For six weeks, Israelis had a break from the gruesome scenes of religious volunteers gathering pieces of human flesh for burial in the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack, like the blast that rocked Allenby Street in downtown Tel Aviv on Thursday. So why, suddenly, was the relative calm in the Middle East shaken by two suicide bombs in as many days?
>SECURITY SOURCES tell NBC News that it’s no coincidence that the two suicide blasts occurred after more than a month of relative calm.
Other than the usual message from Palestinian militant groups that life in Israel has no more than an illusion of security, officials here see a Palestinian rivalry behind this week’s attacks.
The bombings, including one in northern Israel that killed a policeman on Wednesday, coincide with high-level talks between Israelis and Palestinians, who are taking small steps toward an agreement on a cease-fire plan to end more than two years of almost constant violence.
On the sidelines of a “quartet” meeting this week — organized by the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union — Palestinian delegate Nabil Shaath offered Israeli a staged cease-fire agreement. Palestinian officials say the plan includes a Palestinian promise to declare an end to attacks on Israeli civilians — in return for an Israeli pledge to end targeted assassinations on Palestinians it says are terrorists. Then both sides could consider a second phase, when all violence would stop.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, also at the quartet meeting, reacted coolly to the proposal, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later rejected it outright. But observers note that at least the two sides are talking.
TRIGGERING AN ATTACK
The very fact that the meeting took place — showing there is ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on security issues — was enough to trigger the timing of the two suicide attacks this week, say security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Coupled with a recent declaration from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s increasingly pragmatic Fatah party — resolving to end attacks on Israeli civilians — hard-line Palestinian extremist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are outraged, the sources say.
“This kind of situation is anathema for Islamic Jihad and Hamas,” said one source.
The same source said Israel’s military crackdown on the West Bank and parts of Gaza has been highly successful in taking “60 percent of Hamas and Islamic Jihad out of service. The remaining 40 percent is not as organized and weaponized, but angry as hell. And they are not going to buy into the peace movement,” he said.
After the first suicide attack this week, some Israeli media speculated that the militant groups were seeking to hit at Israel during a moment of vulnerability for the Jewish state — as talk of a U.S. war with Iraq dominated the airwaves and Israelis were reminded of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s retaliation against them during the 1991 Gulf War.
But officials here say the timing of the latest suicide attacks is much more about the spoilers of peace moving in at a well-calculated time to send a signal to Israel and moderate Palestinians that they won’t play ball — even in times of peace.
NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in the Middle East.