FROM CHRISTOPHER WALKER IN JERUSALEMTHE Middle East moved closer to a new war yesterday as Ariel Sharon declared the Arafat era over and moved tanks into three West Bank towns.
Israel also killed a leading Palestinian militant, and the PLO claimed to have evidence that the Jewish state was plotting to assassinate its leader, Yassir Arafat.
The rapid collapse of the peace process followed the murder of Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli Tourism Minister, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on Wednesday. Mr Sharon said: “Arafat has seven days to impose absolute quiet in the (occupied) territories. If not, we will go to war against him. As far as I am concerned, the era of Arafat is over.”
The Palestinians suspect that Israel has decided on its response to the killing of Mr Zeevi. Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Arafat aide, said that the Palestinian Authority had evidence that Israel was planning to assassinate Mr Arafat.
Israel’s Security Cabinet is understood to have sent a blunt message to Mr Arafat that unless Israel’s conditions for the extradition of the killers and the outlawing of all Palestinian terror organisations were adhered to within one week he “would be treated in the way in which the US treats the Taleban”.
Although there was some confusion about the precise timing of the new Israeli deadline for the surrender of the PFLP killers — whose identity ministers claimed to know — officials said that it would run out at the end of the seven-day mourning period for Mr Zeevi.
In a reflection of the mood across much of Israel as Mr Zeevi, a former army general, was buried with full military honours in Jerusalem, his family and other mourners called for retaliation on a massive scale to avenge his murder.
The latest Israeli “targeted killing” near the West Bank town of Bethlehem was that of Ataf Abayat, a member of the Tanzim militia of Mr Arafat’s Fatah faction. He died instantly in a car bomb explosion. He was high on Israel’s wanted list and blamed for the recent death of a woman settler.
At least three other Palestinians were killed in clashes across the West Bank, as Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian towns of Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. A 10-year-old schoolgirl was killed in Jenin and two Palestinian security men using automatic rifles to try to prevent tanks advancing into Ramallah also died. The Palestinians said that four other schoolgirls and three adults were wounded in Jenin.
The killing of Mr Abayat, and two other Palestinian militants who were with him, led to reprisals by Palestinian gunmen, who fired on the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which Palestinians regard as an illegal Jewish settlement. A mortar bomb was fired late in the evening but there were no reports of injuries.
In another incident an Israeli man was shot and killed and two of his companions were wounded in a drive-by shooting on the road between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Jericho.
Israeli sources refused to comment on the killing of Mr Abayat, who had recently been picked up by the Palestinian police and released soon after. He was on a wanted list Israel had given to Mr Arafat.
The Palestinian Authority said that it had arrested 11 PFLP members, although it was not clear if they included the suspected assassins. Ziad Abu Zayad, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said: “If indeed the people behind Zeevi’s murder are inside Palestinian Authority territory, Arafat needs to arrest them and bring them to trial, but not to extradite them to Israel.”
Sending tanks into the Palestinian towns, the Israeli Cabinet said that it reserved the right to enter Palestinian-ruled territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip whenever “there is an operational need to act against terror”.
Even moderate Israelis appeared ready for a new cycle of violence. Yossi Sarid, leader of the main left-wing Meretz party, said that the country was heading inexorably towards a repeat of the Lebanon invasion of 1982, which followed the attempted assassination of its London ambassador, except this time against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In advance of the harsher action against Mr Arafat, Mr Sharon nominated four senior ministers to fly to the US to convince the Government and people there that the Palestinian leader was not cracking down on terrorism.