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Israel Vows to Seize Arafat's Territories

June 19, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israel said it will seize Palestinian-controlled territory and stay there until terrorism stops, in a policy about-face announced early this morning after a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

The Tuesday blast tore apart a bus, killing the attacker and 19 other people on board, and wounding more than 50.

Israel's decision came as the region awaits the expected unveiling of President Bush's vision for resolving the Middle East conflict. Israel's move is likely to greatly complicate Bush's efforts to stop the bloodshed and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations.

Through nearly two years of fighting, Israel has clung to the principle that it did not want to indefinitely reoccupy Palestinian population centers handed over under the 1993 Oslo peace accords. But government sources confirmed early today that the Cabinet has now abandoned that principle.

In a statement, the government said Israel will respond to Tuesday's bombing by "capturing Palestinian Authority territory" and that "these areas will be held by Israel as long as terror continues."

Israeli troops and tanks moved into the northern West Bank city of Jenin before the statement was issued, and later also entered Nablus. The army cut Jenin off from the refugee camp on its outskirts and moved inside the camp, according to Palestinian witnesses. An army spokesman said that "there's an operation in Jenin against the terrorist infrastructure in the city." There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Early today, an army spokesman said that troops were deployed inside Jenin and that the city was under a curfew. He said troops had withdrawn from Nablus. But a government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army would seize "a Palestinian area within hours, and it's for keeps now. We're not going to leave." He refused to say which area would be targeted.

In Washington, the White House had no immediate comment on the Israeli announcement. It was unclear what effect it might have on the administration's peace proposal. But earlier Tuesday, White House officials condemned the attack in Jerusalem and insisted that it would not affect either the timing or the content of Bush's announcement of his plan.

"The president condemns this act of terror in the strongest possible terms," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "These terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children are enemies of peace."

The Israeli decision to step up its military actions came after a day of consultations between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his security chiefs and senior Cabinet ministers.

Sharon started the morning Tuesday with a rare appearance at the site of a terrorist attack, rushing to the scene shortly after a 22-year-old student from An Najah University in the West Bank detonated a bomb packed with ball bearings and nails in the No. 32 bus.

Surveying the carnage of Jerusalem's deadliest such attack in six years, Sharon heaped scorn on Bush's anticipated call for the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state in areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip now controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

"The horrible pictures we saw here today of these murderous acts by the Palestinians are stronger than any words," said a grim-faced Sharon, standing near a row of corpses covered with black plastic sheeting. "It is interesting [to speculate about] what kind of Palestinian state they intend to create. What are they talking about? This terrible thing ... is a continuation of the Palestinian terror which we will fight against."

The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement and promised more attacks to come.

"We tell all Zionists to prepare their coffins and graves because their dead will be in the hundreds," the statement said.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, condemned the bombing, but Israel nonetheless blamed its president, Yasser Arafat.

Government officials immediately said there would be a series of military responses. Tanks and troops have been deployed on the outskirts of Palestinian towns for weeks and routinely enter them to hunt down militants.

Late Tuesday, Palestinians reported that dozens of Israeli tanks and an armored bulldozer were rumbling into Jenin. Palestinians said that the tanks shot toward Jenin's refugee camp and that militants fired back. A pair of Israeli helicopters hovered over Jenin, a stronghold of Islamic militancy.

In a separate action, just hours after the bus was bombed, Israeli troops shot dead Muhmad Basharat, a militant with Islamic Jihad, at a roadblock near the West Bank city of Hebron. The army said he was shot when he reached for a gun during an identity check.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat has his headquarters, shopkeepers closed their stores early and residents hoarded food in anticipation of an Israeli incursion.

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