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JIM LEHRER: Israel cut all contact today with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the Israelis launched new air strikes and sent ground forces into Palestinian towns. We get more from Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: The Israeli attacks continued overnight in Gaza and today in the West Bank town of Jenin, where helicopter gun ships and F-16s fired missiles into Palestinian Authority buildings. Israeli troops also moved into Ramallah on the West Bank, coming within 100 yards of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters. Other units moved into the Gaza Strip, tightening already strict security procedures. Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise. Four Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza today. Three, including two teenagers, were shot by Israeli troops, and one was killed in the air strikes. The Israeli actions followed yesterday’s deadly ambush of an Israeli bus in the West Bank. Ten Israelis were killed and scores injured when Hamas militants detonated bombs beneath the bus and machine-gunned its passengers as they fled. Today, a spokesman for the Israeli cabinet said his government will do what Arafat has not.
ARI MEKEL, Israeli Government Spokesman: The Israeli cabinet has decided last night, following the recent terror attack in which ten more Israelis were killed, to consider Arafat irrelevant. What it means is that from now on we will do what it takes to fight terror in the West Bank and Gaza. We will arrest the terrorists. We will put them in jail. We will bring them to justice.
TERENCE SMITH: In Gaza, a defiant Palestinian Authority official said Israel’s intent was clear.
TAYEB ABDUL-RAHIM, Secretary General, Palestinian Authority (Translated): There is no doubt that the latest Israeli escalation and attacks in Gaza and the West Bank are aimed at toppling Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
TERENCE SMITH: The Israeli decision to break off contact with Arafat comes after a particularly deadly period of violence in the now 15-month-old second Intifada. A series of Hamas suicide bombings on December 1 and 2 killed 25 Israelis and provoked retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza city and elsewhere. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanded that Arafat stop the violence and curtail the operations of the militant groups, or face the prospect of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the stalled Middle East peace process begun eight years ago in Oslo. The attacks also have coincided with a renewed U.S. effort to get that process moving again. The U.S. envoy sent to negotiate a cease-fire, retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, has seen little but violence in the region over the course of his two-week mission. Nearly 100 people have been killed, and hundreds wounded, since his arrival. At the State Department this afternoon, Secretary of State Colin Powell sounded a tough note.
COLIN POWELL, Secretary of State: The situation is getting worse, not better, and we really cannot give up hope. We can’t walk away from this. The stakes are too high. And Prime Minister Sharon is desperate to bring peace and security. Chairman Arafat is desperate to get the process going that would lead to a Palestinian state. We must find a way to bring these two somewhat complementary positions together so that we can get into a cease-fire. And the way to do that is to get rid of these terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, which do not want to achieve any of the two objectives of the two sides that I just laid out, and they are more likely to destroy the Palestinian cause than to destroy the state of Israel. And that’s why Mr. Arafat, it seems to me, has the burden upon him right now to act very aggressively.
TERENCE SMITH: But Powell stopped short of breaking U.S. Ties with Arafat, noting that he remains the elected head of the Palestinian Authority.
COLIN POWELL: He still has that authority, that mantle of leadership given to him by the Palestinian people, and we will continue to work with him.
TERENCE SMITH: But the Israelis say they will not. While denying any intention of harming Arafat physically, an Israeli government spokesman said it will pursue what he described as a “sustained and prolonged military action” aimed at demolishing the Islamic militant groups.