More Pressure On Mideast ?Ceasefire? Agreement

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire agreement appeared to be disintegrating on Monday as two powerful bombs exploded in a Tel Aviv suburb just hours after three Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli assassination operation.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the region last week, called for seven days of calm to test an agreement mediated by CIA chief George Tenet more than two weeks ago. But the ceasefire - the first step in the process of returning the two sides to the negotiating table - has yet to materialize

Five people were lightly injured when two cars exploded within minutes of each other in the town of Yehud near Tel Aviv airport. The first bomb exploded just a few yards from a children's day care center; the second blew up in a residential driveway.

It was not immediately clear if the bombs had been placed underneath the vehicles or inside the cars. The two devices were estimated to contain 20 pounds of explosives and nails each.

A group calling itself the People's Front claimed responsibility for the blasts and said they were in retaliation for the overnight killing of three activists in an Israeli helicopter strike on the vehicle in which they were traveling near the PA-controlled city of Jenin.

Witnesses were quoted as saying that at least six missiles were fired at the car killing Walid Sudki Bashrat, Sameh Nuri Abu Hameish and Mohammed Ahmed Bashrat - reportedly on Israel's wanted list and considered "one of the most dangerous" terrorists in the West Bank.

The attack seemed to indicate a resumption of Israel's policy of executing "pinpoint" operations to kill Palestinians believed to be responsible for or planning to carry out terror attacks.

The Israeli army refused to comment, but security sources said that the liquidation of Bashrat had prevented a terrorist attack against Israeli civilians.

Bashrat, who had been jailed in Israel from 1993-97 after admitting to being trained to carry out terrorist attacks, worked for Hamas in prison, carrying out violent "investigations" on fellow prisoners whom he suspected of cooperating with Israel.

After leaving prison he had joined the Palestinian Authority police, but continued to work with Hamas, which rejects any negotiated settlement with Israel.

Security sources said that Bashrat had been involved in "the initiation, preparation, and execution of several Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks in the last few months."

Those included planting a bomb in Netanya, a suicide bombing in Hadera in May and shooting attacks.

"Recently, Bashrat had been preparing suicide bombers for attack within Israel, seven of which were already being planned," a source said, adding that Bashrat's name and whereabouts had been send to the PA, but he had not been arrested.

A spokesman for Islamic Jihad, Nafez Azam, condemned the attack as an "ugly crime," and said his organization would "not forget the blood of its martyrs."

PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's advisor Nabil Abu Rudeinah, told reporters that, "if Israel follows a policy of assassinating Palestinian militants it will compromise the ceasefire," while PA Cabinet Secretary Ahmad Abdel Rachman accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of "state terrorism."

But Israeli Environment Minister Tzahi Hanegbi indirectly confirmed the Israeli action and said Israel had acted to defend its citizens.

"When the Palestinian Authority does not fulfill its commitments, notably by preventing violence and terrorism, the army acts to ensure the defense of Israeli citizens," Hanegbi said in a radio interview.

On Sunday, a Hamas militant and a PA police officer were killed in an exchange of gunfire with Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army said it had found bombs with the by activists' bodies, which it said the two had been on their way to plant along roads used by soldiers and civilians. A PA official accused Israel of ambushing the Palestinians on purpose to escalate the situation.

Arafat, Peres Meet

The apparent collapse of the ceasefire agreement happened after a weekend meeting between Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the Socialist International convention in Lisbon, Portugal.

It was the highest-level meeting between the two sides since Sharon took office in February.

According to reports emerging from the meeting, Peres told Arafat that there would be no moving forward on the provisions of the agreement mediated by Tenet or the implementation of the Mitchell committee's recommendations before there is a complete halt to violence and incitement.

Later in his speech, Arafat accused Israel of destroying the Palestinian economy, humiliating the Palestinian people and choosing settlements and occupation to peace. He also repeated his call for the deployment of an international observer force in the disputed territories.