New terror attacks revive fears about Israeli Arabs

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JERUSALEM — Just as Israel agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners and the Supreme Court ruled against severe interrogation methods used by Israeli security service officials against Arab suspects, terrorism struck again.

This time around, however, it was not Palestinians from the territories who were involved in three incidents that took place over the past few weeks. The crimes were carried out by Israeli Arabs.

On Sunday — hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat signed an agreement in Egypt for advancing the peace process — near-simultaneous car bombings occurred in Tiberias and Haifa.

By Tuesday, Israeli police confirmed that the three who reportedly carried out the bombings were Israeli Arabs.

Police officials, who identified the three as Nazal Krayam, Amir Masalha and Ja'ad Aziziya, indicated they may have had ties to Hamas and could have been sent on their mission by the militant fundamentalist group.

Police also said that Krayam's Israeli identity card had been found on the terrorist who carried out a suicide bombing in Afula in 1994. At the time, Krayam explained that he had lost the card.

And last week, a 20-year-old Israeli Arab allegedly confessed to killing a young Israeli couple in a northern Israel forest because he "wanted to kill Jews."

Although Israeli officials — Jews and Arabs alike — were quick to say that the entire Israeli Arab population should not be condemned for the crimes of a few, the incidents prompted serious concerns.

First, as has happened in the past whenever any advances occurred in the peace process, there was a resurgence of terror against Jewish targets.

Second, the attacks renewed concerns about the growing alienation of some members of Israel's Arab community, who make up one-fifth of the population of the Jewish state.

Third, Israeli security officials pointed to the growing radicalization of a political group that has a strong following in the Israeli Arab community — the Islamic Movement.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak was among those who said that Israel's Arab population should not be subject to wholesale discrimination because of the crimes of isolated individuals.

"Extremists, as serious as they may be, will be dealt with as individuals," Barak told Israel Radio's Arabic service on Tuesday. "There is no place for generalizations."

Israeli Arab legislator Talab el-Sana of the United Arab List, the largest Arab party in the Knesset, sounded the same theme. He cautioning that "one should not blame the entire Arab population in Israel."

But at the same time, he added, the involvement of Israeli Arabs in the attacks should lead to some "serious soul-searching."

Sunday's car bombings, still being investigated by police, have prompted theories that Hamas recruited Israeli Arabs to carry out their missions because of an ongoing clamp-down on their activities in the territories by Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

The two car bombs apparently exploded prematurely, killing the two occupants in the car in Tiberias and seriously wounding an Israeli Jewish woman who was passing by.

An almost simultaneous explosion near Haifa's Central Bus Station killed its occupant.

Gilad Sher, who negotiated the Sharm el-Sheik Memorandum, suggested that such attacks could derail peace efforts. "If we don't have sufficient security here in Israel, I think the peace process is in danger of collapse," he said.

Barak called for an immediate investigation and promised that "all necessary action will be taken."

However, he stopped short of threatening to step away from the agreement just reached.

"A peace process accompanied by blood and murder is completely unacceptable, but it is too early to discuss halting the process," Foreign Minister David Levy said.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the enemies of peace were trying to sabotage the peace process, but that Israel could not "dance to the tune of Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attacks Monday, telling reporters in Gaza that he had spoken with Barak and that it is clear all "terrorist attacks should be fought."

Arafat noted that Palestinian security forces are taking a variety of steps to fight terror within the Palestinian Authority, such as arresting those suspected of involvement and confiscating illegal weapons.

He further said that while the path ahead was not an easy one, he feels that with the signing of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, the sides have started out on the right foot.

It remains unclear whether the bombers were recruited by any organization or acted on their own, but the incidents mark the first time that Israeli Arabs were believed involved in attempted suicide bombings.

In the case of Abdullah Aghbariya, accused of murdering the young Israeli couple as they walked in the forest, it isn't clear whether he acted on his own.

He told his interrogators that recently he had read a number of religious books that contained sharply worded attacks against the state, blaming the Jews for heresy and Israel for having unlawfully confiscated Arab land.

Aghbariya, like Sunday's three car bombers, did not live in a vacuum. All of them may well have been motivated by a growing anti-Israel rhetoric.

Such rhetoric comes not only from the militant Palestinian groups Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which are based in the territories and in neighboring Arab lands, but from some elements of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Aghbariya came from Musherfeh, an Arab village in Israel's Wadi Ara region.

About a year ago, local residents engaged in violent clashes with the police over an army plan to confiscate Arab land for a military training base. Following the clashes, the land confiscation plan was put on hold. However, the incident created scars among the local population.

Wadi Ara is the leading hotbed of Muslim nationalism in Israel. The village of Musherfeh is actually a suburb of Umm el-Fahm, the second-largest Arab town in Israel after Nazareth.

The mayor of Umm al-Fahm is Sheik Raed Salah Mahajneh, leader of the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which boycotts formal participation in Israel's wider political life.

In contrast to moderate elements in the movement that have joined forces with non-religious groups to form the United Arab List, radical Muslims in Umm el-Fahm have deliberately stayed out of Israeli politics to underscore their alienation from the Jewish state.

The Islamic Movement has developed its own social services — including kindergartens, medical services and libraries — as a substitute for what it says are insufficient services provided by the state.

Sheik Abdullah Nimer Darwish, one of the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel, said that involvement of Israeli Arabs in terrorist attacks should be condemned with no "ands, ifs or buts."

The slayings reportedly committed by Aghbariya, as well as the involvement of other Israeli Arabs in Sunday's attacks, will now create a new challenge for Israeli security officials as they attempt to clamp down on terror.

At the same time, it may well provoke some of the soul-searching that legislator el-Sana called for — from Israeli officials as they deal with Arab citizens of the Jewish state, and from leaders of the Israeli Arab community, who may have to become more circumspect in their anti-Israel rhetoric.

Meanwhile, an academic specialist cautioned against viewing the Sunday car bombings and last week's killings in northern Israel as portents of a new trend in which Arab citizens of Israel turn to terrorism.

There is widespread acceptance among Arab citizens of Israel that the most successful and productive means of addressing their grievances is to use all democratic means for doing so, Eli Rekhess, head of Tel Aviv University's Adenauer program on Arab politics, said Sunday.

"The approach is that you don't need to throw grenades when it is more effective to organize countrywide protests," he said.