JERUSALEM — *TC JERUSALEM -- The Palestine Liberation Organization struck back yesterday at Hamas, the Islamic extremist group that has endangered the PLO's self-government agreement with Israel by carrying out shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat ordered Palestinian police to arrest Hamas activists after the group claimed responsibility for killing an 18-year-old Israeli and wounding six others in the attacks in Gaza on Sunday.
The crackdown won immediate praise from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who warned before the arrests were announced that Hamas' attacks jeopardized Israel's negotiations with the PLO on extending self-government throughout the West Bank.
"It is inconceivable we will continue the process without seeing on the part of the Palestinian authority a serious effort to deal with those terrorist elements who are known for claiming responsibility for carrying out terror," Mr. Rabin told reporters after touring the area at the Kissufim junction in Gaza where Hamas gunmen opened fire twice Sunday on Israeli cars.
Police made overnight sweeps through the Gazan communities of Deir al-Balah and Khan Yunis; they arrested more than a dozen suspected Hamas members yesterday, Palestinian sources said. Mahmud Azar, leader of Hamas in Gaza and his spokesman, Muhsan Abu Tahaha, were called in for questioning.
"Our Cabinet met all last night to take up measures that will take the perpetrators to justice and will prevent and pre-empt operations like this from happening in the future," Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian authority planning minister, told Israeli Army Radio.
"We recognize very much that security here is our responsibility, and we are taking it very seriously."
Mr. Arafat has handled Hamas gingerly since returning to Gaza last month to supervise the Palestinian administration's establishment there and in Jericho. Gaza is a stronghold of extremist Islamic movements, and many Gazans are sympathetic with their attacks on Israeli settlers, soldiers and police.
The Israeli who died Sunday, Ron Soval, 18, of Beersheba, was the first Israeli civilian to be killed in Gaza since Israel withdrew its troops in May from most of Gaza. But Brig. Gen. Doron Almog, commander of Israeli forces for Gaza, said there have been 39 shooting incidents since the agreement took effect.
Three soldiers have been killed in Gaza; 25 have been wounded.
Mr. Shaath, in an interview on Israeli Television Sunday night, acknowledged that the Palestinian authority has found it difficult to disarm extremist elements.
"It must be done in the proper political atmosphere," he said.
But Mr. Rabin, under pressure himself from rightist political parties who yesterday termed the agreement with the PLO a failure that is endangering Israeli security, insisted that Mr. Arafat act.
To increase pressure on Mr. Arafat, Israel postponed the opening yesterday of safe passages that will enable PLO officials to travel on certain Israeli roads from Gaza to Jericho without being stopped and searched by Israeli forces. Mr. Rabin also said the pace of negotiations to transfer five areas of authority to the Palestinians in the territories -- health, taxation, education and culture, social welfare and tourism -- would slow unless Mr. Arafat responded.
Mr. Shaath and Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, coordinator of activities in the territories for Israel, met at the Erez checkpoint yesterday, on the border between Gaza and Israel, to resume talks on the transfer of more authority to Palestinians.