Wednesday 8 May 2002

Israeli Cabinet votes to retaliate

8 May 2002

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Cabinet on Thursday approved military action against "terrorist targets" in response to a suicide bombing that cut short Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the United States. The decision to strike back came amid reports of a deal to allow most of the Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the past five weeks to leave. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, ordered his security services Wednesday to prevent future attacks against Israeli citizens, hours after the militant Muslim group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in a Tel Aviv suburb that killed 15 Israelis.

"I gave my orders and directions to all the Palestinian security forces to confront and prevent all terror attacks," Arafat said in Arabic on Palestinian TV.

Sharon, who was meeting with President Bush on Tuesday in Washington at the time of the bombing, returned to Israel immediately to deal with the crisis.

The Israeli Cabinet considered a large-scale invasion of Gaza and Arafat's possible expulsion in retaliation for the bombing, according to Israel Radio.

A government statement after the meeting said Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had been authorized to decide on what action to take.

Palestinian officials said they expected Israeli forces to target Gaza. Hamas is based in Gaza, a swath of land on the Mediterranean spared during the Israeli offensive launched March 29 in the West Bank against militants.

Arafat insisted in his speech that his security forces needed help. The United States has repeatedly demanded that the Palestinian leader show a commitment to the peace process by condemning terrorism in Arabic to his people.

There were few signs that the violence might be abated, though. In a new attack Wednesday, another Palestinian detonated explosives at a bus stop in northern Israel. The assailant was critically wounded but caused no injuries to others.

And Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, told the Associated Press that his group would continue attacks against Israel. "Israel's action will not go unpunished. They have harmed civilians, and so their civilians will be harmed," Yassin said.

According to negotiators in Bethlehem, the tentative agreement on the standoff affects all but 13 of the more than 100 Palestinians inside. Most would be freed; 26 militants would be sent to Gaza. But the fate of the 13 suspected Muslim militants was still undecided. Negotiators had agreed to exile them to Italy, but the Italian government balked.

Contributing: Laurence McQuillan in Washington, wire reports.