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Israel Cuts Contact with Arafat As Palestinian Terror Continues

December 14, 2001
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The United States and Europe are refusing to give up on Yasser Arafat, despite Israel’s break with the Palestinian Authority president after yet another terror attack.

Israel’s Security Cabinet decided Wednesday night to cut off all contact with the Palestinian Authority president after Palestinians bombed a bus in the West Bank and then shot fleeing passengers.

Ten Israelis were killed and 23 wounded, the deadliest attack in the West Bank since the Palestinian intifada began nearly 15 months ago.

The Cabinet communique said Arafat’s failure to take serious action to stop Palestinian terror rendered him “no longer relevant” to Israel.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Cabinet, “From our point of view, Arafat no longer exists. Period.”

However, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit stressed that Israel would not harm Arafat personally.

It was not immediately clear what practical impact the decision to cut ties would have, as contact with Arafat has been extremely limited since the intifada began. Infrequent meetings have been conducted either by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres or by Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s son and confidant.

It also was not clear whether the decision banned all contacts with Palestinian officials, including negotiators or security figures who have been meeting with Israeli military officials under the auspices of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.

The United States condemned the bus attack, which White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said “underscores the need” for Arafat “to take every step possible to reduce the violence.”

Yet Washington refused to give up on Arafat, saying it still considered him Israel’s interlocutor and potential “peace partner.”

“The United States recognizes Yasser Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians and will continue to work with him,” the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, said. “And we will continue to work with the Palestinian leadership as it must make very difficult choices involving moving against those extremist groups who threaten the interests of Palestinian people.”

The statement was echoed by the European Union, though E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana admitted that P.A. action against terror “sometimes is not the most consistent.”

The U.S. envoy to the region, former Marine Corps. Gen. Anthony Zinni, was to meet Sharon on Thursday night to discuss the implications of Israel’s decision to cut ties.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that Zinni would demand an explanation of the Israeli action.

“The situation is getting worse not better and we really cannot give up hope. We cannot walk away from this. The stakes are too high,” Powell told reporters in Washington.

In addition, Powell said Arafat needed to understand that failure to take radical action against Palestinian terror might destroy his regime.

Hamas “might kill individual Israelis, but it will not destroy Israel,” Powell said. However, he added, “Hamas might destroy Yasser Arafat, and it might destroy the Palestinian Authority.”

Wednesday’s attack extended what is shaping up as one of the bloodiest periods of the intifada.

At least 70 people have died since Zinni arrived Nov. 26 to broker a cease-fire. In all, more than 1,000 have died since the intifada began in September 2000.

Wednesday’s attack took place near the fervently Orthodox settlement of Immanuel, north of Ariel. A team of three Palestinians waiting in ambush detonated bombs as the bus passed, damaging it and killing several passengers.

His tires blown out, the driver tried to make it to the gates of Immanuel about half a mile away. Passengers began to flee when the bus stalled, and the Palestinian squad set on them, throwing grenades and shooting at passengers and emergency workers arriving on the scene.

The Israeli dead were identified as five residents of Immanuel: Yair Amar, 13, Ester Avraham, 42, Hanan Tzarfati, 37, Menahem Moshe Gutman, 40, Yirimiyahu Salem, 48, and Yisrael Shternburg, 44. Also killed were Avraham Nahman Nitzani, 18, from Beitar Illit; Yoel Binenfeld, 35, from Moshav Tel Shahar; Ya’akov Tzarfati, 64, from Kfar Saba; and David Tzarfati, 38, from Ginot Shomron.

One terrorist was killed when Israeli troops arrived, but the other two escaped back to Palestinian Authority territory.

Responsibility for the incident was unclear. The Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah Party, initially took credit, but Hamas later tried to claim responsibility.

Shortly afterward, in an unrelated attack, two suicide bombers attacked an Israeli car in the Gaza Strip, injuring four Israelis but killing only themselves.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attacks, but said Israel had brought the attacks on itself.

Israel responded Wednesday night and Thursday by bombing and shelling Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among the targets were the Dahaniye Airport in the Gaza Strip, several Palestinian security compounds, Fatah offices and the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Israel Defense Force troops also took over portions of Ramallah in the West Bank, with tanks stationed within 200 yards of Arafat’s office there.

One Palestinian was killed in the attacks.

The Security Cabinet also decided that Israeli forces would “deploy rapidly for action in the urban areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” to arrest Palestinian militants and confiscate illegal weapons.

Arafat advisor Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement Thursday that “the Israeli attacks against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people are a formal declaration of war against the Palestinian nation and its leadership.”

Peres also criticized the attacks, arguing that they only helped the more extremist elements among the Palestinians.

“On one hand,” groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad “are killing Israelis, and on the other hand are emerging victorious when the IDF hits hard, not at them, but at their enemy, the Palestinian Authority,” Peres said at a meeting of Labor Party meeting Thursday.

If Sharon continues on his current course, Labor would have to reconsider whether to remain in the unity government, Peres said.

The deterioration comes after hopes had risen faintly that Zinni might indeed produce a cease-fire. He had managed to bring about a series of security talks that the two sides deemed “successful,” and had pressed for a 48-hour cease- fire to begin establishing some semblance of confidence.

During that period, the P.A. was to continue arresting militants and Israel would refrain from military actions unless attacked.

So far, Palestinian officials say they have arrested more than 100 militants.

Israel argues that the arrests have focused mainly on minor operatives, rather than the 33 terror ringleaders on a “most wanted” list it gave the Palestinians.

Israel also says the P.A. security services have refused to interrogate those arrested, instead holding them in comfortable conditions that in effect merely shield them from Israeli attack.

At least one of the terrorists in the Immanuel attack was on that most wanted list, Israeli officials said.

After Wednesday’s attacks, there were reports that Arafat had ordered all offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad closed. However, the decision did not appear to be implemented in the field, according to news reports.

Pressure has been mounting on Arafat finally to take concerted action against Palestinian terror, even that emanating from his own Fatah Party and from Palestinian Authority security services. The turning point appears to have been a series of suicide bombings Dec. 1 and 2 that killed 26 Israelis and wounded hundreds.

Even the Europeans, traditionally Palestinian allies, have grown exasperated with Arafat. On Monday, E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Brussels issued a statement that branded Hamas and Islamic Jihad “terrorist networks” and demanded that the Palestinian Authority dismantle them.

The ministers also called on the Palestinian Authority to arrest and try terror suspects and issue a “public appeal in Arabic for an end to the armed intifada.”

The United States also has been keeping up the pressure on Arafat, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney this week questioning Arafat’s leadership.

The gravity of the situation was underscored by U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who said Thursday that the Palestinian Authority had to take urgent action against terror to “save itself” from destruction.

“I think we are as close as we’ve ever been to a full military confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Larsen told CNN.

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