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Israel Closes Territories As Terror Attacks Escalate

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The Israeli government has sealed off the administered territories in the wake of two days of attacks by Palestinian rejectionists that have left 9 Israelis dead and more than 50 wounded.

The closure, which went into effect Thursday evening and which is expected to last until after Israeli Independence Day celebrations on April 14, will prevent Palestinians from entering Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Eastern Jerusalem will similarly be off-limits to visiting Palestinians.

The attacks brought condemnation from the Clinton administration, the United Nations and Arab American groups.

In Israel, the closure of the territories comes almost a year to the day after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin clamped down a similar closure following a series of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.

Thursday’s step was taken after members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement launched a wave of terror attacks in retaliation for the Feb. 25 Hebron massacre of at least 29 Palestinians in the West Bank town’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

On Wednesday, a 19-year-old member of Hamas launched a suicide car-bombing at a bus stop in the northern Israeli town of Afula. Eight people were killed, including four teenagers, and more than 50 were wounded in the powerful explosion.

The next day, as the nation laid to rest the victims of the attack in Afula, Hamas struck again when an 18-year-old resident of the Shati refugee camp in Gaza opened fire with an Uzi submachine gun at a group of soldiers at a hitch- hiking shelter on the Ashdod-Tel Aviv highway.

One Israeli was killed and another four were wounded, two of them seriously. The dead Israeli was later identified as Yishai Gedassi, 31. He was an army reserve lieutenant colonel.

The assailant was shot dead on the spot by Israeli soldiers who were waiting at the Ashdod junction for a ride.

In Gaza Thursday, there were two stabbings in separate incidents.

In the Katif region of Gaza, a farmer who had gone to pick up his Arab workers was stabbed by one of them. The attacker and his fellow workers ran off. None of them had permits to work in Israel. The farmer was only lightly wounded.

In the second incident, an Israeli was stabbed by a Palestinian at an industrial park near the Erez crossing point. Civilians and soldiers fired at the assailant, who managed to escape although he was apparently wounded.

Hamas, which bitterly opposes the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, swore it would launch more attacks on Israelis in the days before Independence Day.

In a reference to the Hebron massacre, which took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Hamas spokesmen said they would “make of Israel’s Independence Day an Israeli tragedy that would match the tragedy an Israeli made for us of Ramadan.”

Some 24 hours after the Afula attack, the PLO issued a statement from Cairo regretting the incident and expressing condolences to the bereaved families.

“The PLO expresses its regrets for the incident in Afula which cost the life of a number of civilians,” the statement read.

But PLO leader Yasser Arafat has so far said nothing about the attack.

Arafat, who in Cairo on Wednesday, walked away from reporters when asked to comment on the Afula incident.

On Thursday, President Clinton condemned the Hamas attacks and indirectly criticized Arafat for not speaking out against the use of terror, as Rabin had done almost immediately after the Hebron murders.

“On behalf of the American people, I condemn in the strongest possible terms the murders of Israeli citizens on April 6 and 7 and offer condolences to their families,” Clinton said in a statement.

He added that those involved in the peace process should “condemn unequivocally these crimes.”

A State Department official, speaking with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was more direct in criticizing Arafat’s silence.

“We think Arafat should personally condemn the incident,” the official said. “Rabin responded very quickly (after the Hebron killing). Arafat has not. We would have liked to have seen him respond quickly as well.”

In the United States, both the National Association of Arab Americans and the Arab American Institute condemned the attacks in Afula and Ashdod.

The Arab American Institute called the killings “senseless, criminal acts.”

The organization added that the “claim that these murderous acts are to avenge the massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron makes a tragic mockery of their deaths and defiles the memory of those innocent victims.”

Similarly, the National Association of Arab Americans condemned the attacks “in the strongest possible terms.”

The association said Palestinian individuals or groups who commit attacks against innocent civilians “clearly undermine the credibility of their own cause and desecrate the memories” of Palestinian victims of massacres.

In Israel, opposition parties plan to organize widespread demonstrations against the Rabin government and its peace policy to highlight what they called the “government failure to ensure even minimum personal security” for Israelis in the face of terrorist attacks.

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