth carried out by the Islamic Jihad group over the past 14 months. It was hailed by hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who “celebrated” the blood-soaked attack in the streets, along with officials in Iran and the country’s proxy Hizbullah militia stationed in southern Lebanon.
A “farewell” video made by the youthful attacker was later shown on regional Arab media outlets, with the bomber boasting that he would cut short his life in order to avenge the detention of Palestinian terrorists held in various Israeli jails. He added ominously that “many more brave bombers are on the way.”
A foreshadow of his pre-taped statement was posted one day before the attack on the Islamic Jihad website. Group leader Ramadan Shallah was quoted as saying his terror cells were engaged in "nonstop efforts" to infiltrate Palestinian homicide bombers from Samaria and Judea into Israeli cities and towns. "The continuing crackdown against our resistance might limit this effort, but it's not going to stop it,” he vowed. One day after the Tel Aviv attack, the web site claimed that “70 other assaults are currently being planned against the Zionist enemy.”
HAMAS FAILS FIRST TEST
Israeli officials considered the major terrorist blast to be the first significant test for the new Hamas dominated Palestinian Authority government, sworn into office in early April. Ehud Olmert had earlier stated that the new Israeli government he is forming after his Kadima party captured nearly one forth of the Knesset seats in the March 28th Israeli national election would give Hamas up to one year to demonstrate that it had significantly changed it ways. After that period of time, he pledged to begin taking various unilateral steps designed to enhance Israeli security, especially uprooting some 80,000 Jews from their home in several isolated settlements in Judea and Samaria, and moving the controversial deterrence security barrier further to the east (measures that would actually weaken Israel, maintained his many critics).
In the wake of mid-April’s terrorist blast, the militant “Islamic Resistance Movement” (Hamas) only reinforced existing widespread suspicions and concerns that it is not prepared to reform itself now that it has assumed governing responsibilities, as some had hoped, but would instead cling tenaciously to its unholy religious war against Israel.
Confirmation that the blood-stained Hamas enemy had not changed its spots came swiftly after the Tel Aviv attack, when official Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri termed the deadly assault "a natural result of the continued Israeli crimes against our people." He added straightfaced that, "The Israeli occupation bears responsibility for the continuation of its aggression. Our people are in a state of self-defence and they have every right to use all means to defend themselves.” How killing and maiming dozens of civilian restaurant patrons engaged in nothing more sinister than eating lunch, some of them non-Israelis, is a legitimate act of “self defense” was not spelled out.
Adding weight to the Hamas government spokesman’s officially authorized, if absurd, statement, several other Hamas officials echoed his distorted contentions in the wake of the Tel Aviv attack. "We think that this operation is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal agression and siege committed against our people," said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the new Hamas-led PA Interior Ministry which controls the Oslo-sanctioned PA security forces. New PA Interrior Minister Sa’ed Siam had already stated upon taking his oath of office two weeks before that PA security forces would not attempt to thwart terror assaults upon Israeli civilians. “We will not put our sons in prison for political membership or resisting occupation,” he said, despite the fact that cracking down on Palestinian terrorist groups was a major component of the 2003 Road Map peace plan, which was officially accepted and endorsed by PA leaders and the Palestinian legislature.
Moments after the powerful Tel Aviv explosion was reported, Moussa Marzouk, a Hamas leader living abroad, told the Arab satellite Al-Jazeera television news station that, "The Israeli side must feel what the Palestinian feels, and the Palestinian defends himself as much as he can." Again, how sending an obviously indocrinated young Palestinian man to indiscrimately slaughter civilian Israeli and foreign restaurant patrons, transforming some Israeli children into orphans, bolsters “Palestinian defenses” was hardly clarified.
Even the spokesman for the so-called “moderate” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh refused to renoucne the Tel Aviv attack, terming it “a result of the continuing Israeli occupation.”
Israeli officials were at least relieved to hear overall Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas denounce the attack, even if rather feebly and indirectly. He himself refused to issue a verbal statement, but did ask one of his senior aids, former Oslo peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, to release a public condemnation of the suicide outrage. Erekat mouthed the standard post-attack verbiage, noting that homicide bombings against civilian targets mainly result in “harming Palestinian interests.”
Israeli officials were comforted by the fact that American and European officials upbraided the new Hamas PA administration for attempting to justify the Tel Aviv attack. The White House spokesman called it "a despicable act of terror for which there is no excuse or justification.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack asked all foreign governments who have maintained public contacts with Hamas—mainly Russia—to use those connections “to urge the group to abide by the formula outlined by the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers three months ago: to renounce violence, to recognize Israel and to abide by the Palestinian Authority's previous international commitments.” Kremlin leaders earlier admitted that they had tried, and failed, to pursuade jihad-obsessed Hamas leaders to alter their radical practices and goals.
GATHERING WAR CLOUDS
Israeli officials are increasingly worried over growing signs that a new full-scale Middle East war may be drawing near, instigated by the Muslim fundamentalist country of Iran with backing from Syria, the burgeoning Lebanese Hizbullah militia, the Al Qaida international terrorist network, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups. Such a conflict, they warn, could plunge the entire region into utter chaos, possibly resulting in the overthrow of pro-West regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. More immediately, most regional oil supplies to the world would probably be quickly cut off at the outbreak of such a war—an action that Iran has repeatedly threatened to take in recent weeks, launching small submarines that can lay mines in the gulf outlet. Such a conflict would probably also spark a severe international economic crisis that could end up pitting Russia and China (an increasingly close ally of the Iranian regime, whose oil is essential to the dazzling Chinese economy) against the United States and the European Union.
