JERUSALEM -- Israel branded two Jewish extremist groups "terrorist organizations" yesterday, breaking an official myopia that saw danger only from Arabs.
The Cabinet acted after hearing secret evidence that members of the two groups of settlers "may be responsible for certain unsolved murders of Arabs," according to Israel radio.
Israel also "clarified" orders to allow soldiers to shoot Jewish gunmen as well as Arabs, and pronounced security a matter for authorities, not rifle-toting citizens.
Last week, a police commander said police and army forces were under orders not to open fire on settlers and that the policy would have prevented troops from firing on Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who killed scores of Muslim worshipers Feb. 25 at a Hebron mosque.
The "clarification" published by the army said soldiers may shoot Jews if lives are in danger or if a serious crime is being perpetrated.
The moves were an attempt to redress disclosures that Israeli authorities had overlooked the danger of violence from Jewish extremists before the mosque massacre.
"This decision means they will be prosecuted for membership in such organizations," Cabinet minister Shimon Shetret said. "It will stop the type of encouragement we heard of such events, massacres, killings."
The government's actions also are seen as an attempt to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, who have demanded protection for Arab residents of the occupied territories before returning to the talks.
The official designation as a "terrorist organization" has been applied in recent history only to Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In applying the designation to the Jewish groups Kach and Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), the Israeli Cabinet used a law enacted in 1948 to squelch right-wing Jewish groups with similar anti-Arab agendas.
Authorities now are permitted to imprison members of Kach and Kahane Chai, seize their property and close their offices.
It remained unclear whether they would do so.
At a Kach members' office in Jerusalem, one of them said the group would suspend its activities while it tries to appeal the government's declaration in the courts.
"We are appalled by the fascist decision of the government," said the Kach member, identified by Israel radio as Elat Epstein. "It's typical of totalitarian regimes."
The mainstream settlers group, Yesha, also denounced the government's declaration and scheduled a demonstration in Tel Aviv tomorrow to protest "the shameful capitulation to rioting Arab masses."
Some estimates put the membership of Kach and Kahane Chai at 400, though other estimates say it is far lower. Many of the members live in the Jewish settlements of Hebron.
The attorney general, Michael Ben-Yair, named six leaders of the groups, two of whom are in custody.
Baruch Marzel, the leader of Kach, telephoned news organizations yesterday to say that the group's activities would continue underground. He has been a fugitive for 10 days from a police administrative detention order.
Similarly, Kahane Chai spokesman David Axelrod said that group would remain active by using militant volunteers unknown to the Israeli authorities.
Goldstein, who killed at least 30 Muslims at morning prayers in Hebron two weeks ago, was a follower of Kach. Both organizations are the philosophical progeny of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who preached anti-Arab racism until he was killed in New York in November 1990.
The attorney general recommended the moves against Kach and Kahane Chai after hearing "a great deal of detailed information from security personnel," Mr. Ben-Yair's office said.
Government-sponsored Israel radio said the General Security Services -- the secret police -- submitted "detailed evidence to the Cabinet about the violent activities" of the two groups, including previous slayings of Arabs.
Mr. Ben-Yair did not explain why authorities had not acted on that evidence before.
The Cabinet's declaration means that people may be imprisoned for membership in or of supporting either of the organizations. No proof would be needed to connect the accused to terrorism, said Assistant Attorney General Amir Zolty.
Leaders could be imprisoned for 20 years, members for five years, and those who gave any type of support to one of the organizations could be imprisoned for three years and fined, he said.
Ruth Gabizon, a law professor and head of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said she was wary that "some dangerous things can be done under this law" that would curb personal freedoms.
But she said she would not oppose it if it was used as a "symbolic declaration."
Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Jewish right-wing organizations, said that if the measure was used only symbolically it would be of little value.
"If you just outlaw the organizations and you do nothing, it's almost not a blow," he said. "If you follow that by closing the offices, confiscate all printed materials, all printing machines, and make it almost impossible for these people to act, to publicize, to propagandize, it's a beginning."
Israel enacted the law in 1948 to curb an underground group called the Stern Gang, which was alleged to have assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, a United Nations mediator trying to arrange peace between Israel and the Arabs.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was a member of the Stern Gang, said he supports the government's action yesterday, the radio reported. He said Israel has no need for such organizations.