- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel barred a Palestinian delegation from attending a Middle East conference in London and decided to close three Palestinian universities yesterday a relatively muted response to the deadliest suicide attack in nearly a year.
Bombings on the scale of the twin blasts in Tel Aviv Sunday 22 killed and more than 100 wounded in the past triggered major Israeli military offensives.
Israel responded Sunday night with rocket attacks in the Gaza Strip that wounded five.
But with Israel's general election three weeks away and the United States eager to keep a lid on Middle East violence ahead of a potential strike against Iraq, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's options are limited.
An offshoot of a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement took responsibility for Sunday's bombings, prompting new Israeli accusations that the Palestinian leader was encouraging and even ordering attacks on Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombings and denied any involvement, while Fatah tried to distance itself from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia with ties to the bombers. A spokesman for the Al Aqsa offshoot responsible for the blasts says his group has been receiving money from Iran and will not heed demands by Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Hassan to stop attacks in Israel.
Israel's security Cabinet, meeting early yesterday, did not order Mr. Arafat's expulsion, seeking to avoid friction with Washington ahead of a potential U.S.-Iraq war. However, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of the security Cabinet, said he expected Mr. Arafat eventually would be ousted from the West Bank.
The two bombers, residents of the West Bank city of Nablus ages 19 and 20, blew themselves up in an old area of Tel Aviv crowded with foreign workers.
Among the dead were at least 11 Israelis and six foreign workers, including citizens of Romania, Bulgaria and Ghana.
It was the deadliest bombing since March, when 29 hotel guests were killed in an attack on the eve of the Jewish Passover holiday.
The Passover attack led to a major Israeli military offensive, Defensive Shield, in which Israel reoccupied West Bank towns, rounded up thousands of Palestinians and laid siege to Mr. Arafat's headquarters for 34 days.
In response to Sunday's Tel Aviv bombings, Israel barred a Palestinian delegation from leaving for a London conference that was to be held Jan. 13 and 14 to discuss a truce and Palestinian reform.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Israel's decision was shortsighted. "I think it's like someone shooting himself in the foot," Mr. Erekat said.
Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said the security Cabinet decided in principle to shut down three Palestinian universities a measure last taken during the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising.
Mr. Gissin initially named Bir Zeit and An Najah universities the West Bank's most prestigious and largest institutions of higher learning, respectively as those likely to be shut. However, he later said that Israel had not completed the process of collecting evidence, and a final decision on which universities to close had not been made. Mr. Gissin did not name a third university. Officials at both universities said they had not received closure orders.
In a third step, Israel decided to prevent the 120-member Palestinian Central Council from meeting Thursday in Ramallah and to impose travel restrictions on senior Palestinian Authority officials.

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