Arafat calls for end to attacks
© St. Petersburg Times,
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, facing intense international pressure and the threat of imminent Israeli military attacks, Saturday condemned the deadly suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv night club late Friday and pledged to seek an "immediate and unconditional" cease-fire in the 9-month-old Palestinian armed revolt.
Arafat's announcement marked a sharp departure from his recent repeated and passionate endorsements of the Palestinian uprising. But it was uncertain whether he had the political will or actual control to achieve a complete cessation of hostilities.
"We will exert now our utmost efforts to stop the bloodshed of our people, and of the Israeli people, and to do all that is needed to achieve an immediate and unconditional, real and effective cease-fire," Arafat said.
In response to Arafat's announcement, Israeli officials said they would not order immediate reprisal attacks on Palestinian territory, but would wait -- a few days at the most -- to determine whether Arafat will take concrete steps to halt armed attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets.
But the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which is under enormous domestic pressure to avenge the deaths of 18 mostly teenage victims of the bombing, issued a blistering statement accusing Arafat and his Palestinian Authority of operating a "coalition of terror."
Officials close to Sharon were deeply skeptical that Arafat's statement was anything more than a ruse, intended to deflect international criticism and forestall the fury of a full Israeli military attack. They said the chief reason for postponing action was to demonstrate that Sharon, who suspended air attacks and assassinations of Palestinians two weeks ago, has bent over backward to give Arafat one last chance.
Arafat "wants to drag his feet and buy more time, and we're not going to play that game," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon.
In particular, Israel is demanding that Arafat rearrest Islamic militants whom he released from Palestinian jails last fall; order his security and political lieutenants to implement the cease-fire; act on tips from Israeli intelligence to arrest Palestinians suspected of planning attacks; and halt anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media. Facing a bitter and disaffected public, Arafat could find all of those steps extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. Palestinian officials said security chiefs in Arafat's Palestinian Authority ordered their forces to take action to put the cease-fire into effect.
"The real and only test will be the cessation of terrorism, the arrest of those involved persons, the inciters, the perpetrators and those behind them," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
A furious Sharon was reported by Israel Radio to have called Arafat a murderer in a rare emergency session with security ministers during the Jewish Sabbath Saturday. As a crisis atmosphere gripped the nation, Sharon canceled what was to have been his first trip to Europe as prime minister, scheduled this week.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sharon and Arafat on Saturday, then issued a statement calling on the Palestinian leader to call a cease-fire and arrest those responsible for the attack. Powell also canceled a weekend trip to Costa Rica in order to monitor the situation.
Although it stopped short of airstrikes and artillery bombardments today, Israel ordered a blockade against movement into and out of all Palestinian cities and towns, a measure that will exacerbate the already severe restrictions on movement within the West Bank and Gaza. The army also announced it would bar all Palestinians, including the 120,000 who work in Israel, from entering the country, close international crossings from Palestinian areas to Jordan and Egypt and shut down Gaza's airport, even to Arafat, who was unable to return to his headquarters in the Gaza Strip.
Taken together, those steps could cripple the already badly damaged economy of the Palestinian areas, where tens of thousands of Palestinian workers have lost jobs they once held in Israel. But Israelis were demanding the most severe measures be taken.
"I want revenge," said Reuven Drori, 39, an Israeli electronic engineer who said he had always voted for the most dovish political party, Meretz, in the past. "I want 500 Palestinians killed, that's what I want. Maybe 5,000."
The Palestinian bomber detonated his charge in a plaza packed with teenage Israelis, many of them girls or young women and almost all of them Russian-speaking immigrants living in the Tel Aviv area. The blast spewed nails, shrapnel and metal balls in all directions, killing and maiming more Israelis than any such attack in Israel since 1994.
Most of the 18 victims were 14 to 18; only two were older than 19. Among the dead were Yelena and Yulia Nelimov, 16- and 18-year-old sisters from Tel Aviv. The attack also left more than 90 people injured, a dozen of them seriously.
There were conflicting reports about who was responsible. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television station said a group calling itself the Palestinian Hezbollah claimed responsibility. Abu Dhabi TV said the assailant apparently was a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group.
By midday Saturday, a mob of angry Israelis had gathered in Tel Aviv outside the main entrance to the Defense Ministry, venting their anger and insisting the government strike back hard against the Palestinians.
A short time later, another throng of hundreds of Israelis besieged a mosque just a block away from the beachfront plaza where the suicide bomber struck just after 11 p.m. Friday.
Defying an inadequate and mostly lethargic contingent of police, the several hundred Israelis hurled rocks and chunks of paving stones at the Hassan Bekh mosque, inside of which perhaps a half-dozen Arab men were holed up. The Arabs emerged briefly to heave a few rocks back before ducking back inside.
The seige went on for hours, blocking traffic on south Tel Aviv's beachfront road and leaving the mosque's windows shattered. Several dozen police and protesters were injured before the police managed to extract the Arabs using an armored vehicle.
In the Palestinian territories, many noted that hundreds of Palestinian teenagers had been killed since last fall, and argued that there was a certain justice in the suicide bomber's action.
"There are no innocent people among those who were killed," said Amin, 31, a blacksmith in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "This is the only language that Sharon understands."
- Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111