During a United Nations debate which began just hours after the Tel Aviv attack, Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman said the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, backed by Syria and Iran, had issued a “declaration of war” against Israel. He warned that “a dark cloud is looming above our region, and it is metastasizing as a result of the statements and actions by leaders of Iran, Syria and the newly elected government of the Palestinian Authority.” Gillerman went on to urge his fellow UN ambassadors to “listen carefully and take at face value these recent statements, which are clearly declarations of war.”
Israeli analysts said Ambassador Gillerman was especially referring to recent hostile statements by Iran’s extremist Shiite Islamic leaders, especially radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He told a mid-April “Conference on Palestine” in Tehran that his regime would insure that Israel is quickly annihilated in the near future, alluding to the use of nuclear weapons to accomplish that horrendous goal. He said the Jewish State would meet its doom during one single “storm” that would swiftly strike it. This came after another speech in which he pledged full support for a renewed Palestinian attrition war, saying such terrorist assaults would set the stage for Israel’s final destruction.
During a meeting at the conference with overall Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Ahmadinejad pledged to send 50 million dollars of immediate aid to shore up the crumbling PA. He urged other Muslim governments to contribute as well in order to “support the Palestinian government as it works to liberate Jerusalem.” It was the first time that Iran has offered open funding to the cash-strapped PA, which has witnessed its foreign US, EU, Canadian and other tax-based donations dry up in the wake of the Hamas takeover. Israeli leaders are also continuing to withhold around $55 million in taxes and customs payments that are collected on behalf of the PA each month (the money has been placed in an interest bearing account in hopes that Hamas will not be long in running the PA).
One day after the Tehran conference ended, the small US-allied Gulf state of Qatar announced that it would also send $50 million of emergency aid to shore up the Hamas-run PA, which some analysts said was probably “protection money” that Qatari leaders hope might help pacify growing Al Qaida-fanned Islamic fundamentalist sentiments in their own land. This came as the Baathist Assad regime in Damascus pledged to open bank accounts to accept public donations for the Palestinian people.
Media reports said earlier pledges of financial support from most Arab League member states have mostly not been forthcoming, probably because regional Arab dictatorships do not really wish to bolster a radical Muslim fundamentalist government that was freely elected into office by Palestinian voters. Meanwhile officials in Russia—busy restoring its once solid ties in the Arab world—announced that they would send an unspecified amount of emergency aid to the PA. Several days later, the Kremlin added to growing Israeli anxieties about Russia’s ultimate ambitions by announcing the sale of 29 mobile air defense missiles to Iran, which could be used to knock down Israeli or American aircraft attempting to strike at the country’s burgeoning nuclear program.
Israeli analysts say a new Mideast conflict could be sparked off by growing chaos and poverty inside the Palestinian zones, which would then be highlighted by Iran and others as an excuse to ratchet up assaults upon Israel. As a result of foreign aid donations drying up in recent weeks, the PA is already unable to pay monthly salaries to over 140,000 PA employees, nearly half of them “security” personnel serving in the regular police forces or in one of several undercover agencies set up by the late Yasser Arafat. The lack of PA paychecks, which feed nearly one in three Palestinian families, led to increasingly violent demonstrations during April. The largest, in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, saw dozens of masked PA policemen briefly seizing a government building on April 15, demanding immediate payment of their overdue salaries.
OLMERT FORMS A GOVERNMENT
Amid April’s renewed terrorist violence and threats of more trouble just ahead, Ehud Olmert continued his efforts to patch together a viable coalition government. As I noted was a likely possibility last month, opinion polls in the end proved overly optimistic as to how many seats his new centrist party would capture. Instead of the over one-third of parliament seats he was predicted to secure in most February surveys, Olmert’s Kadima party ended up with just under one-forth of the seats—29. This means he will need to draw several parties into his coalition quilt, the most likely being the Labor party, which captured 20 seats. But Labor new leader, Amir Peretz, confounded Kadima negotiators by demanding to be named Finance Minister, meaning the ruling party would not control overall spending or budget demands in the new government. A counterproposal to name Peretz Foreign Minister was balked at by the ministry professional staff, which noted he has absolutely no foreign policy experience and does not speak English very well.
Olmert was struggling to meet the financial demands of two other parties he hopes to include in his new government, the religious Shas party and the election’s surprise victors, the seven-seat Pensioner’s party, which is holding out for large spending increases for Israel’s growing retired community. Shas leaders in particular seemed eager to join his coalition in order to secure government money for their struggling private school system, but they made clear they will leave if Olmert attempts to carry out his unilateral settlement uprootings pledge in the coming years.
With the drums of conflict and even war being beaten ever more loudly in the troubled Mideast region, it is heartening to recall that Israel’s God is planning not the destruction of His special covenant land and people, but their ultimate salvation—when they finally turn to Him: “For thus the Lord God, the holy one of Israel has said, ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength.’” (Isaiah 30:15).