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Palestinians Arrest Hamas Chief After Blast

Mideast: Arafat cracks down as suicide mission targets Jewish children in Gaza. Israeli soldier killed.


GUSH KATIF JUNCTION, Gaza Strip — Palestinian authorities placed the leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas under house arrest Thursday in the immediate aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing aimed at a school bus full of Jewish settler children.

One Israeli soldier and the Palestinian bomber were killed. The attacker crashed a car loaded with explosives into the school bus convoy on an isolated road through the sand dunes of the Gaza Strip, but the bus' Israeli military escort bore the brunt of the explosion.

The youngsters escaped, tearful but unharmed. Eight other people were injured, including three Bedouin children living nearby.

It was the first fatal car bombing in more than a year and immediately tested a new and fragile Middle East land-for-security deal. Israel has warned that it will not hand over additional land to Palestinian control until the Palestinians combat terrorism effectively. Thursday's attack had the potential to freeze a peace process that was only just reviving.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's move against Hamas is risky, but he clearly needed to show a determination to carry out security measures outlined in the Wye Plantation accord, in which the Palestinians pledged to combat violence in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13% of the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making a hospital visit to a soldier wounded in the attack, demanded that the Palestinians fight terrorism. His government gave a cautious welcome to the move against Hamas but said it would have to be a sustained campaign.

"We regard with extreme severity the attempt to murder [dozens] of little children on their way to school," Netanyahu said. "This is the test of the [Wye] agreement, and we want to see the Palestinian Authority pass the test successfully. . . . It's in the interest of peace."

The Clinton administration, which brokered the Wye accord last week, condemned the bombing and welcomed the "close cooperation" of Israeli and Palestinian security forces investigating it. In fact, however, the two sides only narrowly averted a serious gun battle when Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians said to be fleeing the scene. Palestinian police opened fire in response. Quick intervention by senior commanders halted the gunfire.

Under pressure from both the Israelis and U.S. officials, Arafat moved swiftly to punish Islamic militants who reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Scores of Hamas militants were rounded up Thursday evening. And, following an emergency meeting with his security advisors, Arafat took the unprecedented step of ordering the house arrest of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. Police surrounded Yassin's home and blocked journalists and other visitors attempting to enter.

The cleric, who must use a wheelchair, has issued many inflammatory statements against making peace with Israel. This was the first time that Arafat has dared to challenge the influential Hamas leader in such direct fashion.

Hamas is a popular, fast-growing movement that has, in addition to its military wing, a vast social network providing education, work and meals. Arafat's associates often have warned that taking on Hamas, and Yassin in particular, could lead to a Palestinian civil war.

But keeping the peace process on course means that Arafat gets land and status, and moves closer to an independent state. The potential horror of Thursday's bombing handed him the opportunity to act.

Yassin was confined to his modest cinder-block home along a Gaza alleyway because of "recent statements against the Palestinian national interests," said an aide to Arafat's civil police chief, Ghazi Jabali, who issued the order.

Yassin, who spent eight years of a life sentence in an Israeli jail until he was freed in 1997 and given a hero's welcome in Gaza, spent much of Thursday speaking to reporters by telephone. "This [arrest] is in the service of Zionism," he told one Arabic television station. "The Israeli occupation caused the [bomb] attack," he told Israeli television.

Late Thursday, authorities severed his phone lines after formally notifying him of the restrictions against him, Yassin's family said. The 63-year-old cleric will not be allowed to leave his house for prayers today, the Muslim holy day.

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu noted that the suspected terrorist who carried out the bombing came from territory that had been under Arafat's control ever since most of the Gaza Strip was handed to the Palestinians under an agreement signed in May 1994.

"It is not possible that Gaza will serve as a hotbed for such gangs of murderers, who declare in front of the whole world that their intention is to destroy the state of Israel and to annihilate the lives of Israelis," Netanyahu said as he visited the wounded.

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