Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met Jewish settlers and soldiers at a military outpost in the Gaza Strip Tuesday in a show of support a day after a bomb attack on a school bus left two Israelis dead.
On Monday, Barak described the attack as "barbaric and criminal" and approved retaliatory attacks by air and from the sea on Gaza City and other locations throughout the Palestinian-run area, leaving one Palestinian dead and some 120 others injured.
"The army and settlers of the Gaza Strip work hand in hand to ensure security, but it is difficult to create a sense of security in such difficult circumstances," Barak told a press conference at the military headquarters in the area, close to the Neve Dekalim settlement.
During a closed-door meeting at the base, leaders of some 6,500 settlers who live among 1.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip expressed their grievances to Barak, a military spokesman told AFP.
Barak has recently come under fire amid a mounting Jewish death toll as a Palestinian uprising rolls into its eighth week.
The settlers, who live in enclaves and complain of being under siege, want Barak to order tougher military measures to crush the uprising, amid international criticism that Israeli troops have spilled too much Palestinian blood already.
The violence, which began as riots but has recently turned into gunbattles and bomb attacks, has left nearly 260 people dead. Most were Palestinians killed by Israeli troops but nearly 30 were Israelis, half of them civilians.
In the past two weeks, settlers said no less than eight bombs have exploded near or at their settlements in the Gaza Strip, leaving four Israelis dead.
On Monday morning, a mortar shell wrapped in metal for deadly effect was detonated as a school bus from the Kfar Darom settlement passed, killing two adult settlers and leaving nine others injured, five of them children. Some of the children suffered severe limb mutilation from the blast.
"Violence has a price and we will not accept any kind of violence," Barak said here, calling on the Palestinian Authority to "totally stop" the bloodshed.
Barak and Israeli officials have blamed the bus attack not on radical Islamic elements but on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political and militia movement.
Barak has also blamed Arafat for reneging on peace commitments, in particular an agreement reached in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-SheikH on October 17 under the auspices of US President Bill Clinton.
"The Palestinian Authority has acted in violation of all its engagements and accords it signed," Barak said.
"The Palestinian Authority is responsible for the violence," he added, warning: "It will not be a picnic, but if we must fight, we will know how to fight. And I will tell Palestinians and the entire world that we will never back down by force."
While Barak was speaking, more violence flared in the area.
An Israeli civilian was critically injured when he came under Palestinian fire while travelling in a car close to Kfar Darom.
Afterward, a huge bulldozer went to the scene and razed tall palm trees along the road.
Earlier, the same bulldozer demolished five homes under construction nearby in a measure intended to increase visibility and possibly limit further ambushes -- NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)