A holiday-eve car bomb that took aim squarely at the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire put fresh pressure on a tough-talking Ariel Sharon to abandon truce understandings when a deadline expires Tuesday night, but his defense minister nonetheless ordered a choke-hold of tanks withdrawn from three key Palestinian cities in a confidence-building measure.
Sharon and his cabinet late Sunday gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a 48-hour deadline to show compliance with truce terms agreed upon less than a week ago.
The powerful 12 kilogram explosive bearing a potentially deadly cargo of assault-rifle bullets was the such attack in Israel since a long-awaited meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres last Wednesday yielded mutual pledges to implement a cease-fire.
Perhaps more significantly, it was the forst bombing within Israel proper since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11. The Bush administration has pressed Sharon and Arafat to quell local bloodshed in order to facilitate Washington's bid to forge a broad coalition against terrorism.
Despite the bomb's proximity to crowds of Jerusalem shoppers making purchases for the Jewish Sukkot festival, the explosion caused no physical casualties. It threatened, however, to land a telling blow to the cease-fire, already hobbled by Arab anger over 17 Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli troops
The bombing drew strong words from Sharon and his aides. Army Radio quoted the prime minister as saying Monday that Arafat's Palestinian Authority had failed to make good on a single one of its pledges under the terms of the truce. Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said Monday "A ceasefire with car bombs is not a ceasefire that is acceptable for the people of Israel."
Hardliners in Sharon's Likud party went further, declaring that the bombing, the apparent work of the Islamic Jihad, meant that the prime minister had no choice but to unleash crippling military force after the government's declared 48-hour trial period for Palestinian truce implementation expires Tuesday night.
"Beginning tomorrow [Tuesday] terrorists cannot be allowed any rest, even for a single moment," said Likud Public Security Minister Uzi Landau.
Later in the day, Landau's attention was elsewhere, as rioting broke out in two Israeli Arab towns during commemorations of the anniversary of last year's killing of 13 Arabs in bloody clashes with Israeli police. As demonstrators threw stones at police, who refrained from using lethal force to disperse them, Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer quietly ordered the crippling ring of armor withdrawn from the West Bank flashpoints of Ramallah, Nablus, and Qalqilya.
Additional measures to ease the closure were also ordered, with more to come if the level of violence in the territories does not show a dramatic rise.
In another sign of creeping progress toward a cease-fire that has been given scant chance of survival, the army's overall Gaza Strip commander held security coordination talks with senior Palestinian police officials Monday.
The State Department, offering indirect criticism of Israel's use of force since the cease-fire began, was more pointed when it came to the Jerusalem bombing.
"The Palestinian Authority, we believe, must take sustained and effective steps to preempt violence and to arrest those responsible for planning and conducting such acts of violence and terror," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Arafat, for his part, was giving no ground, defiantly accusing Israel of intentionally escalating violence in the territories since Peres and Arafat met last week to the staccato accompaniment of tank and small-arms fire. Speaking during a visit to Tunis, he made no mention of the car bomb, or of the easing of the closures.
"Despite the fact that we announced our peace initiative, there is a deliberate escalation from the Israeli side against our cities, villages and camps besides the tight military, economic and financial blockade," Arafat said.
Peres, meanwhile, found himself in the uncomfortable role of defending Arafat against far-rightists who said the cornerstone of their self-described peace plan was the removal from office of the Palestinian Authority chairman. Saying that Israel could expect a marked worsening of its plight if Arafat were deposed or otherwise replaced, Peres also touched on the often-sounded rightist contention that Arafat was the local cersion of Saudi-born suspected terror warlord Osama bin Laden.
"Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah are the bin Laden of the Middle East," Peres said, "and they need to be fought without compromise."
As the 48-hour deadline neared, Ha'aretz said in an editorial that the government must itself practice the restraint it preaches for the cease-fire to last.
"The numbers don't always tell the whole story. But the numbers of slain Palestinians in the few days since last Wednesday should raise serious questions on our side. Even if among the Palestinians there's a proven trend to cynically and intentionally exploit images of death and murder, and perhaps even more so because of it, the army's commanders must ask themselves why so many Palestinians became casualties in the past few days."
Ha'aretz notes that the government "decided on Saturday night to give Arafat more time to prove how serious he is. It is incumbent on the government too, in such critical times, to demand the same test of restraint from itself."
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