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Last year's terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of three American employees of a security firm who were guarding diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Israel, sparked much anger within the higher echelons of the American administration. The diplomats were part of a "peace delegation," as a State Department spokesman put it, which went to Gaza to offer aid to Palestinians.

As the convoy passed through the Beit Lahiya intersection on October 15, 2003, at around 11:00 A.M., moving from the Erez crossing toward the city of Gaza along the main road, it was welcomed by an explosive charge weighing several dozen kilograms.

The diplomats were in the first and third bullet-proof cars in the convoy - which had diplomatic license plates - and escaped unharmed. The Palestinian policemen who were escorting the convoy were also hurt. Only the security guards who were in the second car - which was blown apart in the explosion - were killed.

The attack on the American convoy was out of the ordinary, because dozens of delegations operate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on behalf of European and American aid organizations, and they almost never come to harm. The foreign organizations aid Palestinians, and like foreign media crews, they enjoy a quasi-immunity in the territories.

Palestinian spokesmen, and mainly Yasser Arafat, hastened to condemn the attack on the American convoy. "It was not directed against the Americans - but against the Palestinian people," said Arafat.

The Palestinian Authority and teams from the U.S. defense establishment immediately launched an investigation to determine who wanted to attack the American convoy, if the perpetrators' intent had really been to attack an Israeli military vehicle, and if the American security men were killed by mistake.

The first conclusion was that it was no mistake. The road where the attack took place is not used by the Israel Defense Forces. It is an exclusively Palestinian transportation route, along which hundreds of Arab vehicles pass each day. The people who set off the explosive charge knew exactly whom they were attacking. They evidently stood by the roadside, spotted the cars with the diplomatic plates and aimed for them.

Sources in the Palestinian defense establishment tried to make a case against this assumption and repeatedly raised the hypothesis that the attackers intended to hit an Israeli target. But the Americans rebuffed the attempt out of hand. They demanded a thorough investigation by the Palestinian Authority that would shed light on the circumstances of the incident and would also lead to a trial in which the guilty parties would be brought to justice.

Videotaped interviews

In the aftermath of the incident, the U.S. government suspended a sizable part of its aid activities in the territories, especially in Gaza. American diplomats received instructions not to enter Gaza. The American consul in Jerusalem and his subordinates have also made do since that time with visits in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Abu Dis and Bethlehem, and have avoided more far-off areas of the West Bank.

Significant damage was done to the Palestinians. Numerous projects, the progress of which requires consultation of American experts, were suspended. Among these projects is a water desalinization and purification plant in the Gaza Strip. There have also been disruptions in the distribution of grants to college students, as it was impossible to interview the candidates. In place of face-to-face interviews, video equipment was used.

The spokesman at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv said of equal importance was the severe loss of trust between the American administration and the ranking members of the Palestinian Authority. Senior American officials issued repeated demands to the Palestinian Authority to find out who was behind the incident at the Beit Lahiya intersection, who dispatched the bombers and why. The Palestinian investigation seemed less than serious. Why?

As the damage caused by the suspension of American aid increased, so too did the curiosity: Why was the Palestinian leadership willing to pay such a high price simply to avoid disclosing the identity of the guilty parties and putting them on trial? Was some mysterious factor involved that made it impossible to complete the Palestinian investigation?

In February, 2004, four residents of the Jabalya refugee camp who were members of the popular opposition committees, were accused of attacking the American convoy and were put on trial. The indictment stated that they had attacked the convoy by mistake, and that their real intent had been to attack IDF tanks. But no once took the indictment seriously. Even officers in the Palestinian defense establishment told journalists, off the record, that the trial of the four defendants was a show meant to appease the Americans. All of the arrested men were released.

About three weeks ago, General Mussa Arafat, head of the National Security Forces and Military Intelligence in Gaza, told a Reuters correspondent that the Palestinian defense establishment was aware of the identity of the attackers, and that the information was also in the possession of the Americans. Why, then, weren't the attackers arrested? General Arafat replied that due to the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian security forces could not permit themselves to take action against the guilty parties. Such an action could spark internal wars and squabbles. Following the report, General Arafat denied having said any such thing.

Ranking Palestinian Authority officials know the solution to the mystery, but lack clear proof. What's more, they are afraid of talking about it in public. Almost certainly, the solution is that the explosive charge was indeed intended to cause American casualties, but the people behind the attack intended to devalue the status of the man considered to be closest to the Americans in the Gaza Strip. This is Mohammed Dahlan, once described as the most powerful strongman in Gaza. The Preventive Security Service, which Dahlan created and also led, received widespread assistance from the United States. Dahlan has maintained contact with American government agencies and authorities, and any disruption of the relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority harms him.

The identity of the parties that would like to hurt Dahlan in the Gaza Strip is also fairly well known. They are the commanders of the other Palestinian Authority-affiliated defense forces, mainly General Mussa Arafat and General Ghazi Jabali, the former police commander.

In the past year, the heads of these forces have fought an all-out war with Dahlan that has included shootings, murders, kidnappings and the occupation of military headquarters and offices. The attack on the American convoy was, then, part of the violent struggle between the various organizations in Gaza, which use local gangs as their proxies.

The Palestinians were not able to investigate the incident - and to this day are prepared to pay dearly for this, in the form of the suspended American aid - because it is obvious to them what will happen if they put on trial the persons who set off the bomb. These persons are liable to offer details on the identity of who sent them, at which point the investigation would lead to high-ranking public figures. All of this was already known, of course, to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who gave instructions to stop the investigation.

The affair could also influence developments during the post-Arafat period. In the absence of the chairman, the balance of forces in Gaza will be upset. The status of those who received Arafat's full backing will be severely weakened, and the status of others will be reinforced. This will happen across the board, in all of the Palestinian systems, but in Gaza, where tension between the various organizations is at the breaking point, all-out pandemonium could break out.