Tempting Fate in Gaza

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The killings of three Americans in Gaza Wednesday may produce serious and long-lasting repercussions for the Palestinians. The first Palestinian terror attack deliberately directed at a U.S. target in more than two decades marks a fateful decision by some element in the murky underworld of Gaza's terror cells to link the Palestinian struggle against Israel to the global jihad against the U.S. That provides ammunition for Ariel Sharon's efforts to persuade Washington that Israel and the U.S. face the same terror threat. More important, while countries like Syria and Iran can provide support for groups that conduct terror attacks on Israelis, it makes it harder for countries like Syria and Iran to continue to support Palestinian terror attacks. The rush by the Palestinian Authority to denounce the attack as "an ugly crime" and by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad to distance themselves from it signals that none of the major Palestinian groups sees much good coming from bombing Americans.

There was suspicion in Palestinian political circles on Wednesday that the attacks may even have been related more to the situation in Iraq than in Gaza — the Arab Liberation Front is a tiny Palestinian faction long allied with Saddam Hussein, which has a presence in both the West Bank and Gaza and has tended to hire militants from other groups to carry out attacks in its name. But the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah also has an active presence in Gaza, where its operatives have helped Hamas and other groups develop roadside-bomb technology and Qassam rockets.

Despite the fact that many Palestinians regard the U.S. as almost indistinguishable from Israel, even the radicals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have scrupulously avoided directly attacking American interests. Some in Hamas have long advocated targeting Americans to punish the U.S. for its support for Israel, and also in solidarity with the wider Islamist cause. But that view has never prevailed in the organization. Tempting the wrath of the superpower has not been considered a prudent political course even among the radical Islamist Palestinians, not least because of the impact this would have in the Arab world. Even many of the Arab regimes that have support the U.S. war on al-Qaeda still see Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians as a legitimate tactic of resistance to occupation, and have avoided lumping groups such as Hamas together with Bin Laden's networks. The U.S. had already persuaded European and Arab governments to crack down on these organizations, but after the Gaza bombing the pressure on the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be overwhelming.

The Gaza attack is an unmitigated catastrophe for the Palestinian Authority, which has been trying — mostly in vain — to persuade the U.S. to put pressure on the Sharon government over settlements, the separation fence, and the conditions of occupation, while fudging its own obligations under President Bush's "roadmap" to close down Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. The PA has vowed to investigate the attack with the help of the FBI. Such a probe could prove uncomfortable, given the fact that the attackers appear to have been aware of the schedule of the American convoy. U.S. officials traveling into PA-controlled areas typically coordinate their movements with Palestinian security officials. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, however, the U.S. will now brook no further excuses from the PA for failing to go to war on the radical groups. But with Palestinian politics is disarray, the ability of the PA to carry out an effective crackdown is far from certain even if PA leaders find the political will — and until now, the political consensus in the PA is that the radical groups have to be persuaded, by national consensus, to end terror attacks.

The Gaza attack is also a reminder of the dangerous fracturing of centralized command and control among Palestinian terror cells. Even during the ill-fated "hudna" cease-fire negotiated between the PA and representatives of Hamas, JI and the al-Aksa Brigades, it was clear that localized cells — such as the Hamas operatives in Hebron and some of the Al-Aksa structures in the northern West Bank, which Israeli intelligence believes had been penetrated by elements from Hezbollah — retained the capability and the intent to violently veto agreements reached by their political leadership. The attack in Gaza may be a sign that at least some elements in the terror cells have taken up the banner of the Iraqi insurgency, or al-Qaeda or Hezbollah — or some combination. Washington's call for all U.S. personnel to leave Gaza suggests an expectation that there may be more to come, and that Gaza, and possibly the West Bank may become a new front in America's war on terrorism.