Israel To Hit Back After Suicide Bomb
By Dan Williams

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 said.
"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 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 for restraint.
"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.
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 reporters.
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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