US caught in Gaza crossfire

20 October 2003
A roadside bomb destroyed an armour-plated jeep carrying US diplomats and CIA personnel as it passed in convoy through the northern Gaza Strip on 15 October, killing at least three Americans. The blast occurred as the three-car convoy drove past a petrol station on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, on Gaza's main north-south road. As Israeli forces responded by sending tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships into the nearby towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, ostensibly to help the US evacuate the dead and wounded, a second bomb exploded in the central Gaza Strip, injuring three Israeli soldiers.

'We strongly condemn this incident regardless of who is behind it and we express deep regret over the killing and injury,' Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) said after the attack, joining Palestinian officials in calling for a joint US-Palestinian team to investigate the circumstances of the bombing.

Initial reports that US special envoy John Wolf was travelling in the convoy were later dismissed, but the killings are likely to turn the attention of Washington to Gaza, where violence has escalated dramatically since the beginning of October. The politically sensitive territory of the West Bank has held the attention of international peace negotiators recently, as Tel Aviv presses forward with the construction of its 'security fence', which corrals Palestinian communities located close to Israeli settlements and the 1967 border. The US on 14 October vetoed a UN Security Council resolution urging Israel to halt construction of the barrier - the only country to oppose the motion.

Gaza, on the other hand, has increasingly become a dumping ground for Israel's security problems. Human rights groups have condemned a decision to expel 15 Palestinians held without charge in West Bank prisons to the Gaza Strip, a tactic approved in principle last year by the Israeli high court. The decision came as Israeli forces launched a fresh incursion into the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza on 14 October, wounding 20 people. An earlier raid on 10 October killed eight Palestinians, including two children, while bulldozing of houses left 1,200 people homeless, according to UN officials. The Israeli army says the operations are aimed at destroying tunnels used to smuggle arms into the camp from the other side of the Egyptian border. Cairo said the claims were 'without foundation'.

Observers on both sides waited for an official reaction from the White House to the Gaza bombing. The US has turned a blind eye to the recent Israeli incursions and, with the weak caveat that Israel should 'consider the consequences of its actions', State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US backed 'Israel's right to defend itself'. US pressure on both sides to reach agreement over the 'roadmap' to peace has also slackened. A principal sticking point is Abu Ala's insistence that he should negotiate with militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and not confront them as Israel has demanded. The apparent ill-health of Yasser Arafat has also raised questions about the future of the Palestinian leadership.

Frustration on all sides with the US-sponsored roadmap has led to the emergence of a parallel peace proposal. The unofficial plan - known as the Geneva Accord - was finalised at a meeting of Israeli opposition politicians and Palestinian representatives in Jordan in mid-October. Full details of the plan, which has been two years in the making, are due to be released in November when the initiative is formally adopted in Geneva. Many of the key points tackle sensitive issues that have been sidestepped by the US roadmap. A central proposal is a trade-off under which Palestinians give up the right of return for refugees in exchange for sovereignty over a number of sites in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif.

Two of the architects of the plan, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, have travelled to Egypt to try to raise international backing for the plan. The Israeli cabinet has rejected the proposed accord outright, but it has received a cautious welcome from a number of Palestinian politicians.

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