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Israeli officials debate threat to Arafat’s rule

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JERUSALEM, Aug. 8 (JTA) — Israeli defense officials are debating whether the government should take steps to prevent the collapse of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s regime.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Tuesday that officials are warning that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority could lead to chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday, however, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz cited Defense Ministry sources who say Arafat’s “SOS signals” appear to be part of a familiar strategy: portraying himself as weak to avoid having to carry out his obligations under peace deals and cease-fires, such as his responsibility to subdue Palestinian militants.

A Defense Ministry report presented to the government states that “the panicked signals of distress” that Arafat is sending are meant “to expedite the deployment of monitors to the region,” according to Ha’aretz.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared to agree, saying that “the claim that Arafat does not control the situation on the ground is unfounded,” according to Ha’aretz.

Ma’ariv, however, cited government officials who feel that Israel’s policy of targeting wanted Palestinians has placed great strain on Arafat, who fears he may also be singled out.

The paper said this was one of the reasons for Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s public assurance this week that Israel does not have its sights set on Arafat.

During the week, Arafat wrote to U.S. officials asking them to press Israel to stop its policy of targeting suspected Palestinian militants.

Sharon and his advisers say the policy — which they call “active self- defense” — is justified because it targets Palestinian militants before they can strike innocent Israeli civilians.

According to a Palestinian minister, the Palestinian Authority is losing its influence over Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movements because of the Israeli policy. Ziad Abu Ziad told Israel Radio that Israel’s policy is radicalizing the Palestinian street.

His comments came during a week of continued Israeli-Palestinian violence — including one attack in which a Palestinian terrorist reached the very heart of Tel Aviv.

On Sunday, a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a busy street outside Israel’s Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, lightly wounding 10 people, most of them soldiers.

Witnesses said the gunman stopped his car at an intersection, opened the door and began firing — nonchalantly, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

When he drove on, police opened fire on the car, hitting the man in the head. He died of his wounds in hospital.

Later that night, Palestinian gunmen killed a pregnant Israeli woman, Tehiya Bloomberg, and seriously wounded her husband and daughter in a drive- by shooting in the West Bank. Two other children and another passenger were lightly injured.

Israel responded by firing missiles at Palestinian security posts in the West Bank. The buildings were severely damaged, but there were no injuries.

Police said the Tel Aviv gunman was a married father of three from eastern Jerusalem — not the standard background of a Palestinian terrorist.

Ben-Eliezer called the attack “grave,” but said military action is not the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The way to reach peace is not military, and I am prepared to meet with Yasser Arafat tomorrow morning,” he said.

The defense minister’s remarks came during a week marked more by clashes than by dialogue.

On Wednesday, Israeli army helicopters pounded Palestinian security targets in the town of Salfit, damaging buildings but causing no casualties.

The strike came after Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli man — 40- year-old Zohar Shurgi from Moshav Yafit in the Jordan Valley — in a drive-by shooting Tuesday night on a West Bank highway. Shurgi is survived by his wife and three children.

The Al-Aksa Brigades, associated with Arafat’s Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for the killing.

Also on Wednesday, Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at a Palestinian security post in the West Bank city of Nablus, but caused no casualties.

The airstrike came after two Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded earlier in the day as their convoy was traveling on a hill overlooking Nablus.

Along with Wednesday’s two airstrikes, there was a failed suicide bombing that occurred when the Palestinian bomber blew himself up at an Israeli military checkpoint in the Jordan Valley.

The Palestinian detonated a bomb when a soldier approached to inspect his car, Israeli security sources said. The soldier was slightly hurt after being hit in the leg by shrapnel.

It was not clear whether the Palestinian meant to detonate the bomb at the checkpoint or had intended to explode it among more Israelis.

On Tuesday, an Israeli Arab in his 30s was killed in a shooting near the West Bank settlement Alfei Menashe. Security officials said the man, a resident of Taibe, was driving a car with yellow Israeli license plates, and it is possible the gunmen mistook him for a Jew.

Israel Radio reported it is possible the attack was carried out by the same Arab terror cell responsible for shooting Bloomberg.

Nationalistic motives also were not ruled out in the murder of an Israeli diamond merchant shot Monday night in Amman, Jordan.

The Jordanian information minister said the slaying of Yitzhak Snir could have been a “settling of scores among business associates.”

But Abu Dhabi television said a group calling itself the Islamic Jordanian Resistance Movement claimed responsibility, citing what it called Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.

A senior official at Israel’s Foreign Ministry said all clues indicate that Snir’s murder was an act of terror, according to the Jerusalem Post. At the last minute, Jordan refused to allow an Israeli pathologist to participate in Snir’s autopsy.

In other violence this week, Israel on Sunday killed a Hamas member in what Palestinian witnesses said was a helicopter missile strike on his car in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Israel said Amar Madiri was preparing suicide attacks inside Israel.

Madiri was an assistant to Fuza Badran, a Hamas explosives expert killed last month in Tulkarm when his car exploded. The Palestinian Authority blamed Israel for Badran’s death, but Israel did not take responsibility for that incident.

Later in the day, Israel publicized the names of seven alleged terrorists it said the Palestinian Authority has refused to arrest. Many took it as a signal that these seven were next on Israel’s list for “targeted killings,” a policy that much of the world condemns simply as “assassination.”

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