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'Road Map' Also May Be a Casualty of the Bombing

'It's getting harder and harder to pretend' that the peace plan is viable, says a former U.S. envoy.

October 16, 2003|Sonni Efron and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The list of potential suspects in Wednesday's fatal attack on American diplomats in the Gaza strip is long. The crime scene is probably contaminated. And it could be months before the terrorists are fingered -- if ever, experts said Wednesday.

But another casualty of the attack was the already moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which took a lower priority Wednesday as the United States instead focused on its own security.

"It's getting harder and harder to pretend the 'road map' is viable," Edward "Ned" Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, said of the U.S.-backed peace initiative.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that absent evidence to the contrary, the United States had to assume that the convoy of bulletproof SUVs with special diplomatic license plates was the intended target of the attack.

The apparently sophisticated attack on U.S. officials who were entering a refugee camp to identify worthy Palestinian candidates for Fulbright scholarships also seemed designed to thwart the strategy of trying to reach out to Muslim youth.

Walker suggested that the Bush administration was likely to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in responding to the attack as he saw fit -- including raids in the Gaza Strip.

"This gives those who want the Israelis to be proactive all the ammunition they need to hit hard," he said. "And I daresay no American is going to gainsay that."

Many Palestinians were so dismayed that they refused to speak of the attack as anything other than a freak accident. The bombers must not have realized the convoy carried Americans, many argued.

"It's ugly, it's wrong, unprecedented, unexpected, an accident," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "Yes, the Palestinians are angry. They don't like America's full backing and support for Israel. But they've never put them as a target and will never put them as a target."

However, attacks on U.S. and Western diplomats are not unprecedented. In the last three years, vehicles carrying American, Danish, German and Canadian diplomats have come under Palestinian fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For months, the U.S. has been extremely concerned about the safety of officials visiting the West Bank or Gaza. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow considered traveling to the occupied territories during a visit to Israel last month, but the trip was canceled after a security team determined it was too dangerous, several senior U.S. officials said.

Moreover, a similar roadside car bombing on June 28 in the same area as Wednesday's attack narrowly missed a vehicle carrying U.S. Embassy personnel, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism specialist now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. No arrests have been made.

The investigation of Wednesday's attack, though aided by a team of FBI agents dispatched from Washington, "is going to be very, very hard," Levitt said. He noted that media photographs showed people walking through the bombing scene. "It looks like the crime scene is fully contaminated already."

U.S. officials declined to speculate about who masterminded the attack. The major groups that carry out suicide bombings have denied responsibility.

However, analysts and former diplomats offered a long list of potential suspects, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, various Palestinian groups and splinter cells of terrorist and nationalist groups that might have acted on their own.

Analysts and former diplomats said it was unlikely that the Palestinian Authority was involved, though some said it had been penetrated by various groups and that knowledge of the U.S. diplomats' itinerary could have been leaked.

The attacks followed incidents that prompted outrage among Palestinians against Israel -- and against U.S. support for controversial Israeli measures. Many complain that the United States has stood silent while the peace plan fell apart.

On Tuesday, an Israeli army raid flattened more than 100 homes in the Rafah refugee camp and left more than 1,000 Palestinians homeless. Palestinians were outraged when the United States stayed silent. Early this month, Israel bombed what it said was a terrorist training camp in Syria, an attack widely viewed by Arabs as an unjustified escalation. President Bush said Israel had the right to self-defense.

But if the U.S. has stood by silently, some say, Wednesday's attack was not the answer.

"This attack on the Americans will make the Bush administration even more reluctant to engage," said Philip C. Wilcox Jr., a former U.S. diplomat in Israel who now heads the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

*

Efron reported from Washington and Stack from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington also contributed to this report.

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