Arafat Confronts Militants, but Israelis Remain Skeptical

The confrontation between the Palestinian Authority and Islamic fundamentalists intensified this week, as Palestinian officials initiated plans to confiscate unlicensed weapons and continued to round up militant activist.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s decision to broaden his crackdown came in the wake of two terrorist suicide attacks on Israelis in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

Reacting to the Palestinian crackdown, some Israeli leaders said it was too early to tell whether the new security measures would be sufficient. Others called on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to send Israeli troops into Gaza, which has been under self-rule since last May.

In the wake of Sunday’s terror attacks near the Jewish settlements of Kfar Darom and Netzarim, Palestinian police on Tuesday arrested some 50 supporters of fundamentalist extremist groups, bringing the number of activists detained since the terror bombings to more than 250.

At the same time, a newly established military court sentenced Omar Shalah, a Muslim cleric who is leading figure in the Islamic Jihad fundamentalist movement, to life imprisonment for inciting civil strife.

A day earlier, the court sentenced another Islamic Jihad militant to 15 years in jail for recruiting children to stage suicide bombings.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack near Kfar Darom, which resulted in eight deaths, including that of one American student. The fundamentalist Hamas movement said it carried out a separate suicide bombing near Netzarim. More than 50 people were wounded in both attacks.

Both fundamentalist groups warned Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority was “crossing a red line” in his crackdown on supporters of the extremist groups.

The Hamas movement said it would kill Israeli soldiers and settlers in retaliation for the Palestinian police crackdown.

The Islamic Jihad also warned the Palestinian Authority against “going too far,” saying it would resist any attempts to disarm the group.

In Cairo, Arafat held talks about the crackdown with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak advise Osama el-Baz later said that Arafat was confident that the crackdown would not lead to a Palestinian civil war and that the PLO chief was determined to disarm Islamic militants opposed to the peace accord with Israel.

The plan to confiscate weapons was also voiced by Freih Abu Medein, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of judicial affairs.

Medein said Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority police would require all weapons in the Gaza and Jericho self-rule areas to be registered by May 11. He said that unlicensed firearms would be confiscated.

In Jerusalem, Nabil Sha’ath, the Palestinian official in charge of planning, said the self-rule government would do all it could to suppress the militants.

“The Palestinian Authority is arresting people, is taking them to court, is taking away their arms,” said Sha’ath. “We are very serious about stopping this violence.”

But Israeli leaders remained skeptical.

The head of army intelligence, Gen. Uri Saguy, said Arafat understood that a series of terror attacks on Israelis was jeopardizing the peace process, but that Arafat has not yet implemented any real change in policy aimed at battling extremists.

Appearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Saguy said the Palestinian police could round up members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas without sparking a civil war in Gaza.

Meanwhile, President Ezer Weizman renewed his call for a halt in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Speaking during a visit to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where several of the victims from Sunday’s attacks were still hospitalized, Weizman said the talks should be suspended until Arafat proves he can control terror.

A somewhat optimistic note was heard from Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin.

“I cannot say that the Palestinian Authority does enough,” he told reporters in Jerusalem. “But I can say that there are some signs which are positive now, and which may be conducive toward a change of strategy toward their opposition.”

But six Knesset members from Rabin’s own Labor Party were not as sanguine about Arafat’s latest crackdown.

The lawmakers, convinced that Israel cannot real security in Gaza, reportedly sent Rabin a letter Tuesday asking him to send Israeli troops into Gaza.

NEXT STORY