The attackers gunned down Rehavam Zeevi, Israeli tourism minister and noted hard-liner, in his Jerusalem hotel early Wednesday. The minister was shot once in the head and once in the neck by unknown assailants.
The militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that has rejected all attempts to bring peace to the region, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said the shooting was revenge for an Israeli missile attack that killed its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, earlier this year.
“The Israeli government, by killing Abu Ali Mustafa, has opened the gates of hell on itself and now the fire is approaching it,” PFLP spokesman Ali Jaradat said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a special meeting of the parliament that responsibility fell to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
“Only despicable terrorists can dream of assassinating an elected official in a democratic state,” Sharon said. “The responsibility is Arafat’s alone, as someone who has carried out and is carrying out acts of terrorism and never took steps against it.”
The killing has unified the Israeli government in its call for Yasser Arafat to crack down on militant groups. Yossi Sarid, the left-wing opposition leader, told the Knesset that Arafat and other Palestinian leaders faced an immediate test.
“If they fail the test,” Sarid said, “the land will burn, the fire will rage, and no one will be able to put it out.”
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority responded by swiftly condemning the attack.
“We reject all forms of political assassinations,” Palestinian cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said. “We want to put an end to this vicious cycle of killings although Mr. Zeevi had adopted hostile positions and policies against our people.”
The U.S. and the U.N. called on both sides to try and end the months of violence and not to escalate the fighting.
“The secretary-general appeals to all parties to exercise maximum restraint and urges them to resume a sustained dialogue,” UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters it was clear the shooting had been carried out in defiance of Palestinian leaders, who had voiced support for a cease-fire reaffirmed three weeks ago.
Zeevi, a father of five, was a renowned military leader and had served as a general in several branches of the Israeli army. His ultra-nationalist party had called on transferring Palestinians from Israeli-controlled lands and had opposed Israeli-Palestinian interim peace agreements first forged under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“He was first of all a friend, a comrade and I shared his belief in the indisputable right of the Jewish people to their historical homeland,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.
Zeevi resigned from Sharon’s government on Monday, accusing it of buckling to American pressure and softening its stance toward the Palestinians. His resignation was to take effect this afternoon.