- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli tanks were poised outside the Gaza Strip and military reservists were called up yesterday in anticipation of an attack in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing. War preparations proceeded while a deal was reached to end the standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
In a sign that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was taking action against terror groups, Palestinians arrested 16 members of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that claimed responsibility for the suicide attack earlier this week.
Tanks were parked off Gaza, the home base of Hamas, and Israeli forces around the strip were being beefed up last night.
But Hamas leaders in Gaza a sliver of Mediterranean coastline two-thirds of which is under Palestinian autonomy said they were going about life as usual.
Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin went ahead with the afternoon wedding reception for one of his seven daughters, his son Mohammed said. A Yassin deputy and university professor, Mahmoud Zahar, said he was staying at home to prepare for exams. A Hamas spokesman, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said his schedule was filled with TV interviews.
Mohammed Dahlan, Mr. Arafat's security chief in Gaza, said the Palestinians were expecting an attack.
"Everyone is prepared, and our people know how to confront the occupation," said Mr. Dahlan, who has been in the West Bank town of Ramallah for months. "We said this before, and we mean it now if the occupation forces carry out an aggression, we will face this aggression."
In the standoff at Bethlehem, an Israeli official said that late in the day, a deal was reached that 13 suspected terrorists inside the church would be divided among up to eight countries.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides and Palestinian sources said the militants would be taken first to Cyprus and then elsewhere.
Under the deal to end the 38-day standoff at the site widely believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, Italy and Spain would take some of the militants, and the remainder would be distributed among at least four other countries, the Israeli official said. Twenty-six would be sent to Gaza. Others inside the church would be allowed to go free.
Also yesterday, the Israeli Cabinet approved unspecified reprisals in response to the pool hall bombing in a Tel Aviv suburb on Tuesday. Fifteen Israelis were killed in the attack, the deadliest since Israel began its West Bank military offensive on March 29 after a wave of Palestinian suicide missions.
The reserve call-up was smaller than the one that preceded the March 29 operation during which troops occupied six of the eight main Palestinian towns in the West Bank. The occupation lasted several weeks, and troops fought running battles with Palestinian gunmen.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres hinted that his country might have a more limited operation in mind this time, "striking at centers from which the suicide attackers come, or the houses from which they come, or the nests from which the organization of suicide bombers comes."
Military sources said the operation will be centered on Gaza but may not be restricted to the strip. The objective is to hit at Hamas leaders and end the sense of immunity that militants in the strip have enjoyed, senior officials said.
Military commentators also said they expected the Gaza operation to be more limited than the West Bank offensive. Fighting in densely populated Gaza would be much more complicated and could expose troops to greater risks.
European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos condemned the suicide attack but said the EU was "very concerned" about increasing violence and new military action. The European body was working with the United States, Russia and the United Nations to try to prevent that, he said.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat criticized the expected operation.
"Such an attack will lead to disastrous consequences for the Palestinian people there," he said. "This will be adding fuel to the fire."
In a televised address on Wednesday, Mr. Arafat said he had ordered his security forces to arrest Palestinian terror groups. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday that the Palestinian Authority "has already taken some measures to control the security situation."
In Gaza City, Hamas reported that of the 16 members arrested yesterday by Palestinian police, none was a senior official.
In the past, Palestinian police have temporarily detained Hamas leaders, then released them soon after. In some cases, it appeared that the Palestinians took the moves largely to protect the leaders from possible Israeli attack.
Israel has accused the Palestinian Authority of attempts to create the appearance of a crackdown on militants.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer reacted cautiously, saying the key test will be whether those arrested remain in custody. "We're looking into the reports of the arrests," he said.


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