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Israel Severs Ties with Arafat

Israel cuts ties with Yasser Arafat after Palestinian militants attack a bus in the West Bank, killing ten Israelis and threatening to derail the US-led peace envoy.

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Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat meets supporters at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday

Ten Israelis were killed and another 30 were injured Wednesday evening when Palestinians bombed a bus near the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel and then shot at fleeing passengers and rescue forces. The attack was the most recent in a string of escalating violence, which has served to push the two sides even further away from the negotiation table.

As in previous bombing attacks, the Israeli army retaliated with more than a dozen missile strikes against Palestinian buildings in the West Bank and Gaza, including a compound containing Arafat's offices. The Palestinian leader was not in the compound at the time.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then called for an emergency meeting of his kitchen cabinet to decide on additional responses. Prior to the meeting, Sharon spoke to US Secretary of State Colin Powell in a telephone conversation, saying that Israel "must make decisions" and that Arafat had done nothing to stop the terror.

Shortly thereafter the cabinet issued a statement condemning the violent attacks, for which it holds Arafat responsible: "The government of Israel views Arafat as directly responsible for this series of attacks, and, in light of this, states that Arafat is no longer relevant from Israel’s point of view, and there will be no more communication with him."

Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit told a news conference that Israel "has no intention of physically harming Arafat." He said the security cabinet’s decision meant there would be no more meetings with Palestinian officials and that Israel would not rely on the Palestinian Authority under Arafat’s leadership to fight "terrorism."

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior adviser to Arafat, was quoted by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA as saying Israel had effectively declared war on the Palestinian people. "It is an official war launched by Sharon’s government on our people and it will lead the region into more escalation, instability and violence," Abu Rdainah said.

Peace prospects

Wednesday’s attack wields another blow to the already fragile peace prospects and could threaten to derail the efforts of US envoy Anthony Zinni to secure an end to nearly 15 months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Zinni after the attack that the situation had reached "the boiling point" and that harsher measures were not avoidable.

Since Zinni’s arrival in the Middle East two weeks ago, 44 Israelis and 21 Palestinians have been killed. However, US diplomatic sources say the former Marine Corps general is steadfast in his quest for peace in the region and believes there is still a chance of bringing the sides together for talks.

After the bus ambush, Arafat took the unprecedented step of ordering the closure of all offices and institutions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the groups claiming responsibility for the recent suicide attacks.

"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," the Palestinian Authority said in an official statement issued after the attacks.

Israel blamed Arafat "for not reining in these terrorists" earlier. According to government sources in Jerusalem, the gunmen involved in Wednesday’s attack had appeared on the list of 33 wanted terrorists Israel handed over to the Palestinian Authority last week via Zinni. The Palestinian Authority failed to arrest them before it was too late.

Stating publicly what Israeli leaders have been saying privately for weeks, Justice Minister Sheetrit said: "We have proved that Arafat cannot be the partner to this process of peace."

"Arafat will no longer be the address for Israel to take care of the terror issue and from now on we will do whatever we can as a country to defend ourselves," Sheetrit said.

The Israeli government has not made clear, who it feels should take over Arafat’s position as peace negotiator for the Palestinians. Among the Palestinian Authority there is no other figure who commands as much respect as Arafat, and who has as much power to execute changes.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said it was impossible to implement the Palestinian commitments "under the shadow of the comprehensive war." He urged Israel to reconsider its position, "The minute this campaign stops we will carry out our duties."

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