JERUSALEM — Fearful that a terrorist attack inside Israel might hand upcoming elections to the opposition, the Labor-led government stepped up security measures Monday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel's army banned the 2 million Palestinian residents of the territories from entering Israel "for an indefinite period." A military spokesman said the order was issued for security reasons.
The closure expanded an edict issued Monday morning ordering Palestinian residents of the West Bank town of Ramallah to stay inside the city limits and requiring Israelis to stay away from the town. The army also suspended joint security patrols with the Palestinians in Ramallah and the West Bank town of Kalqilya for an indefinite period.
Israel Television said Israeli intelligence services had reports of a plan by militants in the Gaza Strip to explode a car bomb in central Israel, timed to coincide with the Feb. 19 end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the end Wednesday of 40 days of mourning for Yehiya Ayash, the Islamic militant who was killed when a booby-trapped cellular phone exploded in his hands.
Israel is widely believed to have killed Ayash, who built bombs for a series of deadly attacks on Israeli buses last year.
"We're investing a lot in order not to let the terrorists achieve their goals," said Interior Minister Haim Ramon. "Their main goal is to kill people and to kill the peace process. They know the sensitivity of Israelis. They will double their efforts and we will triple our efforts not to let those terrible terrorists achieve their goals."
Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced Sunday that he is moving up elections from October to May. An Israel Television poll taken after the announcement showed that Peres would win 47% of the vote to Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu's 35%, if the election for prime minister were held now.
Other polls have indicated that the Labor Party would easily win enough parliamentary seats to form a left-wing government.
In the 1988 election, Peres and Labor led public-opinion polls until 10 days before the voting, when a Palestinian hurled a Molotov cocktail into an Israeli bus near the West Bank town of Jericho. An Israeli schoolteacher and her three children were burned to death, and Labor failed to garner enough seats to form a government.
Four years later, the party ousted Peres as its leader and replaced him with a tough-talking retired general, Yitzhak Rabin. "No one can convince Peres that he lost the 1988 elections for any reason other than that bus bombing," said a former Peres advisor.
Peres invoked Rabin's memory in his announcement Sunday, and Likud members accused him of trying to extend to himself the slain prime minister's reputation for toughness on security issues. Rabin was gunned down Nov. 4 by a right-wing Jewish law student.
Seeking to bolster his own credentials on security issues, Peres is putting enormous pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was sworn in Monday in Gaza City as president of the Palestinian self-governing authority, to crack down on the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups. These groups have carried out few attacks since the summer, and public opinion polls show support for them among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is steadily declining.