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Gaza Bomb Threatens Peace Moves

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SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP

A Jewish settler is comforted by an Israeli soldier near the bombed school bus

A bomb attack aimed at children would never pass unpunished by Israel, which is why efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire have once again been confounded. Two Israeli teachers were killed and nine people — at least five of them children — were wounded when a mortar shell exploded near a school bus in the Gaza Strip on Monday. It was the most serious attack against Israeli settlers during the current violence, and although three different groups claimed responsibility, the blast follows a pattern of similar attacks in the area by the Islamic Jihad, an Islamist faction opposed to the peace process. But despite denials on the Palestinian side, Israel blamed the attack on the "Tanzim" militia of Yasser Arafatĺs Fatah organization, and began blasting Fatah targets from helicopter gunships Monday night.

Israel has blamed Arafat's administration for previous terror attacks during the current violence on the grounds that the PA earlier released a number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants from its prisons. The latest attack and the swift Israeli retaliation, which will in turn prompt further Palestinian retaliation, has once again ratcheted up a cycle of violence that had shown signs of slowing late last week after Arafat had appeared on Palestinian TV to order an end to firing on Israelis from territories under his control.

Arafat's Authority Challenged

Ordering a cease-fire without appearing to gain much in return was always going to test Arafat's political authority even among his own supporters, and not only the opposition Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions which have openly challenged Arafat's leadership but even the rank-and-file militiamen of his own Fatah organization have vowed to defy his cease-fire call. High-profile terror attacks have until now been the Islamists most effective weapon against any moves toward peace; they're not unpopular on the Palestinian street, and the rage they generate in Israel creates irresistible political pressure on the Israeli leadership for even tougher action against Palestinians — which in turn simply fuels the anger on the Palestinian street and further weakens Arafat's authority.

The Gaza attack also highlights the rationale for the unilateral "divorce" option touted by Israeli officials in recent weeks, in which Israel simply withdraws from those parts of the West Bank and Gaza that are difficult to defend, breaking economic ties and giving Arafat a patchwork Palestinian state. For Barak, ultimately, the principle of risking soldiers' lives in order to protect a handful of settlers deep inside hostile territory outside the borders of Israel proper is unappealing, and he's long advocated consolidating settlements in areas adjacent to Israel that can be annexed in order to create new, defensible borders. But that option is singularly unattractive for Arafat, for whom it would mean a tiny statelet lacking in territorial integrity and economic viability. Still, the latest attack shows that the fate of the Palestinians and their relationship with Israel is no longer simply in the hands of Arafat and Barak.