- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

JERUSALEM Palestinian militants assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister yesterday at a Jerusalem hotel, prompting the Jewish state to roll back measures it had taken to ease life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and dealing a severe blow to American peace efforts in the region.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical group that had all but disappeared from the political map until Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted a year ago, claimed responsibility for gunning down Rehavam Zeevi, the 75-year-old tourism minister and leader of the most right-wing party in Israel's parliament.

The group described the assassination as revenge for Israel's killing of PFLP chairman Abu Ali Mustafa two months ago. Israel maintained at the time Mr. Mustafa was planning attacks on the Jewish state.

Yasser Arafat condemned yesterday's killing, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the Palestinian leader was responsible for the violence because he had failed to arrest Palestinian extremists.

"The full responsibility falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled and continues to control terrorism," Mr. Sharon said in a statement issued by his office.

Israel's inner Cabinet demanded today that Mr. Arafat hand over the assassins, declaring, "If the Palestinian Authority does not agree to these demands, there will be no choice but to view it as a state that supports terror and to act against it."

The unprecedented killing, the first of a Cabinet minister in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was sure to draw a harsh Israeli response. It appeared to spoil the best start the two sides had made in months at curbing violence and resuming peace talks.

It also posed a setback for Washington, which views the low-intensity war between Israelis and Palestinians as an obstacle to enlisting Arab support for the global battle against terrorism.

President Bush, during a visit to Travis Air Force Base in California, called the assassination "further evidence of the need to fight terrorism."

Separately, a senior U.S. official told the Reuters news agency that the action was carried out in defiance of Palestinian leaders an assertion that challenged Mr. Sharon's version of the events.

Mr. Bush has pressured both Israelis and Palestinians in recent weeks to end their fighting. The level of violence in the West Bank and Gaza had been on the decline until yesterday's shooting.

"This changes things," said an Israeli official who declined to be named. "I don't see a way for us to continue making gestures to the Palestinians," he said.

In Gaza, Mr. Arafat told a Western diplomat that his policemen would find the killers.

"He has informed me that he has ordered the immediate arrest and search for those involved in today's assassination," said Terje Larsen, a U.N. enjoy in the region. "He has also informed me that he has instructed this morning all security chiefs to take all necessary measures to prevent acts of violence and terrorism," Mr. Larsen said.

Police said at least one gunman accosted Mr. Zeevi, a retired army general, at the entrance to his eighth-floor room in the Hyatt hotel at around 6:45 a.m., shot him in the head and neck and fled to a Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank.

Mr. Zeevi, who had advocated mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, stayed at the hotel regularly whenever parliament was in session. He had eaten breakfast with his wife at a restaurant in the hotel, then returned alone to his room where he was shot. His wife, Yael, found him lying in a puddle of his own blood.

The Israeli army quickly moved to seal off parts of the West Bank, reversing measures it had taken days ago to ease the siege on Palestinian areas.

At the entrance to Ramallah, Israeli soldiers formed makeshift roadblocks in the early afternoon, snarling traffic and holding up a long line of Palestinian cars.

In a videotape aired on Lebanese television, three PFLP militants vowed to target other Israeli leaders.

The PFLP, a hard-line group with a Marxist ideology, has a long history of violence against Israelis. It is best known for hijackings it committed in the 1970s. In Palestinian politics, the PFLP was a small opposition party. Sidelined during the 1990s, the group got a boost after Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted in September 2000, but has still been overshadowed by the more militant Muslim groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Palestinians rushed to congratulate PFLP leaders.

"People are approaching me on the street, they're very excited about this operation," said Khader Abu Abara, a member of the PFLP's central committee who appears on Israel's Most Wanted list. "Israeli aggression has no limits so we have to show them that we have no limits in our war with the Israelis."

Mr. Zeevi, nicknamed Ghandi because of a childhood resemblance to the Indian peace activist, spent 35 years in the army and eventually turned to politics. Though he served twice in the past 10 years as a Cabinet minister, his views on the need to expel Arabs placed him beyond Israel's political consensus.

He tangled with Mr. Sharon on several occasions, urging tougher policies. Three days ago, he tendered his resignation over Israel's decision to pull tanks out of Palestinian areas in the West Bank town of Hebron. The resignation was to go into effect yesterday.

Shabak, Israel's domestic security agency charged, among other things, with protecting Israeli leaders, said it would investigate the latest lapse in its security.

The agency had been expecting a Palestinian attack on Israeli officials. Just last month, Shabak agents contacted journalists and asked them not to publish in advance the schedules of Cabinet ministers and members of parliament.

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