Israel shuts off West Bank, Gaza

October 21, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel moved to bolster its separation from Palestinians yesterday while mulling new weapons to use against Muslim fundamentalists.

The Israeli Cabinet endorsed an indefinite closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The move will cut off tens of thousands of Palestinians from their jobs in Israel.

The Cabinet also considered proposals to add 1,500 more police, to import 15,000 foreign laborers to replace Palestinian workers and to give new powers to the Israeli secret police, according to reports from the closed meeting.

As the Cabinet met, Palestinian journalists were given a homemade videotape of a 27-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, suggesting that he was the bomber who killed himself and 21 passengers on a Tel Aviv bus Wednesday.

In the tape, Salah Abdel Rahim Assawi bid his family and friends goodbye and vowed to commit a suicide attack for Hamas, the Muslim fundamentalist group which says it conducted the bombing. He appeared clutching an Israeli-made automatic rifle, standing against a backdrop of blue floral wallpaper.

Israeli authorities immediately ordered his family's home in the West Bank town of Qalqilya evacuated in preparation for demolition, a much-criticized tactic Israel has used frequently against the families of suspected terrorists.

But an Israeli woman who got off the bus just before it exploded said the man in the videotape appeared nothing like a nervous, older, "European"-looking man clutching a bag, a man she believes was the bomber.

"That's not him," said Henia Vidor.

The order to evacuate the house -- where Mr. Assawi's parents live with eight other children -- set off a flurry of clashes with stone-throwing Palestinians in Qalqilya, 13 miles northeast of Tel Aviv.

Israeli Cabinet members meeting yesterday were vague on what measures were adopted in the closed, emergency session called by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They said that plans to strike back at Hamas would not be made public.

The options being publicly discussed include deportations, longer imprisonment without trial, house demolitions, raids and arrests of suspected Hamas members in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

Any blatant Israeli action in the Gaza Strip could fatally undermine the fragile authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, who took control there last May.

It appears Mr. Rabin may have been at least temporarily dissuaded from pressing for the removal of the secret police from Supreme Court limitations when dealing with Arabs.

"I can only be glad the prime minister did not carry on with the steps he began yesterday," said Knesset member Dan Meridor, a lawyer and former justice minister. "We must fight the Hamas and not the Supreme Court."

As most of the bus attack victims were buried yesterday, public officials squirmed under an angry public outcry to retaliate in some manner.

The closure of the territories has broad public support, even though it has been used often before with only limited success in stopping terrorism. Even Mr. Rabin acknowledged that it is not the Palestinians who have legal work permits who carry out attacks, but those who circumvent the roadblocks.

An estimated 65,000 Palestinians have work permits. Thousands more are employed illegally by Israeli bosses seeking cheap manual help, primarily in construction and agriculture.

The Cabinet met amid calls for permanently closing the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Mideast war, its policy has been to make the Palestinians dependent on Israel. Work inside Israel is now the chief source of income for the Gaza Strip.

The closure will further depress the ailing economy in the Palestinian areas, adding to the volatility, Palestinians complained.

It is a declaration of "economic and social war," complained a spokesman for Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Rabin has taken the unusual step of calling for restraint against the PLO even while he threatened tougher action against Hamas. Wednesday night, he complained of legal restrictions on the secret police operating against Hamas and said he wanted broader powers.

He specifically mentioned his frustration that the secret police are supposed to abide by the recommendations of a special commission set up to limit torture during interrogation.

Mr. Rabin's comments brought quick criticism from local and international civil rights groups. And Cabinet ministers yesterday suggested the prime minister has been discouraged from that course.

"No concrete steps were presented today," said Justice Minister David Libai. "If there are certain difficulties, they must be checked out in times of calm, and not under the pressure of terrorist attacks."

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