Israeli security Cabinet OKs retaliation for terror bomb
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's security Cabinet early Thursday authorized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to retaliate for a suicide bombing at a billiard hall that killed 15 people, but no specifics were disclosed.
Sharon convened an emergency Cabinet meeting late Wednesday at Ben Gurion Airport upon his return from Washington. Sharon cut short a visit to the U.S. capital following the Tuesday bombing in Rishon Letzion, a coastal town about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv, which occurred while he was meeting with President Bush.
The Cabinet decision came despite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's condemnation of the bombing. He issued an unprecedented order to Palestinian security forces Wednesday "to confront and prevent any terror attack against Israeli civilians from any Palestinian side."
In a separate statement, the Palestinian Authority said it would take "severe measures" against anyone involved in the Rishon Letzion attack.
The Palestinian Authority said those behind the suicide bombing "are tampering with our cause, endangering our fate." It warned that Sharon would use the attack as a pretext for further military action.
"The timing of such an operation only serves the Israeli prime minister," the statement said. "This operation supports his allegations of the impossibility of making peace with the Palestinians and staining our nation with terrorism."
The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for Tuesday night's bombing, but Sharon said Arafat bore responsibility. Some Israeli politicians renewed calls to send Arafat into exile after the attack.
Education Minister Limor Livnat, who accompanied Sharon to Washington, told Israeli Army Radio: "It could be that in the end there will be no choice and we will have to expel Arafat." Livnat said she had no indication whether Sharon had made up his mind.
The Cabinet decided against such a move before Israel launched its offensive in the West Bank on March 29, instead confining the Palestinian leader to his headquarters in Ramallah for four weeks.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said there was no point in exiling Arafat. Instead, he called on Arafat to form "a central authority over all armed groups." Without that authority, Peres said, "he cannot perform as he should."
"I think he has to try to prevent the acts of terror. I think by his sheer voice and strength he can do a great deal," Peres said. "Until now he has not lifted a finger to prevent them; that's the problem."
Meanwhile, an end to the five-week standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity appeared imminent early Thursday with an agreement that would free more than 100 Palestinians but leave 13 wanted militants inside.
Of the 124 Palestinians in the church, 85 will go free. Another 26 will be transferred to Gaza, where they could face trial in a Palestinian court. The remainder -- whom Israeli officials call "senior terrorists" -- are staying in Bethlehem, surrounded by Israeli troops, after Italian officials balked at a plan to send them into exile there. (Full story)
Israel arrests Hamas leaders
The Rishon Letzion billiard hall where Tuesday night's bombing took place was part of an entertainment complex popular with young people in what is a mostly middle-class city with a population of about 100,000. In addition to those killed, authorities said at least 57 people were wounded.
The bomber reportedly walked a few steps into the club at about 11:10 p.m. (4:10 p.m. ET). A witness who was leaving the building as the bomb went off told CNN it was "the most deafening explosion you could imagine." (Full story)
Following the blast, the Israeli military arrested 17 Palestinians in operations scattered across the West Bank. Mlitary officials said Wednesday afternoon their troops had arrested Abas Muhammad Mustafa al Sayyed, the local Hamas leader in Tulkarem. Muhanad Mansur Shrim, a local Hamas activist, was also arrested in the same operation, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The U.S. State Department designates Hamas a terrorist organization. Its military wing, the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, has claimed responsibility for many previous attacks on Israeli civilians.
In Washington, Bush said Wednesday he was "most pleased" by Arafat's order to Palestinian security forces to crack down on Palestinian militants.
"I thought that was an incredibly positive sign," Bush said during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "As you know I have been one who has been disappointed in the past, and therefore, I hope that his actions now match his words."
Bush conveyed his condolences about the bombing to Sharon before he left and expressed "his disgust at this wanton taking of innocent life," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said.
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