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Gaza Attack Was 'Targeted Hit'

Bombers were aiming for the Americans, an official says. But it is unclear whether militants now consider U.S. interests fair game.

October 18, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — Bombers deliberately struck an American convoy this week, but it is too early to know whether Palestinian militants had placed other U.S. targets on a general hit list, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

"This was a targeted hit [on] the United States," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's no question they were aiming for American government personnel."

But still unclear is whether Wednesday's roadside blast that killed three American security officers in the Gaza Strip means armed Palestinian factions now consider American targets fair game.

"We don't know the answer to that question, and we want to know more before we put our people back in" Gaza, the official said.

All U.S. missions to the Gaza Strip have been indefinitely suspended, and the U.S. Embassy is reviewing its security, including the practice of giving the Palestinian Authority notice of visits into the occupied territories, the official said.

Early today, three more Palestinians were reported killed amid an ongoing Israeli incursion into a refugee camp bordering Egypt. So far, 11 Palestinians have died since Israeli soldiers and tanks punched into the Rafah camp a week ago in search of tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

Among those killed today were two militants from the extremist group Hamas, who were allegedly trying to plant an explosive device when Israeli snipers spotted them and opened fire. A female bystander was killed and at least 12 others injured, Palestinian sources said.

Wednesday's bombing of the U.S. convoy was the first fatal attack on Americans in the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising and signaled a dramatic shift by militants who had reserved their fire for Israeli targets.

The three men killed were bodyguards hired by the U.S. Embassy to escort diplomats into Gaza, where officials routinely go for meetings, interviews and site visits. A fourth guard has undergone several operations in an Israeli hospital but the wounds are not life-threatening, the senior U.S. official said.

Detectives dispatched by the FBI from Washington met with Palestinian security agents Friday to establish ground rules for conducting the investigation.

"We reviewed and discussed the explosion and all the consequences of this incident," said Abdel Razek Majaydeh, the highest-ranking Palestinian security official in Gaza.

The U.S. official described cooperation from the various Palestinian security agencies as mixed. Palestinian forces have arrested several men in connection with the bombing, but the FBI has not had a chance to question them.

All of the arrested men are members of either the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Popular Resistance Committees, a lesser-known armed group that has destroyed Israeli tanks with roadside bombs in the past.

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said the second group was suspected of involvement in Wednesday's attack and a similar bombing June 28 in Gaza in which an American armored vehicle was damaged and its passengers slightly injured. But officials have not ruled out other militant organizations, such as Islamic Jihad or Hamas, or even an outside force such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

"Our minds are totally open on this question," the senior U.S. official said. "There has not been a credible claim of responsibility, and we don't have a particular address we're going after."

Made up mostly of disaffected members of Palestinian security forces and a political faction associated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the Popular Resistance Committees is a somewhat amorphous group, analysts said.

"They don't really have any real infrastructure or organization, but rather [are] a gathering of disappointed activists," a Palestinian security source said. "But they have a grass-roots presence in certain areas."

The bombing came at a time of deep anger among Palestinians toward what many regard as unwavering U.S. support of the Israeli government. A recent poll found Palestinians virtually unanimous in their opinion that Washington favored Israel and was insincere about creating a Palestinian state, as envisioned by a U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the "road map."

President Bush blamed Wednesday's blast on Arafat's failure to crack down on terrorism. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has threatened to "remove" Arafat from his headquarters, and there was concern among Palestinians that the attack on the American convoy might tip the scales in favor of Arafat's expulsion.

But in an interview published Friday in the Jerusalem Post, Sharon appeared to back down.

"Our calculations for years have been that expelling him would not be good for Israel," he said. "The opinion of our intelligence services is that expelling him would not be a good idea."

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