JERUSALEM -- By threatening to ignite a Palestinian civil war, the killing of three children in the Gaza Strip on Monday has jeopardized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's efforts to restart long-stalled peace talks. The apparent target of the drive-by shooting in Gaza City was Baha Balousheh, a top Palestinian security officer and Fatah loyalist. He blamed the rival Hamas, although the Islamic movement denied responsibility and denounced the killings. Balousheh's three children were in the family car on their way to school when gunmen opened fire from two vehicles.
The three were killed along with their driver. Doctors said one of the boys was hit by 10 bullets to the head.
Since January elections in which the radical Hamas ousted Fatah, the traditional dominant force in Palestinian politics, there have been periodic flare-ups of violence between the two sides.
The West, labeling Hamas a terror group, cut off aid to the Palestinian government in March, insisting it must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace pacts.
Hamas refuses to take any of those steps, so President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately, has been trying to create a new government with his Fatah party and Hamas in joint control -- to no avail.
Another round of violence, triggered by the killing of the children, would contribute to the "chaos that dominates the Gaza scene," said Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Peace Center and one of the authors of the first Israel-Palestinian partial peace agreement in 1993.
In a Nov. 27 policy speech, Olmert appealed to the Palestinians to accept the international conditions and re-enter peace negotiations. If they do, they "will be able to establish an independent and viable Palestinian state, with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria, a state with full sovereignty and defined borders," Olmert said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.
But Israeli observers said that's unlikely if the internal Palestinian violence continues and the Hamas-led government does not moderate its policies or allow installation of a new, more moderate government.
Analyst Dore Gold, who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that despite Olmert's offers, the Palestinians are not ready for peace talks.
"Until there is orderly government that takes seriously the security commitments the Palestinians undertook in the past and recognizes Israel's right to exist, negotiations might make nice photo opportunities, but would yield no positive results whatsoever," he said.
However, Pundak said Israel and the West can still save the situation by giving the Palestinians some hope, "not just a declaration of two states, but a clear picture of where it's going -- and secondly, a feeling of a quick economic boost."
Then, Pundak said, the Palestinians would take steps to stabilize their internal situation. "When the Palestinians feel it is in their interest, they know how to control the situation. The current cease-fire is an example," he said, referring to a two-week-old truce that has ended five months of Israel-Palestinian violence in Gaza.