Israel PM sees threat from 'Jewish underground'


A new ultranationalist underground is apparently active in Israel and responsible for a bombing that wounded an outspoken critic of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today.

The attack on Thursday at the home of political scientist Zeev Sternhall rekindled fears that ideological friction in Israel could explode into internal violence as its leaders pursue a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians.

"The security agencies have been ordered to deal with this case, investigate it and act with the utmost speed to bring to justice what appears to be another underground," Olmert told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.

Sternhell, a leading opponent of settlement building in the Palestinian territories, was slightly wounded by the pipe bomb that blew up at the gate to his home in Jerusalem.

A week ago, Olmert used the evocative imagery of violence against Jews in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in condemning as a "pogrom" a Jewish settler rampage in a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank.

Settlers shot and wounded three people in Asira al-Kabaliya on Sept. 13 after a Palestinian stabbed a Jewish boy in the nearby settlement.

After the explosion outside Sternhell's home, police found posters in his neighborhood offering a one million shekel ($294,000) reward to anyone killing a member of Israel's Peace Now movement that opposes Jewish settlement on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Olmert compared the bombing with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish ultranationalist and a hand grenade attack that killed a Peace Now activist in 1983.

"A bad wind of extremism, hate, evil, violence and contempt for state authorities is blowing through certain sectors of the Israeli public and threatening Israeli democracy," said Olmert, who is engaged in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

In the 1980s, a Jewish underground group, acting after six Jewish seminary students were killed in a Palestinian attack, carried out bombings that maimed several West Bank mayors and a shooting in an Islamic college that killed three students.

Members of the group were jailed but the sentences were later commuted by then-President Chaim Herzog.

Near the West Bank city of Nablus on Sunday, a Palestinian shepherd, 18-year-old Yahya Atta Bani Menna, was found shot dead and Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of killing him.

Israeli police said they were investigating.

Olmert, who resigned a week ago in a corruption scandal, is serving in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. His deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is trying to put together a governing coalition within a 42-day deadline.

Although Olmert supports trading territory for peace, he has insisted that Israel will hang on to major settlement enclaves in the West Bank in any final peace deal and that it is entitled to continue to build homes there.

Palestinians say settlements are an obstacle to peace and could deny them a viable and contiguous state in the West Bank.