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After Palestinian Kills Israeli Settler, Israel Extends Closure over Territories

Israel has extended its closure over the West Bank and Gaza Strip until after Israel’s Independence Day on April 26.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday of the move regarding the closure, imposed last month amid fears Palestinian terrorists would try to avenge the assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Mofaz made the announcement two days after a teenage Palestinian killed an Israeli settler in the west Bank.

Last Friday night, the 18-year-old infiltrated the Avnei Hefetz settlement and shot at the Zaga residence. Hani, 14, was wounded in front of her five siblings.

Her father, Kobi, rushed outdoors with his pistol drawn — only to be fatally cut down by a burst of gunfire.

Israeli troops reacted swiftly.

Soldiers in the West Bank settlement shot the Palestinian gunman dead.

And on Sunday, a commando unit dispatched to his hometown of Tulkarm killed the Hamas man who masterminded the attack.

“Our noose on terrorism is closing tighter,” said a senior Israeli security official, noting that the weekend also saw a sweep of Nablus in which 23 Hamas fugitives were nabbed while planning suicide bombings inside the Jewish state during Passover.

Also noteworthy was the initial confusion over who carried out the Avnei Hefetz attack, given that the Hamas claim was rivaled by similar statements put out by Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade.

According to Israeli officials, this signified not only a lack of coordination between the terrorist groups but a desperation on their part to claim a “success,” given the relative lack of recent attacks they have managed to carry out.

The extended closure and similar measures are deplored by many in the nationalist-religious camp, who accuse Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of encouraging Palestinian violence with his plan to disengage Israel from the Palestinians by removing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

But when National Religious Party chief Effi Eitam and his counterpart from the National Unity bloc, Benny Elon, voiced criticism to that effect at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Sharon quickly rebuffed them.

“Whoever feels uncomfortable is welcome to get up and leave, rather than sit in the government,” political sources quoted the prime minister telling Eitam and Elon, whose parties hold four of the 23 seats in his governing coalition.

It was one of the strongest hints yet that Sharon believes he could survive as prime minister without the NRP and National Unity. Political pundits have long seen a broad coalition government in the works, with the Labor Party — currently leading the opposition — joining ranks with Sharon’s Likud.

Still, with Labor lingering on the sidelines until Sharon proves he means to go through with the disengagement plan — itself awaiting approval by President Bush — the prime minister is talking tough.

In a newspaper interview published last Friday, he suggested that Israel could act against Yasser Arafat, calling the Palestinian Authority president “an insurance liability.”

Arafat, who has weathered several such threats from Sharon since the two tangled in Beirut in 1982, shrugged the words off.

But Arafat could have a more serious threat on the domestic front. Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief who hails from Arafat’s own dominant Fatah faction, called over the weekend for a thorough overhaul of the Palestinian Authority.

“The Palestinian people are looking for a way out,” Dahlan told a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, on Saturday. “They are looking for a Palestinian leadership to take them to this exit.” Dahlan added: “We have to change our role. We have to change our way of thinking, of working, of implementing our commitment.”

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