- JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's
security cabinet gave the green light Thursday for military operations
against "terrorist targets" after a Palestinian suicide bombing
that threatened to derail new Middle East peace efforts.
- The decision coincided with a deal to end a five-week-old
armed standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, under which 26 Palestinian
militants were expected to leave the church almost immediately and 13 were
due to be exiled abroad.
- The deal opens the way for a troop pullout from Bethlehem,
the last major West Bank city occupied by Israeli forces in an army offensive,
but the security cabinet decision raises the likelihood of a tough military
response to the suicide bombing.
- A government statement gave no details of what military
operations had been approved but said the security cabinet had empowered
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to
decide what action to take.
- At least 15 people were killed in addition to the Palestinian
suicide bomber and 60 others were wounded in the explosion at a packed
billiard hall in Rishon Letzion south of Tel Aviv Tuesday evening, police
- "The security cabinet authorized the prime minister
and defense minister to decide upon operations against terrorist targets,"
a government statement said.
- A senior Israeli political source said one cabinet minister
had raised the idea of exiling Palestinian President Yasser Arafat but
it had not even been out to a vote.
- SHARON CUTS SHORT VISIT
- Sharon convened his security cabinet, comprising top
ministers including the defense and foreign ministers, after cutting short
a visit to the United States to fly home to handle the situation.
- President Bush, who was informed of the explosion as
he held talks with Sharon, had urged him to remember his "vision of
peace" when responding to Tuesday's bombing but stopped short of calling
- "He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it
and kill him first," Sharon said before leaving Washington Wednesday.
- "Israel will continue to uproot the terror infrastructure."
- The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack but Israel
said it held Arafat responsible.
- Arafat, under U.S. and Israeli pressure to halt the violence,
said he had ordered Palestinian security forces to foil any attempt to
attack Israeli civilians.
- Bush called Arafat's order an "incredibly positive
sign" and added: "I hope that his actions now match his words."
- Palestinians in the Gaza Strip braced for an Israeli
armed assault after Israeli media reported that the suicide bomber was
believed to have come from Gaza.
- The attack, the sixth suicide bombing since Israel began
its offensive in the West Bank, brought the death toll in the 19-month-old
Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation to at least 1,345
Palestinians and 473 Israelis.
- The militant Islamic movement Hamas has neither confirmed
nor denied media reports that it carried out the attack.
- PEACE CONFERENCE?
- Israel and the Palestinians are considering a U.S. proposal
for an international peace conference in the summer to bring them back
to the negotiating table.
- The latest violence could set back hopes of getting Arafat
and Sharon to the same conference, but the Turkish government said Wednesday
it wanted to host such a peace conference.
- Negotiators reached the deal intended to end the standoff
at the Church of the Nativity, marking the spot revered by Christians and
Jesus's birthplace, after intensive talks.
- "It's a done deal," Canon Andrew White, the
Archbishop of Canterbury's special representative to the Middle East, told
- He said 26 militants would be sent to the Gaza Strip
and all civilians would leave the church. The 13 men on Israel's most-wanted
list would stay in the church for the time being but would then be sent
to another country, possibly Spain or Italy.
- The gunmen took refuge in the church as troops entered
the city on April 2 and hunted for militants. Italy blocked an earlier
deal by refusing to take the Palestinian militants.
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