- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

JERUSALEM Israel early this morning decided to sever ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli army began an incursion into the southern Gaza Strip as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet vowed to carry out a widescale military operation.
The decision was made at an emergency Cabinet meeting, after yesterday's two Palestinian attacks on a civilian bus in the West Bank and on a car in the Gaza Strip left 10 Israelis dead and scores wounded.
The Cabinet also decided that Mr. Arafat "is no longer relevant as far as Israel is concerned and there will be no more contact with him," but that doesn't mean the Palestinian leader would be personally harmed.
"Arafat has kept none of his promises, and we do not believe him," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said earlier, as he announced details of the latest wave of attacks to a stunned Jewish solidarity mission from the Washington-based B'nai B'rith.
"We are hitting the terror networks, and we are trying to destroy their infrastructure," he said.
The dramatic escalation of violence threatens to wreck the peace missions of U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni, who has been in the region since Nov. 26 but his efforts have failed to stop the bloodletting.
In the bloodier of the two terror attacks yesterday, a roadside bomb was detonated by remote control when a local bus pulled in to let off passengers near a religious Jewish settlement not far from the Palestinian-controlled city of Nablus. As the passengers tried to flee, the attackers stationed in hills alongside raked them with semiautomatic gunfire, eyewitnesses said.
One of the three gunmen in the West Bank attack, on the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement of Emmanuel, was shot dead and the other two fled towards Nablus, military sources said.
Israel claimed that all three attackers were wanted killers whom the Palestinian Authority had failed to arrest despite Israeli and American demands. They had been listed among 33 men whose names were presented to Mr. Arafat by Gen. Zinni soon after he arrived in the region.
In the Gaza Strip to Israel's south, meanwhile, two suicide bombers leapt onto a car and blew themselves up, injuring four people, but killing no one else.
Spearheading a widescale and rapid response, Israeli planes and helicopters pounded airports and security outposts in Gaza and the West Bank, and moved troops toward Palestinian-controlled cities.
The security Cabinet resolved to reduce its previous "restraint" and move more boldly to wipe out terror networks, according to Cabinet sources. Israeli forces had recently withdrawn from six West Bank cities under international pressure, but ground forces will return there and to other towns in pursuit of terrorists and terror cells, the sources said.
Gen. Zinni, who believed he had this week secured an informal understanding between Palestinian and Israeli leaders to impose 48-hours of calm, again demanded that Mr. Arafat arrest the culprits and "destroy the infrastructure of the terror organizations that support them."
Israel was meanwhile not waiting for Mr. Arafat to act. Israeli helicopters swooped low over Nablus, while ground forces fired illumination grenades in the sky over the area. Israeli fighter jets fired missiles at a command building belonging to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement in the Palestinian Authority-controlled city.
In the wake of the latest terror attacks, a statement from the beleaguered Mr. Arafat said that an emergency meeting of his authority had decided not only to close down the political offices run by the hard-line Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, but also to shut their schools and health clinics efficiently run institutions that help garner grass-roots support for the movements.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said the terrorists in the West Bank attack were from a Hamas cell operating out of Nablus, and were on the list handed to Mr. Arafat because they had killed before.
Mr. Arafat has recently claimed to have arrested 17 of the 33 listed men, but the spokesman insisted that the detained had been much fewer.
"Most of those arrested are sitting in an atmosphere of five-star hotels they can go whenever they want, no information is being collected, no interrogations, no follow-ups, and no one has appeared in a court."
Responsibility for the West Bank bombing was claimed not only by Hamas but also by an offshoot of the Fatah movement, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
This organization recently maintained it had been jointly responsible with Islamic militants for a terror attack in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has contended that fighters under Mr. Arafat's direct or indirect command have been responsible for killing more than half of the 230 Israelis who have died since the intifada started 15 months ago. Until recently, though, none of the Arafat-linked fighting groups openly claimed operational links with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israel's death toll in terrorist attacks has risen to 36 in the last 10 days. Many of the victims were teen-agers.
Electricity was cut in Ramallah and in Gaza City to make targeting harder. Mr. Arafat was reported to have remained in his mostly evacuated headquarters there with only a few bodyguards.
Last week, Israeli missiles struck just feet from Mr. Arafat's Ramallah office as part of a retaliation for Hamas suicide bombings that killed 26 persons in Jerusalem and Haifa. Israel attacked Palestinian police buildings, Gaza's airport and Mr. Arafat's helicopters.
Cabinet minister Dan Naveh said Israel's response to last night's attacks would be "massive and continuous."

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