The latest Palestinian suicide bombing and a ceaseless spate of attack alerts may leave Israel no option but to take unilateral steps stripping Palestinians of land they seek for a state, political sources said on Friday.
The bombing that killed four Israelis including three soldiers at a bus stop near Tel Aviv on Thursday was the first in seven weeks. It came minutes after Israel killed an Islamic militant, his deputy and three bystanders in a Gaza air strike. Palestinian leaders condemned both attacks while saying Israel's continued search-and-arrest forays against militants were frustrating Egyptian-brokered efforts to arrange a truce.
Israeli officials said there were 52 pending "red alerts" which showed that Palestinian Authority inaction against militant groups hostile to peacemaking was the real problem.
That could leave Prime Minister Ariel Sharon no choice but to draw security boundaries, once a period of a few months he has given to save the US-sponsored road map peace plan lapses, sources close to him said.
"This is only our default option. We remain committed to the `road map' to peace. But by refusing to fight terrorism, they are pushing us to adopt the very option they reject in the first place," said a senior political source.
The road map charts a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.
Palestinians say a big barrier Israel is building in the West Bank is a bid to annex land and prejudge borders for their future state. Israel says the controversial barrier is needed to keep out suicide bombers.
Israeli soldiers opened fire on Friday on a group of protesters trying to breach the barrier near the West Bank city of Qalqiliya, wounding an Israeli and an American.
The incident broadcast on Israeli television stations sparked an outcry from several legislators who demanded an inquiry. The army said it would investigate the shooting, but a military source said soldiers were following arrest procedures.
Saeb Erekat, negotiations minister under moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, said Thursday's attacks threatened a new spiral of vengeance-filled violence unless "de-escalation" steps were undertaken quickly.
He said US President George W. Bush should pay more attention to his road map and introduce ways of enforcing it, Egypt must intensify its effort to broker a mutual ceasefire and both sides must "commit themselves to meaningful negotiations".
Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaa-lon, Israel's army chief of staff, predicted to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that the conflict with Palestinians would go on in some form for many years, but the peak of bloody confrontation had passed.
He said the largest militant group Hamas had held off on attacks in Israel for almost three months because of fears of destruction after repeated Israeli killings of their leaders.