A statement released by the Israeli government said Arafat is “directly responsible for the series of attacks and therefore is no longer relevant to Israel, and Israel will no longer have any connection with him.”
After an emergency Security Cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said Israel would have no further contact with Arafat or members of his Palestinian Authority.
“We have been talking with the Palestinians at all levels for two years,” he told reporters. “Now it is time for Israel to defend itself.”
The move followed a day of violent attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian targets, despite a call from U.S. Envoy Anthony Zinni for a 48-hour period of calm.
It also came despite Arafat’s vow just hours earlier to shut down institutions belonging to the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the wake of the bus attack.
“The Palestinian Authority in an urgent meeting headed by Arafat has taken a decision that Palestinian security forces will immediately close down all Hamas and Islamic Jihad institutions, including education, health and political offices,” a Palestinian statement said.
A day of violence
The bus attack occurred outside the Jewish settlement of Immanuel in the West Bank. An explosion ripped apart the bus and then Palestinian gunmen in the surrounding hills opened fire on a bus, three civilian cars and emergency workers arriving on the scene. At the same time, two suicide bombers wounded three people outside another settlement in the Gaza Strip.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah group, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said settlers are legitimate targets because they are living on occupied land.
Hours after the attack, Israeli warplanes hit a Palestinian security installation and an airport in the West Bank city of Nablus and a Palestinian security compound in Gaza City.
Israel has launched airstrikes against Palestinian security targets and symbols of Arafat’s presidency in reprisal for a wave of attacks by Palestinian militants in recent weeks.
Israeli helicopter gunships attacked a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday. Four Palestinian militiamen were killed and 20 bystanders wounded in the airstrike. Israeli army officials said the strike came in response to mortar fire from the camp on nearby Jewish settlements.
Just the day before, U.S. Envoy Anthony Zinni, a former Marine Corps general, had negotiated an agreement by both Israeli and Palestinian officials to attempt two full days of calm to ease tensions and build trust.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel would continue taking “responsible” military action. He said Israeli troops would respond to Palestinian mortar fire and strike against militants suspected of planning attacks on Israelis.
Cycle of blame
Zinni has been in the Middle East for two weeks working to restart truce talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. A Palestinian suicide attack last week that killed 26 people set off a chain of reprisal strikes. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack.
Sharon placed blame for the attack squarely on Arafat.
“Anyone who stands up to kill us is subject to death,” Sharon said in an address to the country Monday. “We know who is responsible. Arafat is responsible for everything that is taking place here. Arafat made the strategic choice. He chose a strategy of terror.”
In response, Arafat’s government said more than 180 suspects have been detained, including 17 on a list of 33 names of wanted militants submitted by the United States. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, described the Palestinians’ crackdown on suspected militants as a “very serious battle we have never experienced before.”
Before today’s announcement concerning action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials had said that Palestinians had not made a sufficient effort in that regard, rounding up low-level actors instead of the leaders or arresting and then releasing the terrorists.