Suicide attack brings pressure on Sharon to reverse withdrawal

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel's government has come under pressure to suspend an agreement to withdraw from four cities in the West Bank in wake of a Palestinian suicide bombing on an Israeli bus.

Officials said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been besieged by most of his Cabinet to delay a withdrawal from at least two West Bank cities scheduled for Thursday. The two cities expected to be evacuated by Israel's military were Jericho and Kalkilya.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack. The Hamas bomber was identified as a 29-year-old Islamic cleric and teacher from Hebron, Middle East Newsline reported.

"There is tremendous pressure for Israel to cancel all agreements with the Palestinian Authority and launch a major operation against [PA Chairman Yasser] Arafat and terrorist organizations," a senior official said. "There is a call for immediate action."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has suspended all military talks between Israel and the PA and imposed a siege on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Officials said the two sides were to have discussed an imminent withdrawal from Jericho and Kalkilya.

On late Tuesday, a Palestinian suicide attacker, who carried a bomb of five kilograms, blew himself up on a crowded Israeli bus in northern Jerusalem. At least 19 people were killed and more than 100 others, many of them youngsters, were injured in the attack.

The Israeli bus was heading from the Western Wall toward Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the city. Officials said several of those injured were believed to have been U.S. citizens.

The bombing was the bloodiest since Palestinian insurgency groups declared a truce on June 29. Last week, Hamas and the ruling Fatah movement staged two suicide strikes in Israel and in the West Bank city of Ariel.

"We are at a crossroad," Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said. "This is not just another attack. This is the attack that will determine whether we will go toward peace or head for a struggle."

Officials said most Cabinet ministers, particularly from the ruling Likud Party, want the prime minister to suspend all military redeployment in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But they said Sharon would not seek to undermine the Palestinian Authority, including Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, without the approval of the United States.

Overnight Wednesday, senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, called Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and urged restraint.

"Sharon will likely order additional military operations in the West Bank, but won't stop the process," a senior official said.

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